Interview: On conducting Handel with James Gilchrist

Charlotte Corderoy talks to Bessie Yuill about conducting a charity concert of Handel's Jephtha

It’s snowing as I walk to meet Charlotte Corderoy, the student who’ll be conducting Handel’s Jephtha in 4th Week, and I can’t help but admire how classically Oxford the buildings of the High Street look. That is, until I catch a glimpse of somebody curled up asleep on the other side of the road, and am reminded of the purpose of the concert I’ll be asking about. Taking delight in snow is a privilege that only those with a roof over their heads at night can really indulge in, since for the homeless in this city the weather could be life-threatening.

The performance will be in aid of Homeless Oxfordshire, and this act of charity couldn’t be any more timely. A recent Guardian article detailed a spike in deaths among the rough sleepers in Oxford, with the latest tragedy coming on the 21st January with the death of Sharron Maasz. This recent weather may put more lives in jeopardy.

“‘I knew I wanted to do a charity event that was independent and entirely in aid of a homeless charity, because it’s so prevalent here,” Charlotte reveals over a mug of coffee. “I’m really interested in early music anyway – it’s done a lot in Oxford, but it’s rare to have full oratorios performed when it’s not connected to a particular orchestra. It’ll be nice to have music that’s not performed that often done for a good cause.

“The nice thing about an independent project, of course, is that none of the money needs to be kept behind for the next concert or endeavour. It can all go to the charity.”

When I ask about the particular charity that will receive that money, she explains that she has done concerts for them before.

“Homeless Oxfordshire are very proactive in the community, and they have an excellent vision of how to help people who are on the street, and to really find paths they feel comfortable in. They provide meals, shelter, and accommodation, and, of course, are very interested in student collaborative projects.” 

Turning instead to her role, we talk about how she took on the project.

“I started toying with the idea midway through August – I knew I wanted to take on something I’d get a lot out of as a musician, but which could also do good in some way. It was a huge job – harpsichords to hire, finding singers and players who have the time. Musicians in particular are very, very busy, since they’re usually part of two or three different orchestras. My Christmas holidays were spent sending out hundreds of emails just to get people involved.”

The music she decided on itself is an oratorio, which – with no condescension for my lack of knowledge – she describes to me as similar to an opera, but performed in more of a straightforward concert setting.

“I knew I wanted to do an oratorio because they require less of a massive production team, so they’re more manageable for an independent project, but also because the emphasis is on the music, which creates a lovely atmosphere between the audience and the performers,” she says. “Jephtha was Handel’s last ever one. He was going blind at the time he was writing it, and I think with that knowledge, his sensitivity and vulnerability comes through in the music for a listener.

“There’s so much potential to do exciting things with it, because of the exciting arias and the full chorus. The Biblical story really sells itself, and the music does too: there are these beautiful lyrical poignant stretches, but also massive thunderous moments. The storytelling should seem familiar for both people who are experienced and people who are new to it.”

Her enthusiasm is visible when she speaks about the actual music, and she explains that as a conductor, the music is the very last thing you come to, after a long period of admin. “I’m at the lovely stage of getting to focus on the music!” she exclaims with some relief.

Another reason for her excitement is the singer who will be the title role: world-renowned tenor James Gilchrist, whose extensive concert repertoire has seen him perform in major concert halls throughout the world as well as in BBC Proms.

“I’d worked with him before,” she tells me, “so even though I knew it was a bit of a long shot, I wrote to him this summer and said ‘I have this idea.’ I knew he’d sung the solo role before, so I asked if it’d be something he’d be interested in. He was very kind and wrote back instantly.

“This project involves a lot of musicians – 30 singers in the chorus, 30/40 people in the orchestra – so it gives them an opportunity to work alongside someone who’s been in the industry a long time too. Someone who’s not only a world class musician, but a good example of a humble, generous role model.”

The singers have been particularly “buzzing” to meet him, she says. The four other soloists are Jessica Atkins, Stephanie Franklin, Sam Mitchell, and Patrick Keefe.

“They’re all on the brink of conservatoires and music careers themselves, so it’s amazing for them to see him.”

This mention of the music establishment prompts me to ask about the stigma around classical music, and events like this: does she worry that it may appear exclusive?

“Of course there’s some stigma around this kind of thing,” she admits. “It can feel quite detached from real life; even some of my friends were initially alienated. Our aim is that it should feel accessible, because it does include students from all over, as well as Brookes students, and because it’s for a good cause. The beautiful space it’s being held in should also be a draw.”

The beautiful space mentioned is University Church, and she goes on to enthuse: “People might walk past it every day but never see inside, so this is their chance. It’s really at the heart of Oxford, so should appeal to the whole community.”

The idea of shaking off any preconceived notions of classical oratorios seems important to her. “The dream,” she goes on, “is sharing what I love with someone not so familiar, and watching them fall in love with it. Music is one of those things that generates pure enjoyment from people – if you can find a way to get to their heart, that’s it.

“Since it’s true, classical music can be seen as catering to certain type of people, it’s nice to contribute to breaking down that stereotype and making it about the homeless community here. We live in a city with a bizarre dichotomy between students and the homeless, where we walk past them every day, but their lives can feel very far away from our reality. I think we can become numb.

“Of course, there is a lot of fantastic work that goes on – this is in no way the only way to help – but it’s good to feel a part of that. Bringing together the two worlds that live in the same city.”

When I ask what she’s personally most excited about, she replies: “Opening the music and the cause up to people. My two biggest things are obviously music, but also charity work, so for me it’s a very special project I’ll remember for a very long time. I do it for myself, because I love exploring music, but it makes it more special when I can share that love.

“And also it says a lot about James, one of the busiest people I know, that he’s not only willing but pleased to come and work with students for this cause. He didn’t hesitate, and I think that’s really admirable.”

It’s been a long project for her, but she insists bringing people from a wide range of backgrounds together through music has made it all worth it.

“Conducting on the night, as well as being in charge of all the admin – it’s definitely been a learning curve!” she laughs. “It’s the largest project I’ve ever done independently, but I’ve loved it. Combining the charity side and the music I love: I’m finding it really rewarding.”

The concert will be at 7.30pm on Saturday 9th February at University Church, tickets available now at £12 for general, £7 for students.