Tales from a Churchill Fellow – Carolyn Watson’s study tour

Sydney conductor Carolyn Watson is back in Sydney and brimming with her experiences over four months of the southern summer spent travelling on an extended Churchill Fellowship.

“The whole point of a Churchill Fellowship” she says, “is that the study has to be something that can’t be undertaken in Australia. My project was to compare operatic and symphonic chorus training methods and performance practice, looking at commonalities and differences between the two chorus types. There is unfortunately little scope to explore a project of this nature in Sydney because there is just one professional opera chorus, and one symphony chorus, making a comparative study of the nature I was interested in impossible. ”

First stop on the study tour was Hanover where she spent time with Karen Kamensek, General Music Director of the Staatsoper. She recounts “They were rehearsing Lady Macbeth of Mtensk which has a substantial amount of chorus work so this was in many ways, an opera wonderfully suited to my project. I also assisted in preparing the Staatskapelle for the opening concert of the 2012 Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition, the world’s richest and most prestigious violin competition. The standard at this violin competition was phenomenal. I’ve never heard anything like it!”

“Then I attended an international choral conference in the Swedish medieval university town of Lund. The conference was on ‘The concepts and practice of choral singing’. It wasn’t part of my original study plan because I found out about it after I had been awarded the Fellowship – but the Churchill Trust were very supportive and I was able to attend. It was a remarkable week actually – the conference coincides with a major international choral festival so it was a wonderful opportunity to hear a variety of choirs and vocal ensembles from all round the globe. In fact this meant I wasn’t the only Australian there – The Idea of North were there performing as well.”

After that it was onto London and New York for the second half of the study tour.

“In London I spent time with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus who were recording the choral works of Szymanowski with Edward Gardner, with the London Symphony Chorus, the London Philharmonic Choir and the Crouch End Festival Chorus who were preparing for a concert of Britten’s music at the Barbican.”

“The highlight of my time in New York was the time I spent with Donald Palumbo, the chorus master at the Met, which has one of the finest opera choruses in the world. After experiencing the choir’s intense rehearsal schedule and observing Donald’s rehearsals, it was easy to see why! The New York Philharmonic who are right next door were rehearsing as well and sitting in on these was an opportunity too good to miss!”

“I was able to put it all into practice when I rehearsed the New York based Dessoff Choir, one of the city’s major choral organisations. As I was in the US I made a side trip to Indiana University in Bloomington where one of the examiners of my PhD is Head of the Conducting Faculty. He was very enthused by what I wrote, so much so that he made it a part of the curriculum for the postgraduate students in conducting. I wrote about gesture and conducting – how we as conductors communicate using gestures – not just conducting gestures but facial expression, eye contact and other body language. I presented to the conducting students who knew of my work….and all went very well until I was stranded there because of a New York snowstorm! Fortunately a colleague I met at Aspen happened to be in town so it turned into a catch up over a nice meal. Apart from the academic aspect, the bonuses were being able to see and hear conductors like Lorin Maazel, Daniele Gatti, Christoph von Dohnanyi and to hear singers like Jonas Kaufmann.”

For now, Carolyn Watson is slowly coming back to reality after the wealth of experience afforded by her Churchill Fellowship travels. It’s back to her role as Conductor in Residence at the Conservatorium High – but not for long. In the not-too-distant future she will head back to Budapest to conduct the Kodály Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir in concerts – her prize from winning a place in the 2012 Emmerich Kálmán International Conducting Competition.


Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©



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