Choral conductor and Blossom Street founder Hilary Campbell

30 January 2018

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Hilary Campbell founded Blossom Street as an a cappella octet while studying at the University of York. Over ten years on, the ensemble has developed into a high-profile chamber choir with a commitment to new music. Their debut recording, ‘Sleep, Holy Babe’, was chosen by Classic FM as its Christmas CD of the Year 2011 and was followed by 'Down by the Sea', a collection of choral folk songs and 'A Short While for Dreaming', a compendium of Peter Warlock’s choral works. Now the group is fundraising for its fourth album; we spoke with Hilary to find out more.

What is your next recording project all about, and how did it come about?

In 1918, after some long fought battles, women in Britain, or a least a contingent, finally gained the right to vote.  In celebration of this sea-change, Blossom Street is planning to record a disc for Naxos, titled 'This Day', featuring works by women composers, performed by women.  We’ll be including music by living composers as well as more neglected works; the common thread is that all the music is by British composers, and it’s all for upper voice choir, either with or without an instrument. 

As an ensemble, we’ve always endeavoured to champion new music, and all of our previous discs have included premieres, from Finzi and Holst to Judith Bingham and Kerry Andrew, so it seemed natural to continue this trend.  It’s great to see more female conductors on the podium, but we’re still in the minority, especially with professional ensembles, so bearing in mind all of these factors, it seemed like a good time to celebrate women in choral music with this recording.

Have you commissioned any new pieces for the recording?

We’re thrilled to be featuring brand new works by Cecilia McDowall, Judith Bingham, Kerry Andrew, Roxanna Panufnik, Nicola LeFanu and Judith Weir. We’ve been fortunate to forge a relationship with Judith Weir, with whom we’ve run several projects at the Royal Academy of Music, and who has been extremely supportive of Blossom Street. These will be interspersed with music by composers of previous generations, including Elizabeth Poston, Imogen Holst, Elizabeth Maconchy, Rebecca Clarke and more. 

Are there any discoveries or re-discoveries among the historical composers? 

The process of selecting repertoire for this disc has been fascinating and enlightening, and yes I’ve certainly discovered repertoire and composers that are new to my colleagues and me, but it’s not been without its challenges, either!  Often, once I’d identified a composer whose music I thought might fit Blossom Street’s sound world well, I would then discover that the scores were nowhere to be found, long since abandoned by publishers and music libraries.  For instance, in order to unearth the score for Elizabeth Maconchy’s 'This Day', I had to enlist the help of the archivist at St Hilda’s College, Oxford, who was able to send me a photocopy of the original manuscript, since Faber no longer publish it!  It’s certainly been worth it, though, and I hope that our recording will encourage others to programme this repertoire.

Which three non-British female composers should we all go out and listen to right now?

Well, I’m probably slightly biased, because I’ve just been involved in an unrelated project focussing on the music of several non-British women composers, so I’d have to include some of them in my list.  The music of the French composer Augusta Holmès was completely new to me, and at times surprising; in 'La Vision de la Reine', a sort of fantastical cantata for women’s voices, harp, piano and cello, the listener is transported into a dreamlike state, then whipped up into a flamboyant frenzy before the texture returns to a gentle benediction for the queen’s new-born infant.  This project also introduced me to the music of Russia's Leokadiya Kashperova, Stravinsky’s piano teacher but also a composer (though often in secret) – her work is being championed by academic Dr Graham Griffiths, who had to convince the Glinka Institute to release some of her manuscripts!  As my third choice, I’ll go for Kaija Saariaho, a Finnish composer born in the 1950s, whose choral textures are extremely powerful.

What other projects are you working on this year, and when and where can we see and hear them?

The project which introduced me to Holmès et al was a studio recording with the BBC Singers, the music for which will be broadcast over the coming weeks: Lucy Pankhurst’s setting of Helen Pankhurst’s text will be on the BBC website, and aired on Radio 3, from 6 February, and other works including the Kashperova will be broadcast on International Women’s Day on 8 March.  As for Blossom Street, as soon as we’ve finished fundraising for This Day, we’ll schedule a launch concert, and hopefully a short tour of the repertoire, too.  We recently recorded for the Eden Project, as part of their winter Festival of Light and Sound, so if you head down to Cornwall later in the year, you’ll be able to hear Blossom Street as you learn about new plant life!

If you would like to support Blossom Street’s upcoming recording project, you can visit their Crowdfunder page or email the group directly. The appeal closes on 5 March 2018.

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Visit Hilary Campbell's website