Meet Nigel Short, director of Tenebrae

We managed to pin down Nigel Short, former King’s Singer and founder/director of Tenebrae, a week ahead of the choir’s performance at St John’s College Chapel (27 April – more info and tickets). We asked him about his favourite moments from Tenebrae’s 20 year existence, his connections to Cambridge and the most important question of all…

  1. What are your earliest musical memories?

I was hooked on the sound of a choir from the first moment I walked into my local Parish church, aged 7 years, and heard the boys singing in the distance. Something about the architecture of Solihull’s 13th-century church and the sound of the choir bouncing off the walls was really exciting, and I couldn’t wait to get back there a few days later to join in.

  1. What instruments did you learn as a child and what did you enjoy about them?

I learned cello but only for two years as I got annoyed having to carry it to and from school every day. To a 9-year-old it seemed infeasibly heavy! I took up piano and organ from the age of about 12 years, and I loved these because you hear all of the harmony as you play it.

In particular I liked playing the organ (usually late at night on my own in a dark empty church) as it felt so dramatic in a large church acoustic. I liked Bach, Vierne and Howells in particular. I always wanted to play Dupre but was never good enough!

  1. Do you have connections to Cambridge?

Very much so! I’m delighted that both my children are choristers in different chapel choirs in Cambridge; my son sings at St John’s and my daughter at St Catharine’s.

  1. What are your highlights from the 27 April programme in Cambridge?

There are so many highlights in this concert that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Much of this programme is taken from one of our most popular recordings, Russian Treasures. The music of the Russian Orthodox church – which I first discovered when travelling in Russia during the nineties – is renowned for its use of the basso profundo, and I think audiences are always captivated by the solemnity and gravitas of that sound.

The programme also includes two of Bach’s motets, which are surely some of the most iconic works in the choral repertoire. It has been a delight to perform these masterpieces more frequently over the past few years; if you’re a fan of them, keep your eyes peeled for some very special performances by us next spring. And I can’t not mention Schoenberg’s astonishing Friede auf Erden (Peace on Earth). Always a piece which packs a punch, in the present circumstances it feels all the more timely and appropriate.

  1. Tenebrae has been described as “the current master of the Russian sound” – what is the “Russian sound” and what’s the secret to achieving it?

Russian music has been a part of Tenebrae’s repertoire ever since I first formed the choir in 2001. We’ve been singing it for so long that it’s simply become part of our DNA. As mentioned above, the basso profundo – an extremely low bass part – is a key feature of Russian choral music. We are very lucky to have a number of brilliant low basses among our number, and people are often surprised that a British choir can produce the sound usually associated with Russian singers.

When we recorded our Russian Treasures album back in 2013 we also worked extensively with Russian language coaches, which is so important to the overall sound. Alongside all that, of course we always apply our trademark passion and precision to all the music we sing.

  1. What’s been your favourite part of the last 20 years since you formed Tenebrae?

It’s so difficult to trim this into a short answer but… possibly performing Path of Miracles by Joby Talbot all over the world, and seeing the same audience reactions wherever we are. It’s an amazing concert experience like no other programme I ever sang when I was younger, and still there is nothing else quite like it in our entire repertoire. It’s unique.

  1. What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

After I left the King’s Singers I moved to Switzerland to run a ski chalet, so in times past I’d have been on the slopes. These days, though, time at home with our kids is important so I’m rather more domesticated. They can both give me a run for my money on the squash court. Our house also has a beautiful but high-maintenance garden which seems to require constant pruning and mowing, so that takes up a good chunk of time – the work is never done!

  1. What are you reading at the moment?

I’m currently re-reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I studied Tudor history for A-level and just love anything to do with that period. I’m also watching Killing Eve which is terribly shocking and funny at the same time.

  1. Cats or dogs?

I’ll have to go with dogs. We have a large and soppy Golden Retriever called Monty who is very much part of the family. Since we got him, Tenebrae’s management team have pointed out that the celebrity gardener Monty Don did, until recently, have a similar golden retriever called Nigel (pictured below)!

Catch (the other) Nigel with Tenebrae on Wednesday 27 April. Some tickets remain at the time of writing. Buy tickets