In this interview we speak to possibly one of the biggest names in today's classical music world, and certainly in the organ world, Anna Lapwood. Read on to learn about what life is like as a professional organist and conductor, Anna's musical journey, and what an organist's favourite takeaway is!
Hi Anna, though we suspect many of our readers have already heard of you, for anyone who hasn’t, please could you briefly introduce yourself?
Hello! My name is Anna, I’m 27, and I’m an organist, conductor and broadcaster. I also love house plants, manchego, & hash browns.
How were you initially introduced to classical music?
I started thinking about music because I idolised my big brother - he was two years older than me and so whenever he started learning a new musical instrument I would watch him in awe. I used to sneak in after he had finished practising and have a look at his books, and would eventually take the instrument up too. The trouble is, I would then practise really hard and he wouldn’t, so I would quickly overtake him and he would then give the instrument up...! This happened with several instruments - piano, violin - and eventually he was allocated the brass family and I was told to stay away. Amusingly he still gave up after a couple of years. I, meanwhile, had become a bit obsessed with transferring skills between instruments, and just wanted to take up as many instruments as possible.
How old were you when you first started playing the organ and what initially drew you to the instrument?
I was a teenager - I think I was about 14 or 15. I was actually pretty set on being a harpist at that stage - I was a first study harpist at the Junior Royal Academy of Music. My mum brought up the organ and asked if I had thought about giving it a go. I was a bit of a typical teenager and said ‘don’t be ridiculous, the organ is a stupid instrument’, but my mum then told me that Organ Scholars at Oxbridge get grand pianos in their University rooms! That made my ears prick up - piano was my 2nd study and I loved playing it - so I took up the organ shortly after. I never did get a grand piano in my room, but did end up falling completely in love with the organ.
What has been your favourite organ to play during your career and why?
I really love the organ at the Royal Albert Hall. I’m lucky enough to be Associate Artist at the hall so can go in overnight once a month. There’s something about being able to get really familiar with an instrument and get to know its quirks and idiosyncrasies. Every organ is so different, and so often we only have 24 hours to try and get to grips with a new one before a concert, so it really is a luxury to have more time in one place! I also always say that an organ is inextricably linked with its building - a good organ is nothing without an acoustic and surroundings to match - and as buildings go, the Albert Hall is a rather special one...!
Do you play any instruments besides the organ?
Harp, piano, violin and viola were my main focuses as a teenager, and I also studied conducting and composition. Alongside these I dabbled in a whole range of other instruments - clarinet, flute, percussion, drums, guitar, recorder - basically everything except brass! Even from an early age I loved breadth more than the idea of focusing on just one musical thing.
Do you have a favourite piece to perform or conduct?
Ooo, this is tricky - it genuinely changes every day depending on what I’m working on! It also feels like I have a split musical personality: my organ personality, and my conducting personality, and they would both need to be able to give different answers...! So, at the moment, I would say my organ favourite is Kristina Arakelyan’s Star Fantasy, a piece which I commissioned last year. As for conducting, a current favourite is Caroline Shaw’s ‘And the Swallow’ which we recorded on our first album, all things are quite silent, a couple of years ago.
What does a day in the life of a professional organist look like?
Again, this varies massively! Where possible, I try to always devote the morning to practice and get it done before emails/admin take over my brain! I then tend to have lunch and head into Pembroke for an afternoon of admin/meetings, and will often then have choir rehearsals in the afternoon/evening. My standard day tends to start at about 9 (I’m not a morning person) and will finish between 10:30 and 11:30 at night. I often find I get my best work done after dark. If I’m giving a concert somewhere, I always go at least one day early so that I can register my programme and set up all the sounds I need on that specific instrument. This takes a minimum of 6 hours for a substantial programme - I prefer to have at least 10, depending on the repertoire - and we tend to have practice time allocated in the middle of the night when we can’t disturb anyone else. Once a month I do an overnight practice session at the RAH - I tend to do a normal working day but work in a couple of naps, and then I arrive at the hall at about 9. I have a nap in one of the upstairs rooms before I start practice at midnight (although I’m often too excited to sleep), and I finish at about 6am. If I need to be in London anyway then I stay in a hotel, but if not I just get the train straight home, nap on the train and then get back to work (with a couple more power naps to see me through)!
Though your performance credits are already packed with world famous venues, orchestras and broadcasters, have you got a single concert or performance that has stood out to you as your favourite or is there one you are most proud of?
