One of the UK’s leading choir directors, Aidan Oliver, takes up his role as Chorus Director of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus this month. He answers some quickfire questions as he prepares to take the helm.
What is your earliest musical memory?
I'm from a large and musical family (with the long-suffering exception of my father!) and we all played instruments from a young age. I started the violin at about age 5 and my first teacher kept bees in her garden: I still remember the smell of honey and lazy buzzing from the hives on summer evenings.
You began your musical career as a chorister at Westminster Cathedral. What first attracted you to singing and choral music?
My older brother was already a chorister there before me so I think it was assumed that I would follow him, even though I was a very timid singer to start with! But once I'd found my feet I revelled in everything about it: the camaraderie, the huge range of repertoire, the big concerts and tours, and most of all the thrilling sound of the choir and organ in full flight.
As a conductor and choir director you have worked with some of the UK’s leading choirs. What have been the standout moments of your career so far?
I've been very fortunate in my experiences, particularly with the Philharmonia Orchestra [as director of Philharmonia Voices]: highlights have included a memorable semi-staging of Vaughan Williams's Pilgrim's Progress under Richard Hickox and more recently a thrilling Schoenberg Gurrelieder under Esa-Pekka Salonen for which the chorus numbered a staggering 200 professional and conservatoire singers. The sound was truly phenomenal.
Why were you attracted to working with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus?
This is a chorus with an utterly compelling raison d'etre: to be the voice of a truly international Festival for the very best of the world's orchestras and conductors who take part each year. The Chorus is the beating heart of the Festival's music programme, and as someone who adores the thrilling synergy of big choral-orchestral collaborations, I am really excited by the prospect of taking this role for the Chorus even further.
You have spoken of your affection for Scotland. What do you like the most about Edinburgh? Do you feel a personal and artistic connection with the city?
Oh dear! Here I have to admit that I am very much an Edinburgh 'newbie': my mother is Scottish but her family are from the west coast (she grew up in Islay and Glasgow, where I still have relatives) and that is the part of Scotland that I know best. But in a short time I've already acquired a strong sense of Edinburgh's multi-layered identity and tremendous cultural energy, and I'm looking forward to tapping into that as much as possible.
What was your first encounter with the Edinburgh International Festival? Do you have a favourite festival memory?
Well this year was actually my first time: I came up for the last week of the Festival, which included fantastic performances of Dvořák's Requiem and Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand as well as some other enthralling performances of all kinds. My wife and two boys came up for the last weekend and it's fair to say that we all fell in love with Edinburgh at festival time. I think for them the highlight however was definitely the Virgin Money Fireworks Concert!
What is your favourite choral work?
This would have to go a three-way tie between Haydn's Creation, Verdi's Requiem and the Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil. But that's being deeply unfair to Messrs Bach, Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Vaughan Williams, Stravinsky, Macmillan, and many others very dear to my heart!