Handel's Messiah: Former Jesuan Chorister looks back at his time in the Choir
Former chorister Alasdair Austin returns as alto soloist for the Combined Choirs’ concert Messiah with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields
On 9 December, we’ll be joined by a line-up of stellar soloists as well as the Academy of St Martin in the Fields for the Combined Choirs’ seasonal performance of Handel’s Messiah. We’re delighted that Alasdair Austin, countertenor, and a former chorister of Jesus, will be returning as alto soloist for this festive performance. Alasdair was a chorister at Jesus from 2006 to 2014, under the direction of Daniel Hyde and then Mark Williams. He later took up a choral scholarship at Peterborough Cathedral, before studying Human, Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge and joining the Choir of St John’s College. In the summer of 2023, Alasdair joined the award-winning British vocal ensemble The Gesualdo Six. Here, we catch up with Alasdair about his time as a chorister at Jesus, what he loves about Messiah, and what he’s up to these days.
What is your favourite memory of your time at Jesus? Did you have a favourite piece?
I have many, many fond memories from my chorister days. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful group of friends in the Choir, friendships which were strengthened by the varied and exciting opportunities we were offered as choristers. During my time in the Choir, we toured the US twice — on one occasion being stranded, albeit rather comfortably in a four-star hotel, in D.C. — gave concerts across Europe, recorded CDs and performed some of the great choral works. Indeed, it is Bach’s St Matthew Passion that really caught my imagination. Long before I realised I was myself a countertenor, I vividly remember being wrapped in the aria ‘Erbarme dich’ when the Choir was fortunate enough to join forces with King’s College Choir. That magisterial piece combined with the awesome sense of occasion that performing in King’s Chapel offers means it must go down as a highlight from my time.
How do you think your time as a chorister has shaped you?
Gosh, I am confident in saying that few things in life have shaped me more than my seven years as a chorister at Jesus. It was where I received the lion’s share of musical education as a child, which would provide me with the skills and confidence for life beyond chorister-hood! It was a wonderful foundation which afforded me amazing musical opportunities through school, university and now work. You don’t realise it in the moment, but the expectations made of us were exceptionally high – often that of professional musicians. Although a rigorous, disciplined education, Daniel and Mark instilled in us a love for music. They thought it important that we had a connection to the music we were singing and never to see it as just notes. It is not surprising to find my chorister contemporaries today pursuing music either professionally (and many are) or just for fun.
Did you perform Messiah as a chorister?
The first time I heard the Messiah performed was in 2007. Shortly after I started as a chorister, the Combined Choirs sang Messiah in Great St Mary’s, with Daniel Hyde at the helm. I’m not sure what 8-year-old Alasdair offered to the corporate sound, but I remember that the sight of junior probationers Alasdair and Nico (Bryan) waddling into position during the rehearsal elicited a number of “Awws” from the Choral Scholars behind us.
You’ve recently joined The Gesualdo Six – congratulations! What does life as a pro singer look like for you at the moment and what do you hope comes next?
I am living my new life where singing is my job! Having graduated in June, I started out with the group in July making my debut with a madrigal programme that was part of the BBC Proms. Since then, our schedule has been varied, taking in a range of different performances – from a 16th-century programme of English Motets, to a programme designed around solo trumpet, to ‘Secret Byrd’ where we perform a clandestine Byrd Mass for Five Voices as though we are a part of the catholic counterreformation. I am also tremendously fortunate to be able to travel as much as I do with my new job – we recently toured the United States for three weeks and are soon to embark on a tour of The Netherlands and France before Christmas. The group is only getting more and more busy, with lots of exciting trips and projects planned for 2024. Alongside my Gesualdo Six work, I hope to grow my solo work in 2024. Now I have shaken off those supervision essays I can finally spend some time on expanding my singing repertoire!
Do you have any advice for young singers?
At university, I found that the best way to sing the music I wanted to perform was to organise the projects myself. I have always been interested in being in a Handel opera, so in 2022 I helped put on a production of Semele with Cambridge University Opera Society. Likewise, one of my favourite pieces is Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, so I got some of my best mates together, worked on it over the week and performed it in concert. My advice to anyone who is interested in music is to get together with your friends and make music for fun. You learn most and perform at your best when you are comfortable in your surroundings, so get a group of friends together and go through some music you find interesting or exciting.