Interview with Choral Composer of the Month: Philip W. J. Stopford

Philip W.J. Stopford

Philip W. J. Stopford (b. 1977) is an English composer and choral director, revered worldwide for his contemporary settings of traditional Latin and English prayers and hymns. Stopford’s relationship with church music is a long one, beginning as early as 7 years old. As of 2016, Stopford has served as Director of Music at Christ Church, Bronxville. He continues to be avidly involved leading workshops, concerts, and recording sessions across the world. His latest album of choral music features new orchestrations of In My Father’s HouseJesu, Lover of My Soul; and O How Glorious Is the Kingdom.

1. Your new album, In My Father’s House, features the Truro Cathedral Choir and BBC National Orchestra of Wales. How did you connect with these two ensembles and get this collaboration in motion? What was it like working with both ensembles and conductor Christopher Gray?

I have had a long association with Truro Cathedral, having been appointed Organ Scholar in 1995, aged 18. At that time, the Director of Music was Andrew Nethsingha, now Director of Music at St. John’s College (Cambridge) and the Assistant Organist, Simon Morley, now at St John’s Episcopal Church (Tampa). The current Director of Music at Truro is Christopher Gray, and I have previously composed a number of pieces for the choir; an arrangement of the Sans Day Carol, and a setting of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for 4 voices, The Truro Evening Canticles, published by MorningStar Music. In 2012, Christopher and I discussed the idea of recording a CD of my sacred choral music called ‘Do Not Be Afraid’ which has sold in the thousands. Working with this choir is a very special experience, and through Christopher’s connections with Tim Thorne at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, ‘In My Father’s House’ was recorded back in February, and will be released this month (September 2017). Working with this wonderful choir and orchestra was a once-in-a-life-time opportunity; amazing!

2. What is most gratifying about the recording process?

The actual recording was made in just 10 hours! Sixty-five orchestral players, a number of producers, and sound engineers traveled 200 miles from Cardiff in Wales to Truro in Cornwall to make this new recording in the wonderful acoustics of Truro Cathedral. However, there was a large amount of planning and organizing before the two-day recording took place. The Cathedral had to be closed to visitors, the BBC truck had to be parked outside in the small streets of this delicate city. The orchestral manager and his team brought plenty of music stands, lights, and even heaters to keep the players comfortable and happy. This was a mammoth operation. For myself, as the composer preparing for this team of highly professional singers and players, my work was done four months in advance. I locked myself away in my apartment, saw very few people, hardly went out, and orchestrated seventy minutes of music originally composed for choir and organ/piano. The first score took me three weeks, but as the days went on, I was able to work more quickly, and understand FINALE (the music computer program) more efficiently. After all this hard work, the gratification came hearing and seeing this music for the first time in the recording sessions with over 100 performers, the youngest perhaps aged 10. One of the boy choristers said to me, “What does this sound like all together?” I said, “I don’t know, but you’re about to find out at the same time as the composer!” When you purchase the CD, you have the opportunity to experience this moment.

3. How did you get involved in music, and what drew you to composing?

I have been involved in church music for many years, as a Chorister at Westminster Abbey, Organ Scholar at Keble College, Oxford, Truro, and Canterbury Cathedrals, Assistant Organist at Chester Cathedral, Director of Music at Belfast Cathedral, and now as Director of Music at Christ Church, Bronxville, NY. I love church music and simply had a go at composing some of my own, and people seem to like it! From there, commissions, performing, and recording opportunities have always arisen.

4. Describe your compositional style. What inspires your music?

My compositional style is British, having grown up in the Anglican choral music world. There is only one inspiration in every piece of choral music: the words. It all begins here, and develops according to the abilities of the commissioning choir. For me, it is no more complicated that this, and this simplicity seems to identify with those who sing it.

5. In addition to your work as a composer and role as Director of Music at Christ Church (Bronxville, NY), you are widely-sought after as a clinician, organist, and conductor. How do you find time to write music in spite of a busy schedule?

I have a very understanding rector and church – I work four days a week for Christ Church, which allows me time to be Philip Stopford, the composer. My rector sees this as an important part of who I am, and has respected and understood this part of my life in music. I am lucky!

6. How do your roles at Christ Church and as Director of the Ecclesium Choir (UK) influence your music?

I wouldn’t say that my role of conducting choirs influences my music because my compositions all come from the sacred text and its meaning. I have recently composed a setting of the Episcopal Church Eucharist for Bronxville which is designed to be suitable for our congregation (who sings well) and Jesus Christ Is Lord, an anthem suitable for Good Friday, for the church choir. The advantage of running the choir for that which you are composing is you know what they can and can’t do, even down to the individual voice parts!

7. When you’re not leading music at Christ Church, composing, or conducting, how do you spend your time?

Living just 30 minutes from NYC, I enjoy exploring The Big Apple and all that it has to offer – museums, galleries, reatusrants, the theater, concerts, parks. It’s a wonderful place to live. Of course, I also have my family and friends in England, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland, so I have two lives; one each side of the Atlantic! I also get visitors from back home which is lovely.

8. Is there any recent or upcoming news you want to share?

In addition to MorningStar Music, some pieces are published by Hal Leonard, and others are self-published at www.philipstopford.com. I am guest conductor at a number of workshops this year in Nashville, Charleston, Chicago, Dublin, and Bath.


Click here to learn more about Philip Stopford.

 

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