2014 Commencement Address: Simon Carrington

Co-founder of the King's Singers, former head of choral activities at NEC and Yale University offers his word of wisdom to graduates.

Choral Conductor Simon Carrington Gives Commencement Address at NEC's 2014 Commencement Exercises

Simon Carrington, who also received an honorary Doctor of Music, gave the following Commencement Address at the 143rd Exercises, May 18 in NEC’s Jordan Hall.

Carrington's Words of Wisdom:
Forty-one years ago I stood on this stage singing the Lamentations of Jeremiah by the great English Renaissance composer Thomas Tallis with The King’s Singers, the vocal ensemble I co-founded and with whom I sang for 25 years. We were in the middle of the first of what became regular tours of North America. These were enormous fun in those early days, but they could be extraordinarily grueling: with concerts in the likes of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Gainesville, Florida and Quebec, Canada on consecutive days – and in winter – and mostly by car! After a run of high school auditoria, gymnasia and multi-purpose sports halls, to stand on this wonderful stage was like floating on a magic carpet and an experience I have never forgotten.

Many years later after I had “retired” from that line of work, had moved to the US, and had been trying my hand at conducting and teaching in the Midwest, I heard through my good friend Jim Marvin at Harvard that there might be the chance of a job going here at NEC — the memory of Jordan Hall bubbled to the surface once more. As a result, I then spent two of the most exciting years of my life coming up those steps on Gainsborough Street, before moving on to Yale. Little did I realize that 14 years later still I would stand here again, with immense pride, to receive an honorary doctorate.

President Woodcock, NEC Trustees & Overseers, faculty colleagues, students, and families: thank you!

With only a rather old and tatty Cambridge Bachelor’s degree I have received many inadvertent, less-than-honorary doctorates during my 15 years of teaching in the US: "Good morning Dr. Carrington," "Ah Dr. Carrington come in and sit down"……. Now, at last, I won’t have to look sheepish!!

I suspect that everyone in this room today will have a person to whom they owe an immense debt of gratitude. These people will come in all shapes and sizes, literally and figuratively. Many of you will be thanking your teachers and mentors here at NEC; others will recognize such a debt a long way down the road (hopefully still in time to say thanks!).

I have a few such people dotted through my life, hidden from view in some cases but nonetheless ever present in my mind. When I landed my first conducting job at the University of Kansas I had had little (if any!) experience and no training apart from having played in some of the great orchestras of the world with my other hat on – as a double bassist. I suspect that I had my head down far too often in those days, ignoring those great maestri while desperately trying to keep up.  The orchestral director at KU was Brian Priestman, a British conductor who had come there as his swansong after a long and distinguished career conducting orchestras all over the world. In my job interview over the phone in England the previous spring I had rashly said that I would like to end my first year with the Britten War Requiem – having a minute earlier suggested beginning it with the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610, neither of which figure in the novice conductor’s handbook or indeed the bluffers’ guide to conducting (an invaluable manual, by the way, not to be ignored!) In most large state universities, the choral director traditionally trains the choir in major works and the orchestral conductor then conducts the performance. When the academic year began, the “maestro”, as I always called him, said “Now come along, old boy, you need to get your hands dirty: you conduct the chorus, symphony orchestra, soprano soloist (oh, and the children’s choir in the balcony!). I’ll look after the chamber orchestra, tenor and baritone soloists in the trenches. (This was, of course, Benjamin Britten’s original idea so often ignored in performances nowadays in which one person conducts everything.)

So I was dropped into the deep end for which I shall be ever grateful.

I have to admit that this has become the technique I have adopted myself with aspiring musicians ever since!

