15 November 2021

Anna Lapwood tells Lark Music how she’s following her teachers' lead

By Lark Music

BBC Young Musician presenter Anna Lapwood, 26,? is a conductor, organist and the youngest ever Director of Music at Pembroke College, Cambridge. She puts her achievements down to inspiring teachers who helped her grow through taking risks. Now, after the release of her new album Images’, recorded on Ely Cathedral’s organ, she tells Lark Music how she’s following her teachers’ lead.

“My teachers believed in me 100 percent and gave me opportunities earlier than I might have otherwise had; they said ‘Do you know what? Just stand up in front of an orchestra, conduct and see what happens.’

I had an amazing piano teacher, Maureen Rosenberg, who helped push me as a keyboard player and my first organ teacher, Gareth Price, would say ‘If you want to try something, give it a go.’

I did some conducting at school as I had a very encouraging director of music, Roger Spikes, who put me in front of choirs straight away.

I knew I wanted to go down the university route rather than a conservatoire but I was worried about maintaining the practical side of music, so I applied for an organ scholarship. I managed to secure a place at Magdalen College, Oxford, and so I was playing for eight services a week and helping rehearse the choristers every morning. That dunked me into the choral world in a very dramatic fashion.

It was sink or swim.  I nearly sank – but then I fell in love with all the music and the choral world more generally. [Anna was the first female in 560 years to be awarded the Organ Scholarship at Magdalen College].

Now I like to give choristers the opportunity to fall in love with the choral world just as I did all those years ago.

During lockdown I started a choir, NHS Chorus-19. In the first couple of weeks of lockdown and with all concerts cancelled, a friend of mine, who is a junior doctor and a member of the Pembroke Choir, told me how everyone was on their knees in the hospitals and how they could do with something to boost their morale. ‘Why don’t we start a choir for the Cambridge Hospital?’ she said.

We initially thought it would be something small but we had so many people sign up within a day that we opened it up nationally and more than 1,000 members joined within a month. I have been running weekly rehearsals on YouTube ever since. The choir met in person for the first time in August and sang to 8,000 people at Audley End House in Essex.

It was extraordinary. There is something so special about the moment a choir breathes in together – that sense of collectivity and cohesion, producing sound from silence.

NHS workers have had to be so strong this whole time and so music allows them to let go of the emotions they have been holding back. It gets underneath the surface.

Standing on the stage doing their soundcheck at Audley End, thinking of all the people they have lost… as soon as they started singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, we were all in floods of tears.

One member wrote to me saying that in the first month of lockdown, her team lost every patient they had been working to save. She said the only thing that kept her sane was the choir rehearsals. When you are singing it is hard to be worrying about anything else; you are so focused on the act. Many of the choir were saying when they were performing in front of this large audience it was the first time in 18 months that they hadn’t been worrying about Covid, and that they felt normal again.

It became a close community and so I hope this is just the beginning – we have another concert in October with the Bach Choir.

The pandemic has been tough for musicians in so many ways, but if I had to find a positive I would say that we have all appreciated having more brain space – real time to practice and create space to think creatively about what we are doing. The pandemic has possibly changed the way we think about how we work and made us realise the importance of giving ourselves space and time for thinking deeply about music.

At Pembroke, a lot of my time is normally spent doing admin and running choir practices but over the pandemic I was able to do eight hours’ organ practice a day. I fell in love with the instrument again.

I wouldn’t have been able to record my album had I not had that time and space to think about the act of music-making and what I was trying to say. I could feel the emotions I wanted to convey as opposed to just playing notes.

The album grew out of a transcription of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes that I was working on. I started it shortly before lockdown and suddenly had so much more time. It was going to be one or two of the movements, Dawn and Moonlight, but I thought I might as well try and do the whole thing. I said to Signum, the record company, I would love to record this and showcase the organ in a very different way.

We can all be guilty of associating the organ with big, grand hymns and thinking of it as loud and impersonal, but as an organist some of the most moving moments you have with the instrument are when you are playing quietly in a vast building – and I wanted to capture some of that on the disc.

I hope it is really intimate, so when you do sit and listen it does feel like you are there in this pitch-black building with just you, me, and the music.

I’m so excited about the return to live music – I made my BBC Proms debut on September 7, as soloist in Saint-Saëns ‘Organ Symphony’ with the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder. I then repeat the Saint-Saëns with conductor Kazuki Yamada and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on September 16, so I get all of my orchestral work within the space of two weeks! It’s been so moving, feeling the energy of a full symphony orchestra after all this time.

Images, Organ of Ely Cathedral was released on Signum Classics on September 3, 2021

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