Paul Hillier’s ‘weird and wonderful’ blueprint for Chamber Choir Ireland

Playing it safe doesn’t get you anywhere, says the choir’s artistic director – audiences prefer a cutting edge

When Paul Hillier became artistic director of the National Chamber Choir six years ago, he probably had no accurate idea of what his future would hold. He joined the choir, which last year was rebranded as Chamber Choir Ireland, after a major crisis that, at the beginning of 2007, had seen the departure of its founder and chief executive, Karina Lundström, and the subsequent resignation, as a protest, of its artistic director and conductor, Celso Antunes.

Hillier arrived just in time for a major arts-funding crisis, and when asked about the achievement he is most proud of, he doesn’t hesitate. “I think the biggest achievement is that we’re still here. It sounds a bit bleak to say that. But compared to where we were, say, halfway through my first five years, I feel we’ve really done well just by still being here.

"There are a number of projects I feel very pleased about, and we've made a couple of good recordings. I feel we've established – I don't know about in Ireland, but certainly outside Ireland – a small reputation, but a good one, particularly for the performance of contemporary music." That reputation probably hangs on the choir's recordings – of Tarik O'Regan's Acallam na Senórach for Harmonia Mundi, and of Irish music for the RTÉ Lyric FM label.

Survival mission
Hillier's early years with the choir "turned somewhat into just a mission of survival. Which was rather distressing, really. Inevitably what happened was that a number of singers left. They felt no confidence in the future. Some moved abroad, to London, even to Italy, because they felt they had possibilities there, and I can understand that. Luckily, some of them stayed on through thick and thin.


"I used to think that either you have good singers or you don't. It's only later that I began to realise that it really does matter that you have a core, with a sense of ownership and identity with the group you're singing in rather than for . Having a core already there means that there's something for others. I won't say to cling to, but to come to. It is important."

Hillier is proud of his engagement with contemporary music. "We've had a number of pieces written for us which I think are really excellent. Not just good music, but somehow innovative in the way they use the choir." He references Schott and Sons, Mainz by Gerald Barry, which was based on Beethoven's letters, and The White Noisery by Jenny Walshe. The latter is "most unusual. The great thing is that the audiences that came really enjoyed it. This is the thing that's interesting me most: instead of shying away from the weird and wonderful, we can do it. By playing safe, you really don't get anywhere.

“I found the same thing with the group I work with in Denmark, Ars Nova. We’ve also done a number of funky programmes, which people absolutely loved. Just recently I did one which I thought the staid citizens of Jutland were going to hate. They loved it, and they’re going to get more of it. It’s important to go for what I hope is the cutting edge of things, something which is different. Young people are much more open to new music, to contemporary serious music. They won’t have this existential crisis that they’re a concert of new choral music.”

Composers he seems especially close to include New York Bang on a Can's David Lang (whose new When we were children is next up), Tarik O'Regan, Andrew Hamilton, Kevin Volans, Siobhán Cleary, Ian Wilson and David Fennessy, with the last two due to feature again in commissions for the Cork International Choral Festival, where the choir will again take part in the annual Seminar on New Choral Music. Fennessy features this year along with Donal MacErlaine, winner of the Seán Ó Riada Composition Prize, on May 2nd.

"We're going to Russia in June. I was invited to conduct a choir in what I was told was Siberia. It's actually a town called Perm, quite an important place. They have this big festival, which is well endowed, and they asked would I bring a choir of my choice. We'll be going there, as long as we don't have war in the meantime. At their request, we're doing Kanon Pokajanen by Pärt, and we'll take some Irish pieces with us as well."

Further down the line, Hillier wants to pursue an interest in Hindemith and Schoenberg. “If there’s a name that makes people go ‘ughhh’, it’s that. But he’s such a fantastic composer. I’m cogitating on the right ways to present this material, so that people will come, in spite of themselves.”

Chamber Choir Ireland sing David Lang, Steve Martland and John Tavener in Dublin (Newman University Church, Friday) and Belfast (St Thomas Parish Church, Saturday),