Hello! My name is Philip Murray, and I have been singing bass in the Choir of St James’ for nine years.
Why did you decide to audition for the Choir? What is special about singing in The Choir of St James’?
I grew up in WA and originally trained as a flautist, although I was also an enthusiastic chorister at school and university. Just as I was finishing my Bachelor of Music degree, an opportunity arose to audition for the choir of St George’s Cathedral in Perth, and I was accepted. Unexpectedly, this became my first regular work as a musician. For the first year or so, I was paid the princely sum of $50 a month! The choir was run along the lines of the English cathedral tradition, and I very quickly became hooked on the music, and stayed for fourteen years. (I also got around to having some proper singing lessons along the way). As a result of this experience, finding somewhere to sing professionally when I later relocated to Sydney was a priority – and by chance, the Choir of St James’ happened to have an opening at just the right time.
Singing at St James is special for many reasons, but probably the most important is the way that the ensemble is able to produce quality performances so consistently for the weekly services, which form the core of our work. This requires a high level of skill and training, but also of commitment to the particular demands and schedule of a working church choir. I feel very lucky to have worked with so many amazingly talented and committed singers during my time in the choir, many of whom have become good friends over the years. The other thing that makes the Choir of St James’ special is the huge range of concerts and events that we perform, and the remarkable range of guest artists, visiting conductors and other ensembles we have collaborated with, thanks to Warren’s extensive connections. But I really appreciate that we are using our skills to contribute to the life of the parish in a significant way, which goes beyond simply performing the music for its own sake or for our own pleasure. We are not ‘just’ a church choir, but we also not ‘just’ a professional music ensemble.
What is the most special, memorable or stand-out moment you have had singing in this choir?
It is impossible to choose just one performance, but certainly our performances while on tour, in Europe, Gallipoli, Singapore and around Australia, have all been very special. Singing at dawn in the freezing cold at Anzac Cove, as the sun rose over the sea behind us, was a unique and memorable experience. The European tour of 2017 as a whole was also definitely a highlight, but I think it was singing services in the English cathedrals in Winchester and Exeter, and of course Westminster Abbey, that have touched me most. This was particularly due to the personal connections that Warren has with these places, and the generous welcomes we received as a result; but also the connection to the long historical tradition of the cathedral music that I had been part of for so long in far-flung Australia. It felt like a kind of home-coming, on both a personal and historical level.
What do you do when you are not singing at St James’? ie. Where else do you sing? What is your day job?
I decided at a young age that I would like to be a musician, and have been fortunate for most of my working life to be able to cobble together a freelance career of mostly music-related work. I have worked as a flautist and singer with many ensembles, and have also enjoyed regular teaching work. Every year tends to be different in terms of the mix of work that comes my way. At the moment I am particularly enjoying teaching flute, singing and piano lessons at four different schools. I love helping young students, especially teenagers, to find their ‘voice’ and discover the means to express themselves through music.
What is your top-ten list of sacred choral music to listen to and why? Which records can you recommend?
I can’t quite settle on ten! But here are four favourites:
William Byrd, Masses for Four and Five voices: I have probably sung these works more than any other mass settings, but I never tire of them. The expressive effects that Byrd achieves, within a musical language that to a modern ear seems relatively limited, are remarkable. To a less experienced listener, sacred polyphonic choral music of the Renaissance can tend to sound a bit all the same, but it was in these pieces that I recall first discovering a sense of a real human personality behind the perfect lines and pure harmonies of this repertoire. This had a great impact on my appreciation of other music of the same style and period.
Claudio Monteverdi, “Vespro della beata Vergine”: I recall hearing this on the radio as a teenager and being instantly mesmerised. I literally could not believe what I was hearing – the sounds of both the music itself and the quality of the performance were unlike anything I had heard before. I subsequently learnt that it was a famous performance recorded in St Mark’s, Venice, with John Eliot Gardner’s Monteverdi Choir. Having the chance to perform this work myself, in a combined concert with the choir of St Mary’s Cathedral, has definitely been a highlight of my time at St James’.
