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An interview with Steven Grahl

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Steven Grahl, Organist and Tutor in MusicSteven Grahl is a sought-after conductor and keyboard player, Conductor of Schola Cantorum of Oxford and President of the Incorporated Association of Organists. He served as Director of Music at Peterborough Cathedral from 2014-2018, where he was responsible for training the Cathedral Choir.

Steven arrived at Christ Church a month ago. So after a (somewhat brief) period of time to work it out for himself, I asked him what his new job involves…

Steven: I’m the Organist and Tutor in Music, one of two Tutors here at Christ Church, and I’m also an Associate Professor of Music within the Faculty. As with many jobs in Oxford it’s a joint college and faculty post. The third strand of my work is directing the music in the Cathedral.

When it comes to the Cathedral my main work is with the Cathedral Choir who are a mixture of school children, University students, and professional musicians. There are usually sixteen boy choristers, six Academical Clerks (who are undergraduates and who are also known as Choral Scholars), and six Lay Clerks (professional singers), plus one or two undergraduate Organ Scholars and one professional organist.

It’s a wonderful opportunity for young musicians to perform on an almost daily basis and at a very high level. By the time a Senior Organ Scholar leaves Christ Church, for instance, he or she is not only able to play at a high level, but is also a flexible accompanist, understands how a Cathedral works, has experience of training choristers, has done a bit of theory teaching, and all that as well as gaining their degree. The daily Cathedral music-making is very demanding and involves a significant time commitment. But it’s a great way to develop performance technique and the capacity to read music.

Emily: So what is your role in all of this?

Steven: My official title in the Cathedral is ‘Organist’, and it’s slightly odd because in practice my role is much more like a Director of Music, but the title stems from the fact that choirs weren’t always conducted.

As for the academic side, I shall be teaching Techniques in Composition and Keyboard Skills in College and this year lecturing in Keyboard Skills and also Choral Conducting.

Emily: The fact that you teach Choral Conducting is one way that the two parts of this post fit together, but what about beyond that?

Steven: One of the things that attracted me to come here was the prospect of returning to University teaching. The Academical Clerks in the choir are undergraduate students, some of whom read Music, so there is some daily interaction with those students on a practical and also academic level. That’s important, I think.

The choir will also, inevitably, feature in my own research and so those two aspects feed one another. But running a Cathedral choir is not a job for someone who wants to be a fossil: whilst this daily singing is a wonderful tradition, the refreshing and maintaining of it is not for someone who wants to live in the past. For example, we might one day be singing a piece by John Taverner [1490-1545], who was the first Organist at Christ Church (and I have to say that when I conduct his work here it has a certain special quality to it), and then the next day we might be singing something written very recently, as we did last week when we performed a piece by David Maw, one of our College Lecturers in Music.

There is a huge breadth of repertoire, and the richness of this music for Christian worship is significant. But it has got to speak to people, and to be offered in a way that connects with them, and in that sense to be ‘relevant’.

Steven Grahl conducts the Cathedral ChoirEmily: You’ve been in post for a month now. What are your observations so far?

Steven: I suppose my first observation is how welcoming and friendly everyone’s been, that’s been really nice: my colleagues in the SCR and on Governing Body, and all the Cathedral staff, have been immensely friendly and supportive. I’ve been really struck by that. Not to mention how fortunate I am to have Florence, my PA, who is a great source of wisdom and a great help in all things.

I’ve enjoyed working with the boys - I’ve probably spent more time doing that than anything else. In an average week I have 21 hours of contact time with the choir so that’s quite a significant portion of my time. I am deeply grateful to Stephen Darlington who has not only done a wonderful job here and left a very tight ship, but who has also been incredibly supportive in the handover process. I actually can’t imagine how he could have been more helpful!

As for particular highlights, in a sense when you’re engaged in the daily round of prayer and worship it’s important that every day has a certain special quality. Unlike a concert or a recording, where you prepare a small group of pieces for months in advance, this is something you rehearse over a couple of days and then it’s done. But we are striving to make every service, in its own way, special. Because if you don’t try to find that quality each day then it’s not a good offering of worship, and it’s our job to try and offer something that’s as good as it can possibly be.

Emily: What difference do you think it makes that the Cathedral is also a College Chapel?

Steven: The building and, by extension from the building, the community around it is broader, more diverse, more multifaceted because of that dual identity. The choir is an educative outfit so in that sense we fit absolutely – neatly – within the auspices of College as well as the Cathedral. And I think the ministry of the College Chaplaincy is very important.

We also have a College Choir, made up members of Christ Church and other colleges, which usually sings Evensong on Monday nights, often supported by members of the Cathedral Choir. This year the College Choir is being directed by two of the Academical Clerks, and the Senior Organ Scholar ran the choir last year. So there is a nice overlap in that sense: a very strong network which reaches beyond the bounds of the Cathedral Choir itself.

Emily: I know it’s only been a month, but do you have already a vision for what the future might look like?

Steven: I have lots of ideas, but I don’t think I’m ready to tell them yet! Clearly, the daily liturgies are central to what we do. Not only is it our main output but it’s also the oil that allows machinery to work, so to speak. We couldn’t achieve such a high standard in concert if the choir didn’t sing together every day. And maintaining and developing the reputation of the Cathedral Choir for musical excellence is always going to be important, whatever form that takes.

Emily: Before I let you go, tell us why this job: why Christ Church?

Steven: I’ve talked a lot about why the Cathedral aspect of this job matters, but the academic side is equally important to me: dealing with students in College and in the Faculty is absolutely central to the work I do, and the interface between the Cathedral’s daily music making and my own academic research will, I hope, be very fruitful.

This is actually the third Oxford Choral Foundation I’ve worked in: I was an Organ Scholar at Magdalen, Assistant Organist at New College, and now Cathedral Organist here. I have huge affection for the places where I’ve worked before, but my colleagues tell me I’ve arrived in the right place. I look forward to discovering all the ways in which that’s true.