As choral singers, we spend (or should spend) a lot of time watching our conductor. But do you ever wonder what it’s like to be one? What goes through their heads as they warm us up, coax us through tricky passages or bow at the end of a concert? And what got them to choose conducting in the first place? Calum Fraser, the conductor of Streatham Choral Society since 2017 was kind enough to share some of these thoughts and answer my questions.
Calum specialises in operatic and choral repertoire and as such is the founding director of Magnetic Opera, as well as several choirs including the professional Caledonian Voices and our choral society. He has worked with orchestras here and abroad and has appeared in masterclasses with leading conductors including Richard Bonynge and Eric Whitacre. We were particularly intrigued to know what led him to conducting and how he manages both choirs and orchestras.
“I have always been interested in conducting and I was able to do a small amount at secondary school. I really got into it at university, where I regularly conducted choirs and orchestras, before going to study it vocationally at music conservatoire.
The basic skills of conducting choirs, orchestras and operas are the same, such as listening carefully and shaping the music, but there are technical difficulties, such as demonstrating good vocal technique, or bowing string parts.”
When you pick up a new piece of music, do you have a “picture” of what you want to achieve or does it change organically during the rehearsal process?
“A little of both, to be honest. The first thing I do is to translate the score, as vocal music is all about the text. This then allows me to try to work out what the composer intended and what I want to achieve with the particular ensemble.”
We are often struck by your aural memory when we are rehearsing – that you seem to be able to memorise mistakes or improvements you want to make. How do you hold all that information in your head?
“It largely comes with experience, to be honest. The three things I try to focus on when rehearsing a passage are; giving suitable gestures to shape the phrase correctly, listening for any inaccuracies, and retaining the mistakes to come back and rehearse them in isolation.”
How do you choose the music for a concert / put together a programme?
“This to me is the most exciting part of the job! I am always conscious of the length of a concert, as it is good to leave the audience wanting a little more. More specifically, it is nice to marry together composers that either knew each other or acted as inspirations for the next. It is also important to select suitable texts for the time of year, and to make sure the singers are able to experience a broad range of music over a season. “
What is your favourite piece of choral music?
“It changes regularly, but the one I always come back to is Mozart’s Requiem”.
The majority of Streatham Choral are probably considerably older than you. Is that a challenge at all?
“It is one of the most enjoyable aspects of working with the choir, given that the age range is about 18-80. Every individual joins a choir for different reasons, and I try to drive standards as much as possible, whilst still being aware that people are there to relax and switch off from daily life.”
What advice would you give to a young person choosing music as a professional career?
“Whilst doing what you love for a living is undeniably wonderful, the uncertainty of the profession is always something to be aware of.”
And of course we had to ask some silly questions at the end. Bearing in mind your heritage, we wanted to know:
England or Scotland?
“Am I allowed to choose both? I was born in England to an entirely Scottish family, so my loyalties are always split!”
And even more crucially, what football team do you support?
“With apologies to all the Crystal Palace fans, I have two: Manchester United and St Johnstone.”
And with that, I think we’d better leave it! Thank you very much to Calum for allowing us to delve into his life as a conductor. And of course, you can always meet him in person by joining us at our rehearsals for the summer season, or coming to the summer concert on 29th June. Find out more about Calum Fraser here or on Twitter @Mrcalumfraser.