Ahead of the first rehearsals for St Matthew Passion we speak to three Solomon’s Knot singers about their musical background, influences and what to expect from this telling of the Passion.
Kate Symonds-Joy (mezzo-soprano), Thomas Herford (tenor/Evangelist), Zoë Brookshaw (soprano)
What were your first musical experiences as a child?
Kate: I remember, as the youngest of three girls, ‘busking for Bosnia’ with a homemade sign at the edge of the busy A25 road. We offered the passing traffic an obscure recital of flute, clarinet and oboe trios, mostly titled things like ‘Chicken Coop Blues’ and ‘Farmyard Jazz Walk’, dreadfully played but with the merciful backing track of a very noisy road.
Zoë: I started to learn Suzuki violin at the age of four. Prior to that my mum had fashioned me one out of a sponge and a ruler so that I could copy my older sister! I joined my local church choir at the age of seven and started learning the piano when I was nine. Music always played a huge part in my life but it was joining the National Youth Choirs when I was twelve that really opened my eyes to how incredible it felt to make really excellent music with other people.
Thomas: My parents were both professional musicians, so mine is a common story of joining the ‘family business’! My years as a chorister at New College Oxford, filled as they were with thrilling opportunities and responsibilities, set me firmly on the path towards a musical career.
Who has been the biggest musical influence on your life?
Kate: Honestly, the other singers of Solomon’s Knot. I’ve stood amongst them and attempted to sing programmes that are teetering on the edge of the impossible – that test your nerve, stamina, teamwork, concentration and require you to draw from a huge palette of colour and emotion. It’s totally draining but equally exhilarating.
Zoë: Ooh so many…! Mike Brewer, Richard Marlow, Stephen Layton, John Eliot Gardiner…
Thomas: I owe a lot to my parents, of course. My Dad’s voice, in particular, rings around in my imagination. Dr Edward Higginbottom, the ex-Director of Music at New College Oxford, introduced me to what is still my core repertoire, and gave me an early taste of what it is like to reach for something meaningful and sublime in music. More recently, I have been challenged like never before in my work with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and with Solomon’s Knot.
What music do you enjoy listening to outside of work and performance?
Kate: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Album is without doubt one of the most glorious. I spend a lot of time dancing around with my boys to ‘Boys’ by Lizzo. I once went on a long and remote cycling trip with only Barokksolistene’s Alehouse Sessions CD and have been obsessed with it ever since.
Zoë: Taylor Swift, Billy Joel, pretty much any music theatre!
Thomas: All sorts. There are recordings from which I will always draw inspiration, things like Pavarotti’s 1968 debut album and Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s first recording of the St Matthew Passion. I’m currently listening to a lot of Jacob Collier. He’s such a fascinating musical polymath. I also love Aurora Orchestra, who do wonderful things with orchestral arrangements of non-orchestral music and a group from Norway called Barokksolistene, who are famous for their improvisational approach.
What has been the most memorable performance you have given?
Kate: I sang the Bach Motets with Solomon’s Knot about 3 weeks after my eldest son was born. I’d memorised it all months in advance so just had to be able to stand up, but I have never been so determined to do something in my life. I’ve also sung Carmen a few times with The Prison Choir Project, using a chorus of prisoners from Wandsworth and Dartmoor Prisons. It was moving, troubling and uplifting all at once.
Zoë: Again… so many! But up there has to be the Messiah with Solomon’s Knot in Regensburg. We were two to a part as usual and my soprano colleague came down with food poisoning halfway through. I hurriedly had to memorise one of her arias in the interval and by the end was singing the choruses by myself. She did nobly soldier back onto the stage to sing the Hallelujah chorus however, and I have never been so happy to see anyone in my life!
Thomas: St John Passion at Wigmore Hall with my Solomon’s Knot family.
How did you come to be involved in Solomon’s Knot?
Kate: The details are hazy, but I was at University with most of them.
Zoë: I vaguely knew the director, Jonny Sells at university, but we sang together again a bit later on in the Monteverdi Choir.
Thomas: I became friends with Jonny Sells while we were both at Cambridge, and we cemented our friendship at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
What should the audience expect from St Matthew Passion?
Kate: It’s going to be intense.
Zoë: Drama and storytelling.
Thomas: It’s hard to say. The St Matthew Passion is an Everest of music, and to perform it by heart and without a conductor – the Solomon’s Knot way – requires so much advance preparation, as well as so much musical awareness in the moment, that I’m sure it will be an exciting experience for everyone there, both on stage and in the audience. Everyone performing will be in a state of complete commitment and concentration.
Furthermore, we will be rehearsing the piece in collaboration with John La Bouchardière, a deeply thoughtful stage director, who will be helping us to bring yet more understanding and intensity to our interpretation. It might sound arrogant, but I hope that people will feel they’ve experienced the St Matthew Passion in a way that they haven’t experienced it before.
What is your favourite part of this programme?
Kate: I love the interweaving string lines in ‘Mache dich, mein Herze, rein’ – my dream would be to lie on the floor amongst the instruments, hearing it all emerge, recede and dart around me.
Zoë: The bass aria ‘Mache Dich’ and the alto aria ‘Erbarme’. Just two of the most sublime pieces ever written!
Thomas: Impossible to say. Every bar of this piece is full of musical and spiritual wonder.