The Classical Station’s interview with Graham Ross for Preview!

Interview with Graham Ross
by Bethany Tillerson (photo credit: Ben Ealovega / Graham Ross)

This week’s guest for Preview! is Graham Ross, who has served as the Fellow and Director of Music at Clare College, Cambridge since 2010. Clare College Choir is renowned as one of the best university choral groups in the world, and recently released a collection of 20th-and 21st-century American choral music, Rolling River: American Choral.

KENNEDY: Graham, what was the inspiration behind your new recording, Rolling River: American Choral?

ROSS: It all began with the wonderful Chichester Psalms, which of course has a connection between America and the UK. One of Leonard Bernstein’s great celebrated masterpieces was commissioned by an Englishman, the wonderful Reverend Walter Hussey, whom we have to thank for an extraordinary array of commissions when he was at St. Matthew’s Church in Northampton and later at Chichester Cathedral in Sussex. He really was a luminary in terms of who he was commissioning, not just musicians, but artists and sculptors: Henry Moore, Grymes Sutherland, W.H. Auden, Britten, Barclay, Finzi, Tippett. So many of these artists of the day were commissioned by him. Walter Hussey approached Bernstein for this work that became the Chichester Psalms.

This is a piece that we perform relatively often here at Clare College, often in the version for organ, harp, and percussion that we performed and recorded on this disc. Of course it exists in a larger, fuller orchestration as well, but in this chamber version, you really hear a beautiful attention to detail, and I hope that comes across in our recording. We’re an undergraduate choir of around about 30 voices, and I think the advantage of this chamber version is that you really get to hear all of that detail, all of the intricacy of that wonderful Hebrew text that he sets in the three movements of this piece. So the Chichester Psalms was the central part of our album. From that I created a program that celebrated American choral 20th and 21st century music.

KENNEDY: Amongst works by American composers, Graham, past and present, is that heartrending setting of Helen Waddell’s translation of a text by Prudentius, “Take him, earth, for cherishing”. Can you tell our listeners how that beautiful work got included?

ROSS: I think anyone who picks up this album may well be surprised to see a work by Herbert Howells on a disc that is celebrating American choral music. Certainly, it might seem at first a slightly odd choice to include this work, but actually it warrants its inclusion for the fact that it’s dedicated to the honored memory of JFK. It was written on request in 1961 for a service that took place in Washington in 1964 for the dual American-Canadian memorial service that year. Herbert Howells, the great English composer who formed such a backbone of Anglican choral music in this country, had himself had struggled with the loss of his son, Michael, who died earlier in 1935 from polio. We know from Howells’s diaries that he came across Prudentius’s text in this translation by Helen Waddell. He had already set part of it in an earlier work, but then he found this translation.

As you say, it’s an absolutely extraordinary text, so evocative and so imaginative in their translation of the original Latin. It’s a piece that really stretches the listener through all the emotions. It starts in this very intense, quiet B Minor, and gradually it comes through to an ecstatic final section where you hear the words, “Take, O take him, mighty leader.” Suddenly the music becomes bathed in B Major, and you get this sense of light shining through. It was a piece that was very important, of course, for that particular event, but also in Howells’s own life. It was sung at his memorial service, which was held in Westminster Abbey in 1983. It’s included in our album partly because of what we are, we are an English choir that is known and celebrated for its singing of the Anglican choral repertoire. But I wanted to include it because I think it does fit so well alongside the other composers that we have in this album. We talked about Bernstein already, but we also hear works by Samuel Barber, by Jennifer Higdon, a beautiful setting of a psalm by Caroline Shaw, an extraordinary piece by David Lang, which sets the text from a document that was created by the US government during the outbreak of the Spanish flu, as well as works by our good friends Nico Muhly and Eric Whitacre. As for Howells’s “Take him, earth, for cherishing”, if your listeners don’t know that, I strongly encourage them to listen. It’s an absolute masterpiece.

KENNEDY: Graham, you always release fascinating recordings. What’s coming up next for the choir?

ROSS: I can tell you some things, but I can’t tell you everything. We’ve just finished a new album earlier this summer, which is going to come out at some point in the next year or so. It’s very exciting for us. It’s a world premiere disc, but it’s a set of world premieres by a composer who has not been with us for 500 years. It’s a disc of previously unrecorded works by Palestrina, which is an extraordinary thing when you think about this composer whose works stood the test of time. The great composer of counterpoint, of the nuts and bolts of Renaissance polyphony. I have put together a program of four-part and five-part masses by Palestrina that have never been recorded before, as well as some motets and a Magnificat setting, and it’s going to be released in time for the 2025 Queen’s centenary for Palestrina.

KENNEDY: Graham Ross, thank you so much for sharing information about this marvelous new recording, Rolling River: American Choral by Clare College Choir.

Join us on Sunday, December 3rd, at 7 p.m. to hear the interview. Listen on, 89.7 FM, or our app!