One of the excitements we faced in that all- student performance of the Britten masterpiece is one I’ll remember until I drop - a phone call early on the morning of performance day from the maestro: “I say old boy, bit of a snag, what! Your third trumpet is in jail.” Apparently the student had tried to set fire to his dorm the night before while on some drinking binge – a shame: a brilliant player but a troubled individual. We asked the trumpet professor to stand in – on no rehearsal of course. He was a magnificent player but had never played the War Requiem! I still don’t know whether it was his fault or mine but at one of the “bugles sang” entries when the trumpets are supposed to come in one by one, ba dap ba……trumpets 1 and 3 came in at the same time and continued half a bar out for the remainder of the passage!

Isn’t it frustrating that we remember best those cacophonous corners when the rest of the performance was probably pretty respectable?

However I must do my job here and send you out into the world with some positive thoughts on how to survive and thrive as musicians in the cut and thrust of the world outside these hallowed halls! I have been fretting about this speech for months wondering whatever a used ensemble singer and DIY conductor could possibly offer you highly trained and virtuosic musicians here at NEC. The position of the choral director at Conservatories of Music around the world is traditionally a delicate one (!) as not everyone shares our view of the importance of our role in training the all-round musicianship of our students and not just their voices... This is a discussion for another day and another place (!) but suffice to say that when I first began here at NEC I had to tread carefully and lay out my credentials! My finest hour came when the world famous German bass-baritone, Thomas Quasthoff, was invited to give masterclasses to graduate voice students following his hugely successful recital in Symphony Hall. As many of you may know he is remarkable not only for his glorious voice and formidable musicianship but also because he has achieved all this severely disabled by the Thalidomide drug at birth. For the masterclass I was sitting in the back row of Williams Hall with my colleagues from the voice faculty waiting for Mr Q to arrive. Suddenly I felt a tap on my shoulder and there he was: “I just wanted to tell you,” he said, “that when I was a student in Berlin and no one would take my burning ambition to be a singer seriously, it was going to King’s Singers concerts in the Philharmonie which inspired me and sustained my determination to keep trying”. I was very moved by this, of course, but more important was the astonishment on the faces of everyone around me! The stock of this “used ensemble singer” rose a 100-fold thanks to Thomas’s kind remarks!

Any singer looking for a mentor or role model needs look no further than TQ. He had the golden cords, of course, a strong barrel chest and wonderful musicianship but everything else was against him. One of the most moving recitals I have ever been to was his Schumann Liederkreis in Carnegie Hall when he sang so powerfully and with deep emotion about life’s experiences many of which the audience had to assume were out of his reach. I remember that his Masterclass here focused almost exclusively on interpreting and communicating the text, something to which we singers, soloists and choristers alike, always need to give more attention.

Examples of speeches
I did ask if I could see some other examples of NEC Commencement Speeches and the President’s office kindly sent me a number of very impressive but rather intimidating orations! However one that struck me forcibly as being particularly relevant to us all was by my Cambridge contemporary John Eliot Gardiner – Sir John as he is now, for whom I spent many years playing bass continuo. John Eliot has long had a reputation for - how can I put it - a certain and often voiced intolerance for anything less than the absolutely outstanding. And I can remember my saying to the NEC choirs on a number of occasions (often at around 9:10 in the morning): “Hmm, if you think I am tough you should go and sing for John Eliot!” He is slightly younger than I but he has undoubtedly been one of my most important mentors. His focus on intensity, style, rhythmic energy, communication and rhetoric, not only with his Monteverdi Choir, but in all his music-making (symphonic and choral) has been a constant inspiration to me. He doesn’t mince words! In a BBC Music Magazine interview last year, he said: "I am trying to make sure that the text is always the driving force in vocal music, and that means getting instrumentalists to imitate singers and singers to emulate instrumentalists, so that there’s a collective discourse between the voices and the players and not an artificial divide. I can’t stand bland, anodyne music-making. I heard a concert at the Proms this year of contemporary choral music which I just found the polar opposite of everything I struggle for in performance. It was all perfectly euphonious, perfectly honed, blended and tuned. And it meant absolutely squiddeldy-dee. It was like trying to catch soap in the bath. There was no substance to it. It was like stroking a cat – or really, a dead cat. Hearing it returned me to my first antipathy as a student, hearing the King’s College Choir. It’s changed a lot since then, thank God, but the idea with them was that you could sing any music in the same style, providing it was all nice and tuneful and euphonious and beautiful. As if that’s all that music is about”!

