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Schola Cantorum of Oxford: A Famous Chamber Choir in a San Miguel Debut

By Fredric Dannen

Schola Cantorum is Latin for “singers’ school,” and the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, founded in 1960, is the very archetype—around thirty young voices, mostly Oxford students. The London-based chamber choir tours the world, performing a cappella and with orchestra, and records for the prestigious Hyperion label. Led since 2002 by British conductor and composer James Burton, Schola Cantorum has been praised by Gramophone for “performances that could not be bettered.”

The Life of Christ, for A Cappella Choir
Schola Cantorum of Oxford, James Burton, conductor
Tue, Mar 22, 7pm
Teatro Ángela Peralta
On sale at the theater box office and at
La Conexión (Aldama 3)
300 pesos

Schola Cantorum will make its San Miguel debut as a special feature of the San Miguel International Music Festival on March 22 at 7pm. The concert, which takes place during Holy Week, will be­­—according to Burton— a musical “journey through the narrative of Christ’s life,” featuring compositions from the 16th century to the present day. The venue is the Teatro Angela Peralta. Tickets are 300 pesos and are available at the theater box office, and at La Conexión (Aldama 3).

Burton, who is not on the Oxford faculty, is credited with taking Schola Cantorum to a higher level of musical achievement. A singer himself—from Westminster Abbey chorister at nine, to choral scholarship student at Cambridge, to a widely recorded countertenor—Burton also studied conducting with the legendary Frederik Prausnitz. For the forthcoming concert, Burton has assembled his program not only to tell a story but also to create a sort of choral symphony. “There is a key scheme going through the whole evening,” he says. “I’m interested in exploring how pieces, when they are juxtaposed, can feel different than when they are sung by themselves.”

The narrative begins at Advent, with the “Vigilate” of William Byrd, composed in 1589; continues with Christmas music written in just the past decade, moves ahead through Christ’s presentation to the temple, and so forth, culminating in the crucifixion, and pieces reflecting on Christ’s message. The music includes choral works by three 20th century French composers (Olivier Messiaen, Maurice Duruflé, Francis Poulenc), three living British composers (James MacMillan, Roderick Williams, James Burton), a contemporary Estonian composer (Arvo Pärt), some famous names from the pantheon of Western music (Johann Sebastian Bach, Gustav Holst, Michael Tippett), and some less famous (Antonio Lotti, Francisco Guerrero, Elizabeth Poston).

Such challenging repertoire would be the undoing of many a lesser ensemble. Singing an entire program a cappella is difficult enough—without accompaniment, a lone chorister going off pitch can throw an entire choir into chaos. A program filled with modern music, which usually means more complex harmonic and rhythmic language, is doubly difficult. “Contemporary music is a big feature of Schola Cantorum,” Burton says. “Unlike many other choirs, we’re able to tackle a huge variety of music.”


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