The first in an occasional series in which music professionals nominate five pieces of music of particular significance. No book, no luxury item, just an insight into their life and career and links to performances of Christopher’s selections.
For many, music means a lot, so what does music tell us about people who have chosen to make it their career? I put Strathaven Choral Society Musical Director Christopher Barr on the spot, asking him to name just five pieces of music which have played a part in his life so far.
Opening Notes: earliest musical memories
Christopher, East Kilbride born and bred, was raised in a family for which music meant family parties where singing was not optional: an accordion playing grandpa would distribute song sheets and everyone was expected to join in, and every aunty and uncle had their own song. Traditional Scottish songs and Glasgow classics involving the potential for ejection of senior female relations from public transport – Ye Cannae Shove Yer Granny Aff a Bus – were among family favourites, a fondness which remains with Christopher to this day. His parents’ record collection also included Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and a fair bit of jazz.
So what has Christopher chosen as his earliest memory of music? Would it be a Glasgow ditty or a Ratpack crooner? Neither. Casting his mind back to those early years at the heart of the family, he recalls a family story of him toddling downstairs to join his Mum and an aunt. No more than four years old he was happily trilling ‘Three Blind Mice’, an unconscious performance which prompted his prescient aunt to comment: ‘That boy’s going to have a career in music.’
‘I like that guy. I want to be him.’
This early recognition did not go to his head and by the age of ten his instrumental education began with Grandpa, who played trombone as well as accordion, as teacher. Christopher really wanted to play sax but Grandpa insisted that he must first to tackle clarinet. It was grandpa too who took the young Chris along to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall to a ‘Playalong’ event. Children had to learn ‘The Skye Boat Song’ and on the day had the opportunity to play along with the RSNO. His first ever experience of an orchestra: “I was fascinated by the guy at the front waving his arms about. I had no idea what he was doing but I thought ‘I like that guy. I want to be him.’ Christopher now knows that it’s not quite as easy as it sometimes looks.
Epiphany: the piece of music which said ‘I want to make music my life’
While still a pupil at Blacklaw Primary School, Christopher was accepted on to the instrumental tuition programme and he continued playing clarinet and, at last, saxophone at Clairmont High School where he played in the school wind bands and sang in the choir. Despite this, when, aged sixteen, Chris fancied singing with an amateur musical theatre company he was unsure whether he had the necessary talent. A wise Head of Music with experience of such aspirations knew how to test, and set him to learning ‘Lark in the Clear Air’, the beautiful setting of Samuel Ferguson’s poem. Not immediately to the taste of teenage Christopher, his teacher’s enthusiasm meant he persisted and not only passed the audition for the theatre company, he clearly had ‘caught the bug’ for singing and an internet search found auditions for the National Youth Choir of Scotland in Glasgow.
‘I’d never heard of NYCOS’
He had never previously heard of NYCOS, but a successful audition led to a residential course at Strathallan where the first day held its challenges: handed a piece of music, Christopher was confused to see four lines. And, into the bargain, the boy seated next to him was an accomplished sight reader. It seemed that everything was new to Chris. Clearly a quick and talented learner, by the end of the course, this rookie chorister, together with sixty more young hopefuls, had produced ‘something spectacular’, something magnificent in their performance of Christopher’s second choice of music, Bob Chilcott’s ‘Making of the Drum’. He now knew where his career must lie.
Proudest Musical Moment
Less than five years after that first NYCOS experience (although with a degree in music and an impressive apprenticeship under his belt read more) shortly before his twenty first birthday, Christopher was appointed MD of Strathaven Choral Society.
‘The Choir took a massive risk taking me on. I think it’s a relationship that’s developed quite well.’ The youngest Making Music conductor in the country, Christopher’s second year in charge presented the greatest challenge. “I decided to do Brahms’ Requiem understanding it to be a big undertaking.” There were times that he questioned his choice. “I knew what I was doing but until we started rehearsals, I really had no idea what I was being faced with in terms of challenging the singers and keeping them motivated through all of those fugues. There were moments when I thought we might not pull it off.” The choir’s faith in its youthful MD was however, well founded. “But then we broke the back of the biggest fugue. It was a turning point. From there we went from strength to strength, getting better and better and then the concert. It was absolutely stunning”
A Night to Remember
This fourth choice gives Christopher the chance to sit back and contemplate an amazing experience, not as a performer, but as a member of an audience. No hesitation: September 2012, Mahler 8, the Berlin Philharmonic, at their home, the Berlin Philharmonie, under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. Dogged determination to stay on the Ticketing Site (helped by an understanding colleague covering other duties) paid off with an unforgettable evening.
Reach for the Stars
For his final choice, Christopher was challenged to look to the future, to focus on at least one ambition for what is sure to be a long and successful career in music.
Reluctant to target one piece of music, Christopher chose to describe his vision of establishing a professional chamber choir to be based in the west of Scotland. “There are ad hoc chamber choirs who come together for a gig but then dissolve. This would be sixteen or so good singers, who’ve all studied music, who would work together on a more regular basis.” Christopher has been honing a whole battery of skills which could drive this ensemble to success: singing, conducting and, currently at GRCH, organising and producing a wide range of musical events. However, he has no intention of being a one man band. “I see it as an inclusive ensemble, a collective, tackling a challenging repertoire that would be agreed upon by the members.”
‘fabulous singers disappear’
He is sure that the singers are out there “It fascinates me that the Conservatoire and the Universities are turning out lots of excellent singers, every year but where do they go?” He recognises that some fulfil other ambitions “A lot of singers want to be soloists, or go into opera [but] other fabulous singers seem to disappear.”
This proposed Ensemble would be considered a success when it has a following and is selling tickets.
So reluctant is he to impose his repertoire on this dream choir, that he has to be pressed to nominate his final piece of music, the piece he would lobby to have included in its democratically selected repertoire: Handel, Dixit Dominus.
Christopher has achieved an amazing amount in the few years since that first encounter with music for SATB at the NYCOS residential, so whether it be soon or considerably further down the line, the formation of this Scotland based professional chamber choir should not be doubted.