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Conversation with Clare College Choir director, Graham Ross

The Clare College Choir will be starting their U.S. tour here in Vermont, at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Middlebury on Friday, April 14th at 7:30pm.
Nick Rutter
used with permission
The Clare College Choir will be starting their U.S. tour here in Vermont, at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Middlebury on Friday, April 14th at 7:30pm.

GRAHAM: The composers who are writing today for the voice are offering some fantastically interesting music.

JAMES: That’s the voice of Graham Ross, the director of the choir at Clare College Cambridge...

GRAHAM: ...the second oldest college in the University founded in 1326.

JAMES: The Clare College Choir will be starting their U.S. tour here in Vermont, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury on Friday, April 14th at 7:30pm. I had a chance to sit down with Graham via Zoom to talk about the upcoming performance as well as his past experiences in Vermont and leading this prestigious choir.

GRAHAM: So, I'm in my 13th year now as director of music, but I also was a student at Clare College, and I used to sing, in fact, in the choir. I know Vermont well, and I know Middlebury well, and I know St. Stephen's well, and it's a great thrill for me to return. We are always made to feel so welcome every time we come to the States, but particularly when we come to Vermont. So, I'm looking forward, very much, to taking the current crop of my undergraduate choir to Middlebury, as I say, to start this tour.

JAMES: Tell me a little bit about this program that you’re taking on tour.

GRAHAM: Well, it's a bit daring because we're an English choir and lots of people love the English choral tradition. But we're bringing a program of American music to American audiences. We're going to hear some works by some of the living American composers who are writing today. Some fantastically interesting music; a beautiful piece by Caroline Shaw, some pieces by Nico Muley, one of our great friends and collaborators at Clare College.

And what we're doing is, we're going to combine some of those works with some of the works from our great English tradition. The program, when we come to Vermont will open with one of the great motets of the English Renaissance, William Byrd’s setting of “Ave Verum Corpus,” which needs very little introduction to many people. What perhaps might need more introduction is the piece that follows it, which is a setting by Roderick Williams, the great English baritone who also somehow manages to find time to write music. And he has rewritten the “Ave Verum Corpus” with a piece called a “Ave Verum Corpus Re-imagined.” And it's an extraordinary piece which pays reverence to Byrd’s harmonies but reimagines it in a way that is set for three choirs and the harmonies overlap each other. He brings out all of the nuances of that text but makes it very relevant 500 years later.

And I think it's pieces like that in the program sitting alongside our American gems of the repertoire that I hope will give our audiences both a snapshot into what we do as an English choir, but also show our ability to tackle other repertoire, other languages, other cultures as we'll hear in some of the works in our program. If one person comes away from the concert feeling that they've perhaps learned a new piece, or they want to discover a composer a bit more. Then I feel like I've done my job.

JAMES: One intriguing piece on the program is David Lang’s “Protect Yourself from Infection” which is a choral setting of the words found in a 100-year-old pamphlet written during the influenza epidemic of 1918. This work is especially relevant to all of us today.

GRAHAM: When I discovered this piece, it was in the middle of our COVID pandemic, and we hear words that are alarmingly familiar to us all from the last three years; “protect yourself from infection,” “wash your hands,” “don't go to work if possible” and so on and so forth.

JAMES: Along with the sung text from the pamphlet, David Lang includes short solos singing the names of individuals who died or were affected by the pandemic.

GRAHAM: And he writes in his program note that you can update the names according to whatever it is that you are commemorating, perhaps when performing this piece. So for me, the obvious thing was to see if we could explore honoring the names of some of the people, not who died in the COVID pandemic, but perhaps the people who did all the work to save us.

I have a sister who works in the National Health Service in England. I was therefore very aware, on a daily basis, of what they went through and what the work was for particularly those key workers who worked day in day out to protect so many lives. So in our performance, we will sing the names of some of the NHS workers from our two local hospitals to Cambridge from Hinchingbrooke and Peterborough.

JAMES: Clare College Choir’s performance will transform David Lang’s work into a piece that honors and thanks those who did their job, saving the lives of so many during the COVID19 pandemic. And of course, there are many other pieces for all of us to discover.

GRAHAM: So, our program is called Rolling River, which takes its title from that great folk song, “Shenandoah” and our performance of this program takes place at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Middlebury in Vermont at the start of our USA tour, we'll be performing there on Friday the 14th of April at 7:30 PM. And tickets are available online from the Town Hall Theater box office.

You can access the box office at and learn more about the choir at

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.