In his Commencement speech here that year he talked to you about being passionate, always listening, always exploring, always questioning, always communicating, and always inventing.

I am honestly not sure that I can do better than that so I offer you some of those tenets to keep in mind as you set off on your journeys – with a few extras thrown in.

Always be passionate about everything you do: there’s no question that a passion for our work in The King’s Singers, and the excitement of communicating with our audiences (both musical experts and novices) round the world, kept me going through those 25 years and 3000 concerts - and helped me to emerge reasonably intact! One of my own personal priorities when working with any ensemble, instrumental or vocal, is constantly to focus on passionate communication, often so challenging with all the rehearsals that choirs have -  far too many, to be honest, because we move so much more slowly than our orchestral colleagues – oops! again a subject to discuss another time!

Listening non-stop is so essential: listen to fellow musicians, colleagues, guides and mentors and of course to critics, although you do need to keep your selective thick skin on: “Strangulated sounds from boring sextet” springs to mind from a London Times review of a KS television program, or “The incompetence of cellos and double bass passed belief” from a review of a woefully under rehearsed Beethoven Missa Solemnis during my student days at Cambridge – note the use of the singular:  “double bass”! oh dear!

Explore: As Oscar Wilde once wrote - provocatively: "Education is an admirable thing, but it is as well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” We musicians need constantly to be looking - in all directions, investigating the unknown, making the connections, examining the context, and, perhaps I should add, staying flexible – of which more anon.

I suppose to a certain extent we Kings Singers were explorers, at least in our early years. We were in uncharted territory, singing Tallis and Lennon & McCartney in the same program to audiences in New Zealand who in 1972 were used to listening to nothing but Schubert and Mozart string quartets. A lady was overheard coming out of one of our early concerts there saying “I am rather afraid I enjoyed that”! We had to explore, we had to commission - from Ligeti, Penderecki, Berio and the like, - and we had to take enormous risks at every step, something I have always tried to do in my subsequent career: like tackling John Adams' Harmonium with the NEC choirs and orchestra!

The New Yorker critic Alex Ross in his NEC Commencement speech referred eloquently to one of my own great heroes: a composer I have already mentioned: Ligeti had a seething curiosity about the entire cosmos of musical activity, from Ockeghem to Schubert to Stockhausen to Supertramp to African pygmy music to who knows what else. He did not want to be trapped in a single language. I think it had to do with his past: throughout his youth, he found himself literally or figuratively trapped, with the chilly hand of both the Hitler and Stalin regimes reaching out to crush him. He emerged with a hatred of all ideology, of all received ideas and reductive theories and lazy moves. I am thrilled to have on our wall at home Ligeti’s original sketches of the first two pages of his sixth Nonsense Madrigal, composed for my last concert with The KS and our 25th anniversary with an affectionate message from him -  and to think that his favourite KS recording was the Beatles' Honey Pie!

Talking of risks, one that the King’s Singers did not take and bitterly regretted ever after was when we were approached after a concert in Vienna in the 70s by a young composer who had just left Estonia which was still under Soviet domination and had moved to the West. He said he had enjoyed our concert very much and would love to write a piece for us. We’d never heard of him, were far too full of ourselves and turned him down. His name? Arvo Pärt!

Invent, another of Sir John Eliot’s priorities, is harder to define for many musicians and perhaps better described as keeping up to date, particularly when it comes to matters of style. New is not always better but I always remember being concerned by freshmen musicians listening to 50 year old recordings of Handel for instance. We all need to keep aware of recent scholarship and trends. There is sure to be something to be learnt from them.

