For many people music is at the heart of Christmas. Probably more people sing together, in carol services, than at any other time of year. And alongside congregational singing are the choirs, from the host of parish church and school choirs to the internationally renowned service from Kings College Cambridge. And at the heart of them all is the choirmaster, helping those choirs, as the Palmist says, “to make a joyful noise unto the Lord”.
Tom Primrose has been at the centre of this world for many years. He has directed many choirs, was formerly Assistant Organist, and director of the girls’ choir at Norwich Cathedral. Now, in addition to work in opera across Europe, and as a pianist, he leads the Cambridge Philharmonic Choir and the University of East Anglia Choir (UEA) in its three annual concerts.
During an interval in rehearsals for the UEA choir’s annual Christmas concert he talked to Stephen McNair about Christmas music, how he came to his present role, and why the music matters. He revealed a man never solemn, but absolutely passionate about the music, and about the stories it tells.
Becoming a musician
My family weren’t church goers or religious, but my dad had a little Casio electronic keyboard. And it was the best toy in the house. In the days before iPads and the internet the keyboard was simply a brilliant toy. And I seemed to have a sort of a knack for being able to hear things and play them without really knowing how I did it. Many hours of being able to do that magic was how I got into it. And I went to a musical school, and became a chorister in a big musical parish church. So from the age of about seven to my mid 30s, every Christmas was busy.
I went on an organ scholarship to Worcester College in Oxford, where they had several choirs, and student choral scholars. And the real stroke of luck was that they were directed by a student. And that was me. So I spent a huge amount of time doing that as an 18-20 year old. In fact, probably my happiest memory of that was a Christmas tour we did to Sicily. Christmas in Sicily is really good fun and it was lovely doing a tour where all of the concerts were Christmas music. A lot of our Christmas music is quintessentially English and totally new to Sicilians. And in a bar, people danced and sang folk songs, and we sang Christmas carols, in harmony from memory.
After University, I just did what was natural, which was to carry on what I’d always done. I decided to study piano accompaniment at the Royal Academy, so I was working mainly with singers. And the more I did of this, the more I enjoyed it. I suppose the biggest decision I ever made was when I decided that church music wasn’t what I wanted to do. The bit that I really liked, was conducting and working with singers.
And what I’ve always enjoyed, in opera and in church music, is the ability to tell a story and to investigate how composers set words and tell stories with their music. And, of course, that’s exactly what we do in opera. And so I’ve never really found a big gap. Church and opera inform each other. Of course, the technical elements of singing and language matter, but I always ask what are our purposes, as singers performing? What are we trying to do? And I’ve always thought, ever since I was a kid, that the purpose is to tell the story.
But when I came to the UEA choir ten years ago, there weren’t Christmas concerts. I think that was just the way that the university diary worked. But it’s been a lovely thing to make. And people seem to agree: we sell out the Catholic cathedral every year. I suppose it’s beginning to be an annual tradition.
The Christmas story
The Christmas story is a great story, and the best Christmas music investigates the most striking elements. A lot of the most incredible carols juxtapose the child lying in a manger, and the vulnerability of that, with the horror of the passion story. And the best composers can find a nuanced sound, to set that story just as the best opera composers do. Telling it helps us think about the human condition.
The story has within it sadness, but also tenderness. But then in the end, the most happy possible ending. What’s so beguiling about the story and I think what allows one to be emotionally invested in it, whether or not you believe it as fact or as faith, are the multitude of characters. One can especially become totally fascinated by the character of the Virgin Mary because of the way the story explores the tragedy at the same time as the joys of the character. So we have the joys of Merry Christmas, and then the Stabat Mater at Easter, and then the glory of the Resurrection. It’s an incredibly rich human story. That’s the key.
Working with singers
I don’t prefer working with amateurs to professionals. They inform each other, and there should be a huge amount of music making, because people’s lives are enriched by art. The purpose of art is to investigate the secrets of the human condition. And the more people who can do that, the more wonderful the time we have. Working with amateurs is endlessly fascinating, because the puzzle of how to improve the experience and the standard of what we do, is so addictive. And I’ve always been incredibly absolute that we should have a good time by doing something well. For professionals and amateurs, the good time comes from creating something excellent.
What choirs often find difficult is getting over the sort of first hurdle, if you like, of trusting that music notation is intuitive. The music is in your head, not on the page. So I’m always almost belligerent in trying to get everyone to sing loudly and confidently the first time. If you make mistakes in doing that, we can put that right. I think that choirs find it difficult to feel confident enough to just give it a go for the first time. But once you start, people realise that it’s not as hard as it seems.
You say you have seen me lose my temper (he laughs). But I was only pretending. Occasionally it can be good to make people see that you’re really serious. People have to understand it’s important. It’s an unbelievable, wonderful privilege, that we live in a society that has the space for music-making and art in general. So, there’s an onus on those of us who do it, especially for those of us who have the privilege of doing it to earn our living, to recognise that this is no ordinary job. We must do it as well as is possible, and with as much passion and inquisitiveness as is possible. And so I think that when one is rehearsing and preparing music, the joy and the enjoyment comes from doing that investigation as well as you possibly can.
What is Christmas like now? When I worked at the Cathedral, Christmas was the busiest time of the year, with carol services, concerts and midnight masses, and all of that kind of stuff. As I moved more towards being a pianist, working in opera, and being a conductor, I did less of that. But when people know that you can play the organ or conduct a choir and you know this repertoire really well, you get roped in to do things. But tonight is more or less the last of my Christmas commitments. Its nice to keep my connection to all of that. But its also rather nice on Christmas day to just stay in bed. Maybe like a lot of the rest of the population.
And so, back to the rehearsal.