Harry Christophers and The Sixteen: How the choral group found their way to the nation’s heart

One of the glories of classical music in Britain today lies in its a cappella choral groups, each of which has its own distinct character. I Fagiolini turn their concerts into music theatre, while the Tallis Scholars pride themselves on the austere grandeur of their unaccompanied performances. The USP of the Renaissance-music ensemble Stile Antico lies in the fact that, both onstage and off, they are a democracy with no leader or conductor. If Harry Christophers and his group The Sixteen have a calling card, it is to be found in the unfailing excellence of their singing, and in the steadiness with which they have pursued their particular blend of musics ancient and modern, putting out an astonishing 90 CDs on their Coro label.

They don’t turn tricks on stage, but they’ve found their way to the nation’s heart, as witness the fact that they have become the official Voices of Classic FM, and the choir of choice for the BBC’s Sacred Music TV series. They are associate artists at King's Place in London, and at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. On 20 June they will form the chorus for Handel’s Belshazzar at the Grange Festival in Hampshire – a rare departure for a period choral group. Meanwhile, they will be continuing their annual Choral Pilgrimage, giving performances in those parts of the country where classical music doesn’t normally reach. Truro, Carlisle, Hull, Lancaster…

And it all began by accident. Harry Christophers had been a boy chorister at Canterbury Cathedral, and had read music at Oxford, and was suddenly asked by a friend to put on a concert of his favourite choral music. He got some friends together and formed a group; having sung with the Tallis Scholars and got the bug for Tudor music, he decided that that was the musical direction in which he wanted to go. He’d been working as a professional singer, but realised he didn’t want to do that forever. He’d also seen how popular programmes combining Baroque music and modern works were becoming: the formal creation of The Sixteen from the sixteen singers he’d gathered together for that initial ad hoc purpose was the result.

With the conservatoires pumping out brilliant young singers every year, getting a place in The Sixteen is a rare and coveted honour, and Christophers’ recruitment strategy is not what you’d expect. “When I do auditions,” he says, “character and personality are as important as the voice. You can take it for granted these days that applicants will have a good voice and can sing all the notes, but it’s more about how they get on with the person next to them, and how they gel with the group as a whole. If somebody’s ill, I’m very particular about who the replacement should be.”

He applies these principles to the training he also supervises on The Sixteen’s Genesis programme, through which young singers fresh out of conservatoire learn the tricks of the trade. “All new members sing a piece to me, and the first thing I say is: ‘Don’t sing in the way you think I want to hear – be yourself, sing as naturally as you speak.’”

The purpose of this project – which provides new recruits to cathedral choirs up and down the country – is to show young singers the realities they will come up against. While top soloists like Sarah Connolly and Christopher Purves (a former Sixteen member) give voice coaching, other tutors tell students about gritty necessities like agents and tax, while an ENT surgeon – once a singer himself – comes in to explain how the voice works, what can happen to it, and how important it is not to tear it to shreds by pushing it too soon or too hard. “And about not drinking too much after a concert, and not going out for a hot curry, because everybody does these things,” adds Christophers. “This sort of advice is so important, yet none of the colleges had thought of offering it when we started doing so.”

The Eton Choirbook is the cornerstone of The Sixteen’s Renaissance repertoire – a massive compilation of vocal works by many English composers, whose survival was miraculous: it had been sent to a binder when Eton College had its destructive visitation by the iconoclasts of the Reformation, so it escaped destruction; it spent the next 300 years gathering dust in a library. The Sixteen’s modern cornerstone is the music of the Scottish Catholic composer James MacMillan, whose fascinating setting of “O Virgo prudentissima” can be heard on The Sixteen’s latest CD, and whose new Miserere has been dedicated to Christophers and his colleagues.

Building audiences for tomorrow is never far from Christophers’ mind: the choir gives many concerts for primary schools. And having two children who are on the stage, he’s outraged on their behalf that government after government has failed to support the arts. “There are so many musical and theatre groups around the country who need a bit of help,” he says, “but there’s next to none forthcoming at present. Musical education in state schools now scarcely exists.”

The Sixteen’s An Enduring Voice is released on the Coro label. They will play in Manchester on 8 July, York on 9 July, Lancaster on 10 July, and Carlisle on 11 July