J.S. Bach, the aria “Aus Liebe will mein Heiland sterben” from the St Matthew Passion: Every moment of the St Mathew Passion is wonderful, but this extraordinary aria seems to form the emotional heart of the whole piece. As a flautist, I love it for the beautiful flute obbligato that interweaves with the soprano voice, but also because of the unusual accompaniment of two oboe da caccia (a ‘tenor’ instrument in the oboe family), without any bass instrument. The effect is strange and unearthly.
Maurice Durufle, “Pie Jesu” from the Requiem: when performed with the cello obbligato as intended, there is something so haunting about this piece. It has a deep, rich, ancient feeling to it that I cannot put into words.
Who is your singing hero and why? Have you sung with a superstar?
I cannot name a single singing ‘hero’, but I am a passionate admirer of great voices in any genre. I confess to adoring opera as much the sacred choral music I am fortunate to sing, and especially love the great sopranos: Callas, Tebaldi, Caballe, Sutherland, Norman, Pryce etc.
Probably the biggest superstar I have shared the stage with was Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. I was in the chorus when she performed two outdoor gala concerts in Perth, with the WASO and WA Opera. She may have been somewhat past the peak of her career at the time, but her voice was still extraordinary, and I have never forgotten the impression it made on me. Listening to the way she could endlessly draw out a phrase and make it float was quite magical, like watching a bird hovering on the wind. She sang what must have been for her a relatively easy programme of her most popular arias, but I recall she had to ask the conductor to cue the words for her for almost every piece, and you could sense that she was under enormous pressure. It was rumoured that her fee was close to six figures, but she had thousands of adoring fans who had paid to hear her at her best. For perhaps the first time, it dawned on me that being a superstar might not be so much fun.
What is your dream church/concert hall to sing in?
As a student flautist, I was lucky enough to play with the Australian Youth Orchestra in the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – one of the most iconic concert venues, with possibly the best acoustics in the world. It is also the home of one the world’s greatest orchestras, whom I have also heard perform there a couple of times. To sing there as well one day would definitely be near the top of my list!
My other choice would be to sing in St Mark’s, Venice; not least because I love the building (and the city) for its own sake, but also because of its important place in the history of sacred choral music.
What other musical instrument(s) do you play, and can you recommend a favourite piece and recording of that instrument? Do you compose, and if so, what have you written?
I began my musical training on the piano, since my mother was a piano teacher, and then took up the flute in primary school. The flute quickly became my main instrument - I went on to study at WAAPA and have worked professionally as a flautist - but I still enjoy playing the piano, and especially enjoy being able to accompany my students.
Of the flute repertoire, some of my favourite music would be the orchestral flute writing of late 19th/ early 20th century French composers, especially Debussy and Ravel. The famous flute solos in Debussy’s “L’apres midi d’un faune” and Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe”, for example, feature the modern flute at its best.
I did once aspire to be a composer, and studied formally for a couple of years with Brian Howard and Roger Smalley. I have always found composing very stimulating, but in the end decided I didn’t have enough facility to pursue it to any great level. As one former lecturer sternly warned me, “There are an awful lot of bad composers in the world!” So now I tinker with it in my spare time, but it’s been a long time since I have finished anything. I always preferred writing music for small ensembles of various kinds. I did have two choral pieces performed by the Giovanni Consort, a chamber choir that I sang with in Perth many years ago.
Name your favourite thing to do when you're not singing?
I love to read and I love to cook – especially “classic” literature, and classic dishes/cuisines, respectively. On top of my bedside reading pile at the moment is Henry James’ last novel “The Golden Bowl”, and Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. I’m a big fan of Australian author Patrick White and recently reread his unfinished posthumous novel “The Hanging Garden”. Recent recipes I have enjoyed making have included ricotta gnocchi with sage butter, and a traditional Indian chicken biryani. I also love walking in the bush and other wild places, and don’t get out of Sydney nearly as often as I should.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?
I have always felt drawn to the historic town of Albany, on WA’s south coast – maybe because it’s where I was born. It has amazing rugged granite coastline and pristine beaches, and also a lively arts community. It was a favourite family holiday destination, and I still visit whenever I get the chance. One day I might retire there…