Portrait of a festival: the National Portrait Gallery’s choir sets up camp at Latitude

- 12 August 2014

Fieldwork: on stage at Latitude Photo: Alex de Mora

Fieldwork: on stage at Latitude
Photo: Alex de Mora

This summer saw the National Portrait Gallery’s choir-in-residence breach the gallery boundaries for the first time since its inauguration last year.

The Portrait Choir, which is the only choir-in-residence at a British museum or gallery, performed at Latitude Festival in July with an adapted version of Anonymity &#8210 a thought-provoking, multimedia programme that focuses on the themes of isolation and loneliness in wartime.

Although the change in venue from a London gallery to a Suffolk summer festival might sound like a radical change, musical director Gregory Batsleer found it was a rather fitting choice for their first performance outside the gallery walls: ‘As I had my back to the audience, it was hard for me to know what was going on behind me and I was a bit worried the audience wouldn’t be able to connect sufficiently with all the other noise that was seeping in from other festival stages. That wasn’t the case at all though &#8210 the feedback I had was that people were able to engage and enjoy, despite the surrounding noise.’

Indeed, as an audience member myself, I can verify the audience’s captivation in this performance. Despite the transient nature of a festival audience (especially in a festival such as Latitude with such a variety of acts to choose from at one time), increasing numbers piled into the Film and Music tent on a sunny Saturday morning, and stayed; something that must be, in part, due to the similarities between the National Portrait Gallery’s (NPG) visitors and the average festival-goer at Latitude. ‘I think the people who attend Latitude have a similar mindset to those who visit the NPG,’ says Batsleer.

Although, of course, it would be difficult to define a ‘typical’ visitor at the NPG, it is certainly true that Latitude is not your typical music festival. Proudly offering the tagline: ‘More than just a music festival’, it is exactly that &#8210 offering theatre, dance, comedy, cabaret, literature and poetry tents, as well as film and music (where the NPG performed) and a number of stages for non-classical, more mainstream music performances. As such, it tends to attract those who have a wider base of cultural interests. While that doesn’t necessarily mean they will be familiar with classical music performances, it perhaps suggests they bring a more open mind with them.

Anonymity is a striking programme performed in partnership with a group of actors and instrumentalists New Century Baroque. Accompanied by portraits from the NPG collections, extracts and movements of thematically appropriate music &#8210 much from the works of Handel &#8210 are interlaced with wonderfully selected speeches, poems and letters to create an emotional commentary on the influence of war. The choir had performed this piece in a slightly different format back at the gallery in May, and Gregory is hoping to revive it again during this first world war anniversary period: ‘The piece has had such a good reception and it’s good for the singers to be able to perform it again, so I’m hoping we’ll be able to put it on next year.’

Their appearance at Latitude was about a year after the choir first formed &#8210 ‘The performance felt a bit like an anniversary celebration for us,’ says Batsleer. The ensemble, which is formed of young professional singers &#8210 many who have recently graduated &#8210 and a small number of mentor professionals, are part of a larger scheme at the NPG. ‘I see it as much more than just a choir,’ explains Batsleer. ‘It’s a whole choral programme based within the gallery, which includes a staff choir and singing days for the public, as well as the young professionals in the choir.’

The choir’s unique position as a choir-in-residence at a gallery is something that Batsleer feels helps them to have a unique focus. ‘There are so many outstanding choirs in the UK already, and new ones being started all the time. We’re not trying to compete with these,’ instead Batsleer hopes to do offer something different, creating links between the art and music.

One of the initiatives is singing days for the public. The next event of this type takes place on 24 August and will give amateur singers the chance to learn and perform in the gallery. ‘It’s firstly a change to just sing,’ says Batsleer, ‘but will also hopefully help people to experience the exhibition through music.’ This time based around the Virginia Woolf exhibition, participants will get access to the exhibition itself, a talk by the curator and have the chance to practise and perform a new piece commissioned specifically for this singing day. It is part of the choir’s aims to commission one new work every year. ‘I think it’s important for us to commission new work,’ says Batsleer. ‘The gallery commissions new art works, so this should be reflected in our music.’

Other future performances planned for the choir include a piece in collaboration with a shadow puppeteer, during the upcoming William Morris exhibition in October.

Tickets for the National Portrait Choir singing day on 24 August are still available here

For more information on Latitude, got to: www.latitudefestival.com. Early bird tickets for 2015 (16-19 July) are available at this year’s prices until 30 September


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