I do miss this building!! I used to get on my bike in Jamaica Plain at 6:30 in the morning in the depths of winter. When I got to Green Street station I would test the end of my fingers. If I could still feel them I would keep going, if I couldn’t, I would lock the bike and take the train! I wanted to be in early enough for the choir members who had arrived late for rehearsals the previous day and were therefore obliged to show up at 7:30 to sing the sections they had missed! Their grade was under threat! Punctuality was poor when I first arrived and I was determined to cure it! My reward was arriving at the entrance to NEC to hear glorious music already pouring through the doors and windows. I’d then have time for a quick coffee with Charles Peltz and a glance with amazement at a massive score of some work by Magnus Lindberg he had programmed for the following week. 

Perhaps I should add always be punctual to my list of priorities - do choir rehearsals still begin at 9AM?!)

Of course my obsession with musician’s punctuality nearly got me into trouble at my very first rehearsal with the NEC full choir in this hall at 9AM on the morning of 9/11. When we began the rehearsal, all was quiet. When we took the break some singers went out into the halls and then returned late having heard the news. The fact that I, who had not heard the news, harassed them mercilessly for keeping us waiting has been on my conscience ever since. I shall always be grateful to dear Sally Millar, the NEC’s superb choir manager, for her unflappable and caring demeanor on that terrible morning.

Perhaps I should end by emphasizing the importance of flexibility and resilience – under pressure, as we always are in our chosen profession. Working in a small ensemble teaches the essential disciplines of not letting anything get under your skin, not harbouring grudges, and not letting one’s ego bubble to the surface. Any of those less than sterling qualities can be poisonous in any ensemble, big or small, musical or otherwise! Not to put too fine a point of it, the art of staying positive and bouncing back should be a 101 course in all music conservatories!

The King’s Singers' first appearance on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (Jay Leno’s predecessor) was a good example of the hazards on the course. In those days that was the show to get on for its unique publicity value. Our people had been trying for months to get us through the door. We finally got an offer in our one free week that spring: between a tour of the US and a tour of Germany. The wife of one of my colleagues was due to give birth during that free week – amazing planning!! – and this presented us with the heartbreaking dilemma of whether to accept the TV show of a life-time or not. After much agonizing the unfortunate father-to-be agreed that we should accept the offer and travel to LA to go on the show – a painful choice as you can imagine. With that dilemma resolved, the question then became what should a primarily classical ensemble sing on a show like that. As we always did in those circumstances we asked who would be preceding or following us to get an idea of the pacing. It turned out we were to be last and would be following an interview with the actor Burt Reynolds, which sounded harmless enough. We duly turned up at the Burbank studios, rehearsed our two songs for the cameras and went to the dressing room to wait our turn later in the live transmission. When the time came we were brought out into the wings where we could see the Reynolds’ interview ongoing. We also noted a fellow we took to be a stage hand pacing up and down in the wings with a chainsaw in his hand. The Reynolds interview ended and we were all fired up and ready to go through the curtain and into the lights. To our astonishment the producer went to the stagehand with the saw instead of us and said “you’re on”. Out he went, stood in front of the cameras, started up the saw, fished in his pocket, produced three oranges and began juggling with a running chainsaw and the oranges.

There’s nothing in the repertoire choice handbook about music to follow a chainsaw juggler!

Let there be no doubt: ours is a tough profession and I have been extremely fortunate to have been sustained for 45 years by my wife, Hilary, who has come with me from France for this weekend. After my chequered career I do feel immensely privileged to receive an honorary doctorate from this wonderful institution and to have been invited to stand on this glorious stage and reflect on the bumpy but hugely exciting and fulfilling road we follow. I had no burning ambition to make music my profession and rather stumbled into it by chance. You, on the other hand, have spent several years honing and refining your skills and they won’t let you down whichever direction you choose to follow. Be alert to every opportunity, keep practicing, keep listening, stay ready to spring into action and make the most of every twist and turn in the road.

Good luck to you all – and thank you

Photos by Miro Vintoniv