The Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition of 17th-century Dutch portraitist Peter Lely in 2012 involved a community choir singing songs with rounds from the period


Jonathan Knott, Issue 116/02, p39, 01.02.2016
Choirs are music to the ears of an increasing number of galleries and their visitors
Museums and galleries are increasingly experimenting with using choirs as a way of increasing engagement, interpreting collections and reaching new audiences.

Charlotte de Mille, who curates the music programme at London’s Courtauld Gallery, says musical events linked to exhibitions have been held there since 2008. It holds a monthly Sunday musical performance, and about half of those involve a choir. Various groups have performed here including the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, semi-professional singers, gallery visitors and amateur singing groups.

The performances aim to contextualise an exhibition, says De Mille, giving the example of the show Michelangelo’s Dream in 2010, which displayed the artist’s drawings made for his beau, Tommaso de’ Cavalieri. Michelangelo wrote a series of sonnets to the young man, two of which were set to music by the Renaissance composer Jacques Arcadelt at the time.

Last November’s show of postwar abstract painter Peter Lanyon’s work featured a choir singing sea shanties. And in December, a choral sextet sang songs about the Virgin Mary in a gallery displaying early Renaissance art.

At Manchester Museum the local community was at the heart of Wonderstruck, a 2014 project, where five local community choirs sang in four joint performances at the museum over one weekend. The music focused on the sense of wonder inspired by the collection.

The team that created Wonderstruck drew on material from workshops with museum staff and the choirs to learn how people experienced the museum. In total, the show involved 107 performers, as well as a stuffed fox from the museum’s collection. The project was used to pilot Arts Council England’s quality metrics framework.
On the whole, participants reported positive experiences, and a significant proportion of the public – surveyed after the event – said they would approach culture differently as a result of their experience.

Wonderstruck was funded by People United, a charity that explores how the arts can “grow kindness, empathy and a sense of common humanity”. Anna Bunney, the engagement manager at Manchester Museum, says there are plans to create an intergenerational community choir based at the venue – a venture that would probably require financial help.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) set up a three-year choral project, the Portrait Choir, in the summer of 2013 with funding from the Mohammed S. Farsi Foundation. The choir gives performances in the London gallery five weekends a year. It sung pieces by female composers at a 2015 Audrey Hepburn show at the NPG, and was involved in events related to a 2014 first world war exhibition that included readings of works by the poet Siegfried Sassoon alongside music from German baroque composer George Frideric Handel. The choir has also performed at other events and venues including Latitude Festival and Shakespeare’s Globe theatre.

Pim Baxter, the deputy director at the NPG, says the Portrait Choir adds an extra dimension to people’s visit: “Those who come for the music may stay to look at the portraits, while those who come to see an exhibition might come across amazing music.”

Choir practice

“Putting a music programme together is a collaborative effort. I study the exhibition programme and propose a few ideas for music related to it. Then we have a wider discussion about how we can use the choir to explore the themes examined in the display.

“As a musical form, singing is more direct than instrumental music. A choir performance is about the individual people singing in it as much as the music they make – just like the works in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection are about the people portrayed just as much as the way they’re depicted artistically.

“The atmosphere is special because there aren’t the normal expectations of strict concert hall etiquette. But we do, of course, have to be aware of safety with so many precious artworks around.”

Gregory Batsleer is the director of the Portrait Choir