Being, presence and flow


Portrait of Tobias Cole
Tobias Cole, Countertenor (Image: Michele Mossop)

One of Australia’s leading counter-tenors, Tobias Cole is a mainstay of the Canberra arts community and a passionate advocate for choral music.

In this interview, he shares his vision as Director of the ANU Chamber Choir, which forms the core of the CSO Messiah Choir in 2022.

Tell us a bit about your vision for the ANU Chamber Choir and your approach.

Tobias Cole: My aim when working with singers is to build their musical knowledge, skills and confidence and unleash their desire to express themselves through their voice. Alongside working on some of the amazing choral repertoire, old and new, we also spend a significant amount of time improvising, with one basic rule: ‘to listen always.’ This allows us to experience the essential elements of great performance: being, presence and flow.

I think of a choir as an organism made up of interconnected cells (singers) in constant communication with each other. I make a point that when we meet in a room for a rehearsal, our priority is ‘togetherness’.

Yes, we still work on intonation, tone quality and pronunciation but it’s interesting how these things can sort themselves out with the intention of togetherness, which can only be achieved by listening (multi-sensorially, not just aurally). If there is one vision for the ANU Chamber Choir, I would like it to be experiencing and sharing with others the transcendent joy of singing.

The choir has gone from strength to strength in recent months, with some high-profile performances.
What have been the highlights of the past year and what’s on the horizon?

TC: Something I learnt from the late Richard Gill was that young musicians often need mentors to give them permission to achieve greatness. A significant part of my role as a choir director and teacher is to say, ‘Yes, of course you’re ready to tackle this!’

Last year, I introduced the choir to Handel’s Dixit Dominus, one of the hardest choral works in the repertoire. I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm with which the singers engaged with this piece, and I began to imagine presenting a performance towards the end of the year. That idea had to be put on ice with lockdown No. 2 but it’s definitely a possibility for later this year.

Fortunately, we were still able to squeeze in some memorable performances last year including Sublime Voices with the excellent Luminescence Chamber Singers; the ANU’s seventy-fifth birthday celebration; and a performance with the singing Tiwi Women from the islands north of Darwin.

This month, we’re performing Bach’s ‘Jesu, meine Freude’ at Wesley Uniting Church. Later this year, we look forward to performing in the Prisoners of War Requiem presented by The Flowers of Peace.

Choral singing is so compelling because we are dealing with the instrument we are all born with and which we use to express ourselves.

A group of university students gathered in front of the School of Art & Design
The ANU Chamber Choir
Why is choral music so compelling?

TC: There are so many wonderful choirs and vocal ensembles these days, exploring not only the great classical repertoire of the past, but also the ever-growing and changing contemporary repertoire. Since the late twentieth century, composers such as Arvo Pärt
and Eric Whitacre have had an enormous impact on singers’ and listeners’ love of choral music. Singing this contemporary music with its delicious, rich harmonies (and harmonics) in a resonant space is incredibly enjoyable, as is singing a cappella Renaissance music with its interweaving lines and glorious suspensions.

I think choral singing is so compelling because we are dealing with the instrument we are all born with and which we use to express ourselves. When people gather to sing together, they achieve a singular vocal expression imbued with layers of complexity. The idea of an organism again comes to mind, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

You’ve been part of Canberra’s arts ecosystem for many years. What do you see as its defining characteristics?
What makes it special?

TC: I’d like to share an experience I had in London several years ago, when I found myself outside the Byzantine Catholic Westminster Cathedral on a typically cold, rainy afternoon. Immediately on entering the cathedral, my world changed to one of warmth, beauty and calm. The choir was singing and the gold was gleaming. ‘Ah, heaven!’

Later, I pondered whether this experience could ever be had in Canberra? Of course, it could, in any of our secular cathedrals: the galleries and High Court. This inspired Evensong, a series of 25-minute concerts in the National Portrait Gallery with Clarion, my professional ensemble.

I’ve always thought of Canberra as an opportunity. Whilst there is a long and strong tradition of the amateur performing arts here, local professionals have a freedom to explore non-mainstream/fringe venues and approaches to their arts practice.

A very important part of Canberra’s arts ecosystem for the past several years has been Smith’s Alternative, a venue that rarely has a dark night and explores an impressive range of art forms. I host Smith’s’ Classical Capers, a monthly ‘open-mic’ concert for classical musicians.

Clarion vocal group
Clarion (Image: Dan Taylor)

Handel was a force of nature and I never stop learning from his works.

You’ve sung Handel’s Messiah many times.
What’s it like to prepare your solo part alongside preparation of the choir. Is there an overlap?

TC: I’ve had a very long and loving relationship with Handel’s vocal music. I can still recall the elation I felt as a treble screaming the opening choral phrase of ‘Zadok the Priest’. That was probably when I became hooked on this composer with his funky rhythms and unpredictable harmonies.

I sang my first full-length Messiah at the age of 14 with Sydney Philharmonia under the late Peter Seymour and I remember being enthralled by the drama of the work. It was only much later that I understood where and how the work fitted into Handel’s life and his other works…and I’m still discovering.

For instance, I read recently that librettist Charles Jennens was resistant to the cultural rise of Deism, a mechanistic theology linked with the Enlightenment, which saw God as a creator only and didn’t hold much credence in prophecy. Imagine a Messiah without trumpets and high voices (the angel Gabriel) singing ‘Glory to God’!

When I approach a Handel aria or chorus I speak the text and try to identify all the rhetorical elements, particularly how he musically punctuates the text. Melismas (long passages sung on one syllable) are all crafted very deliberately to paint meaning behind the word and phrase being sung (‘we have gone astray’ sees the melody go astray, for example). Often, I will ask choristers to sing phrases with as much expression as a soloist and only later worry about unity of tone. So, I think there’s definitely an overlap between the arias and choruses.

Handel was a force of nature and I never stop learning from his works.

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