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Interview with James Davey, conductor of Chantage

We spoke to James Davey, conductor of Chantage (BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year 2006) and Ken Burton leader of the internationally renowned London Adventist Chorale (Sainsbury's Choir of the Year 1994) about what it meant for their choirs to win the UK's most prestigious choral competition.

Chantage has been running since 1999 and has forged a growing reputation as an outstanding young and energetic young chamber choir performing traditional English choral works alongside lesser known pieces from foreign choral cultures, vocal percussion and other unusual contemporary styles. Founder and conductor James Davey spoke to Choir of the Year's Clair Bradder about Chantage's experience of Choir of the Year and their willingness to take on any vocal challenge!

How did it feel performing in front of millions of nationwide viewers in Choir of the Year?
It's not until you see yourself on television that you're really appreciate of the scale of the audience - when you're on stage you're only really aware of the live audience in the auditorium and knowing it's not live does take the pressure off. I did catch sight of myself on the big screen once or twice whilst conducting and that was quite distracting!

What did it feel like when you won the competition?
It was awesome. The buzz was incredible and took several weeks to subside. When you first hear the news you feel as if you could do anything….until you open your mouth to speak and nothing comes out!

What did the choir learn through taking part?

We won Choir of the Year on our third attempt and it was over the first two competitions we learned the most about what we needed to do to improve. The main thing I learned was that it's crucial to communicate your interpretation of a piece. You have to make a decision about whether you're there to deliver that interpretation or to win a competition and the experience taught me that the only thing you should focus on is communicating the music.

Has winning Choir of the Year brought any new opportunities along your way?

Winning Choir of the Year is big stamp of approval! It has undoubtedly opened doors for us and we're often called on to work with the BBC. Being located in London of course helps and also that we're very flexible in what we can do stylistically. It was also a great honour to be asked to perform at the ABCD conference in the presence of such distinguished conductors and composers as David Willcocks, Bob Chilcott and John Rutter.

Do you all get on well?

Yes, there's a great family feel to the choir and we deliberately have a fixed membership, rather than a pool of singers, to encourage everyone to bond and work as a team. Having said that the family feel means sibling rivalry occasionally flares up but it's good that singers can voice their issues and get them out of the system!

Tell us about your prize - the BBC Radio 3 commission.

We commissioned three short pieces from different composers in the end: Gabriel Jackson, Richard Allain and John Tavener which we've just recorded at the BBC's Maida Vale studios.

In 2008 the choir backed Mercury Award-winning band Elbow at Abbey Road Studios with the BBC Concert Orchestra, what was that experience like?

I have to admit that when we were invited to take part I hadn't heard of Elbow but when I put the offer to the choir and the started jumping up and down in excitement I knew it must be a good opportunity and indeed it was. To do something like that was a real treat - and sort of an extra 'prize' for our hard work. I'm a big fan of Elbow now and even have the album we're not singing on!

Does the choir have a preference for a specific musical genre?

Individual singers in the choirs have their own preferences but there's no one overriding genre of choice. We all respect each other's tastes and singers appreciate they won't necessarily love every piece that we sing and are pleased to try new things -it works really well.

Also I see that you have experimented with vocal percussion. Was that fun?

Yes! The beat-box project spun out of doing an arrangement of Britney Spears' 'Hit me baby one more time' which was great fun but we didn't know much about vocal percussion at that point. We then worked towards a concert at the Purcell Room with Tobias Hug from the Swingle Singers and MC Zani where the singers were taught to make an accurate percussive sound without a mic. We want to explore the entire spectrum of the sound beyond the English choral tradition -including those that have never been made before!

The choir supports a charity each year such as the Stroke Association and the NSPCC for example. Who are you supporting at the moment?

This year we are supporting Prisoner's Abroad, the MS Society and the Anthony Nolan Trust - three charities that are close to the hearts of members of Chantage. We aim to donate from the proceeds of all our concerts and CD sales whenever possible.

Finally, do you have any advice for choirs competing in Choir of the Year?
Always sing your best in rehearsals, not just the performance.
Listen to your neighbour and make sure you're singing as a team
Communicate every last ounce of your emotion in every song
Only concern yourself with the performance - the greatest mistake is to go on stage with an overriding desire to win

Enjoy yourself - if you're having fun so will the audiences and, of course, the Judges. Good luck!

James Davey

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