My most memorable concert experience was definitely my recent spontaneous collaboration with the electronic music artist Bonobo. I was doing a midnight practice session at the RAH when someone shouted up from the stage ‘play the Toccata!’ (Meaning Bach’s D minor Toccata and Fugue). I always love demonstrating the organ to people, so I played it for them and then invited them up to have a look at the organ. It turned out it was two members of Bonobo’s band who had been celebrating the 4th show of their 5 night residency when they heard the organ playing. They joked that it would be cool to add the organ in for the final night, and I said I was actually free. We exchanged contact details, and I then got on with my evening - I was actually filming with ITV news at the hall that evening, and was rather amused when I got some more shouted requests from the rest of the band while we were filming. I finished practice at 5, checked my phone and saw a text from the trumpeter saying they would love me to join them. I emailed the hall to ask if it was possible, went back to my hotel, and went to sleep for a couple of hours. I woke up at 10 to a message saying the hall were keen, had a quick call with Bonobo’s MD, then turned up for a sound check at about 2, where I was presented with the music. I played it through for the first time with Bonobo on one side and the MD on the other, and I think we all got goosebumps. We played it twice in soundcheck, and then the 3rd time was live, closing their show to 5000 people! It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime performance experiences - it was a total surprise to the audience, and there was this huge roar when the organ came in for the first time. It was, without a doubt, the most exhilarating musical experience of my life, and one I will never forget - it was as if my whole musical world blew wide open over the course of 24 hours.
How long have you been director of music at Pembroke College Cambridge and what is the most rewarding aspect of this position?
I’m just about to start my 7th year as Director of Music at Pembroke - gosh, I can’t even believe I’m saying that! I really adore taking a group of people who are a little unsure and showing them what they are capable of musically. I find it particularly moving watching the musical development of our girl choristers - they arrive as shy 11 year olds, and leave as confident young women. I’m constantly reminded of the transformative power of music through my role at Pembroke. There are a couple of girls in particular who turned up so anxious they couldn’t get through a single rehearsal without crying, and now they stand up and sing solos without a care in the world. Choir can be such an important vehicle for helping people find somewhere they belong, and it’s a real privilege to be a part of that process.
Much of your work is focussed on giving young people access to a musical education regardless of their socio-economic background, for example by working with charities such as The Muze Trust, so what advice would you give to young people curious about a career in music?
Surround yourself with the right people. You will receive so much conflicting advice over the course of your career, and it can be really difficult to decide which advice to follow. Listen to it all, but then pick through it and choose which advice to take on board. Make sure you have people around you whose opinions you can trust - who won’t be afraid to be honest with you, but who will give you the support and encouragement you need, when you need it.
Following on from that, as a prominent woman in the classical music world, and with accolades such as being the first female ever to earn the Magdalen College organ scholarship, you are an inspiration to many young women and girls who want to pursue music as a hobby or career. Is there any advice you have for them specifically?
For those who are finding it hard to be heard, please keep going! Keep practicing and learning both your craft and new music, and share it as best you can. It’s too easy to feel defeated and turn in another direction. For those who are being offered performances, I share a gentle word of caution! It can be so tempting to say yes to every concert and invitation that comes your way as a young musician, but you have to learn relatively fast that it is impossible to do everything and you need to be discerning. When you are working so hard to establish a career it can feel really difficult saying no to opportunities at first - ‘what if it leads to something bigger’ etc - but it’s important to make sure you have enough time and brain space to continue developing as a musician. Balancing opportunity with what is achievable at a high level and allows you to work on your art is a challenge in itself! Of course, using the word ‘no’ also applies in more uncomfortable situations that sadly do still happen occasionally in the music industry. Learning to stand up for yourself and call out inappropriate behaviour is hard, but necessary.
What was the original inspiration for your hashtag, #PlayLikeAGirl, and what was it like to watch it grow in popularity?
#PlayLikeAGirl came about as a tongue-in-cheek response to some sexist feedback I received when I participated in an organ competition while I was still at University. We all had individual chats with each adjudicator after we performed, and I was sitting talking to one of them. He said how they had really enjoyed my playing, but that I just needed to play more like a man. When I asked him what he meant, he said I needed to play with more power and authority. I knew this was wrong at the time, but laughed it off. I started using #PlayLikeAGirl shortly afterwards in a jokey way, but it has now become a really important thing for me. So often, doing something ‘like a girl’ can be seen as an insult, but why should it?
