Personalities on the Peterborough Arts Scene talk to Joe Conway. This week Steven Grahl.
I met Steven Grahl one afternoon before Christmas, some three years and three months after he was appointed Director of Music at Peterborough Cathedral.
It was a sunny afternoon and the meeting was a sunny occasion too, for Steven presents a smiling and easy-going face to the world. But it soon emerged that beyond his genial exterior he’s passionate about his work with the cathedral choir, which provides high quality music for daily services, as well as showcase concerts.
Recent highlights have included a memorable St Cecilia’s day concert in November, a very special carol concert a month ago, and any number of services over the Christmas season. But these beautiful and polished performances do not just happen.
They are the result of hours of careful preparation amounting to a massive ongoing ministry of music education.
In answer to my questions, Steven started by giving me some facts and figures. As well as a dozen adult members known as lay clerks who provide the alto, tenor, and bass voices, the cathedral choir includes no less than 45 children singing treble. They’re aged between seven and 14 and are equally divided between boys and girls. In all they give eight choral services each week.
“This daily round,” he emphasised, “is the most important thing we do.” But it’s worth saying again that behind the scenes there’s a tremendous amount of hard work going on, Steven confirming that his post as Director of Music involves no less than 20 hours teaching each week. As he said: “It’s my biggest single commitment.”
But his teaching isn’t confined to the cathedral choristers. Steven also sees an important role for the cathedral in community music-making.
For instance, in February he worked with hundreds of local primary school children in the premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Even You Song at the cathedral.
A spectacular example of the community engagement which Steven is so keen on. With this huge project in mind he stressed that all the work he undertakes is demanding, but in uniquely different ways.
As he said: “It’s important to me that every day is special, every day is challenging.”
Steven Grahl’s obvious empathy with the choristers in his charge may well be due to the fact that he himself joined the Derby Cathedral choir at the age of eight. As well as singing, he also took piano and subsequently organ lessons. Ten years later he became organ scholar at Magdalen College Oxford, one of the few state-educated students to achieve success at that time. Steven later went on to direct the choir Musica Beata and continues to conduct the Schola Cantorum.
With opportunities to present performances in Oxford as well as Peterborough Steven’s musical preferences are obviously of paramount importance. He mentioned his enthusiasm for the Baroque and for contemporary classical music, which he introduces into services and concerts on a regular basis.
Examples of work by living composers in just the last few weeks have included Philip Moore’s Ode to St Cecilia, and my own Two Minster Carols. It was a great privilege for me to have some of my work included at Christmas and was another example of Steven Grahl’s desire to include the local community in cathedral performances.
After looking back at these highlights I asked about forthcoming projects. The first of these will take place on January 25 in an evening of Renaissance music with a Spanish flavour.
It aims to celebrate the life and times of Henry the Eighth’s first wife, Katharine of Aragon, who is buried in the north choir aisle of the cathedral.
Two days later Steven will not only direct the Stamford Chamber Orchestra in a concert at the Stamford Arts Centre but will also play the demanding solo harpsichord part in Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 5.
There’s more Bach, but of a more monumental kind, at the cathedral on March 10 when he’ll conduct the cathedral choir and the Peterborough Choral Society in Bach’s St John Passion. Steven described this traditional Easter performance as ‘a wonderful opportunity to hear this dramatic and inspiring work in a perfect setting.’
As Steven Grahl says: “My work is partly about the destination, partly about the journey.”
Hopefully, local music lovers will continue to benefit from both for many years to come.