The repertoire for Celestial Dawn is essentially a snapshot of the Girls’ Choir’s favourite music! Some of it is our standard repertoire that we have been singing at our services of Evensong since the choir was first started - pieces like Mendelssohn’s O For The Wings Of a Dove, Parry’s Ely Canticles, and Berkeley O that I once past changing were. I like to give the choristers a degree of choice over our repertoire, though, so many of the pieces are newer discoveries which the girls requested we learn over zoom during Covid - Whitacre’s Seal Lullaby is one of our favourites. We were particularly excited to commission a new piece for the recording - Kristina Arakelyan’s ‘You know me’. I will never forget printing the copies out just before the rehearsal, taking them into the chapel with the copies literally still warm, and the Girls’ Choir singing it through for the first time. They had the biggest grins on their faces, knowing they were the first people to sing this music and that it was written especially for them.
What was the recording process like with the choir?
Recording wasn’t entirely stress-free as we ended up losing several singers thanks to positive Covid tests over the course of the week. We were also recording fully-distanced, which was challenging in many ways, but the choristers were so patient and worked incredibly hard. We tended to spend between 1 and 3 hours on each piece, depending on how long and complex it was. Our producer, Nigel, was brilliant at finding ways to encourage the choristers to really feel the text and the music as well as just singing it - this can be a challenge in the English choral tradition when we’re all used to churning out different music every day for regular services!
Which piece was the most fun to record, and which was the most difficult?
I think the Wayne Marshall Canticles were the most fun to record - they are challenging, splitting into four parts with quite chromatic harmony, but they are so rewarding and fun to sing. There was a lovely moment at the end of recording when we finished an hour early so the choristers asked if we could sing through as many canticle settings as we could from memory. Our sound engineer, Mike, face-timed Wayne Marshall, and so we ended up singing his canticles down the phone to him! The most challenging piece to record was probably the Seal Lullaby - trying to capture the intimacy of this music and the close harmony was really difficult with social distancing, and we lost a couple of key singers shortly before we recorded this piece. They did an amazing job in the end, though!
Now for some questions to get to know you a bit better:
What are your hobbies outside of music?
I love climbing mountains - I try and escape for a couple of days in the Lake District with my parents once a year, and always love climbing Helvellyn. I think there’s something about achieving something finite - as musicians I think we’re so often pursuing goals which have no real end point. We can finish learning the notes of a piece, yes, but there is always room to keep improving. So I think I love climbing mountains because it’s something with a fixed start and end! Alongside mountains, I love cooking and baking (although my kitchen management style is what can only be described as chaotic) and also love web design.
What is your go-to takeaway order after a late night concert?
McDonalds Happy Meal! Chicken nuggets, fries, and an orange juice for health.
If you could play any organ or perform in any concert venue in the world, where would it be?
Ooo this is a tricky one! There are so many organs on my list... I would love to play the organ in the Macey’s Store, Philadelphia - I just love the idea of the organ being something people stumble upon while they are shopping!
And one of the most important questions for us, what is your current HiFi/music listening setup?
At home I have a Marantz CD/radio/MP3 player connected to a speaker system, although I confess I am rarely in one place long enough to use it...! When I am at home, I tend to like carrying music around the house with me as I move from room to room, so will often connect my phone to a bluetooth speaker and just take it with me. I also have a record player in my office in Cambridge which I love using - I’ve always loved the physical act of getting the record out the sleeve, putting it in the player and placing the needle on the record. I feel the same about CDs!
Finally, have you got any exciting upcoming projects that people should look (or listen!) out for?
I’m really excited to be doing some more work with orchestras this year - being an organist can be a little bit of a lonely pursuit, so I always love the chance to work closely with other musicians! I’ve got concerto performances coming up with the Hallé, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and London Mozart Players, so it’s going to be a fun year! I’ve also got a new Christmas CD coming out with the choirs at Pembroke - it’s one I’m really proud of with 3 pieces written by the Girl Choristers and 2 written by current members of the Chapel Choir. It explores the gritty intensity of Advent which I’ve always loved, but there are also some exquisitely beautiful Christmas classics. I love curating albums as a real listening journey, designed to be listened to from start to finish - I think this is my favourite journey yet, so I can’t wait to see what people think of it.
Many thanks to Anna and her team for taking the time to organise and complete the interview, we've loved getting to know more about the work Anna does, her life as a professional organist, and her interests outside of the classical music world.
Stay tuned for our next interview, and do leave a comment if you have enjoyed getting to know Anna Lapwood!
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