Celestial Dawn

Celestial Dawn

When it comes to championing diversity and inclusion in classical music, there are few more passionate advocates than Anna Lapwood. The concert organist, conductor, and broadcaster can speak on the subject with total conviction—and is practicing what she preaches by making real change happen. Her new choral album, Celestial Dawn, proves that in spades. The first full recording by her Pembroke College Girls’ Choir, Celestial Dawn is a heartwarming example of what can be achieved by dedication, teamwork, and the inspiration of an intelligent and compassionate leader. Its tonal beauty and repertoire breadth are all the more remarkable given that the choir of 11- to 18-year-olds, launched in 2018 with the purpose of giving local girls a chance to sing in a Cambridge University college, spent 10 months rehearsing online in the lead-up to the recording sessions. “The age range spans such a crucial time in their lives, going through puberty and changes of schools,” Lapwood tells Apple Music. “I’ve found having the 11-year-olds being able to talk that through and watch it happen with their friends and colleagues in the safe space of choir to be really valuable socially as well as musically.” Celestial Dawn grew naturally from the girls’ regular work in Pembroke Chapel and occasional appearances alongside the college Chapel Choir’s choral scholars, and offers a vibrant snapshot of what Pembroke’s girls sing at Evensong. Its full tracklist reflects Lapwood’s drive to expand the horizons of her choir’s repertoire by including music by a woman and/or a piece by an ethnic-minority composer in every service. There’s room on the recording for the meandering chromatic harmonies of Lili Boulanger’s “Pie Jesu,” the folklike charm of James Devor’s “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” and the wholesome “Magnificat” and “Nunc Dimittis” of Ben Parry’s Ely Canticles. The mix also includes “O Perfect Love” by African American composer Henry Thacker Burleigh, a pioneer of American classical music, as well as jazz-infused works by Johnny Dankworth, Wayne Marshall, and Ben Ponniah; contemplative anthems by Roxanna Panufnik, Lennox Berkeley, and John Ireland; Eric Whitacre’s “The Seal Lullaby”; and Kristina Arakelyan’s “You Know Me,” which was written specially for the girls. “If you listen to young people’s conversations about the importance of diversity and inclusivity, and they turn up to a choir and don’t see that same diversity and inclusivity represented, they’ll pick up on that and say, ‘Hang on a minute. Why is this exempt?’” says Lapwood. “Why should this exist in a world where we don’t hold people to account and have these slightly difficult conversations?” When she introduced her choristers to “O Perfect Love” and told them that Henry Burleigh was the first African American composer of art song, it created a genuine buzz among the young singers, she adds. In return, Lapwood’s Pembroke girls introduced her to the marvels of TikTok. Several hundred short videos later, she became the “TikTok organist.” “It’s a place where you can speak as intellectually as you want about whatever fascinates you!” says Lapwood. Appointed in 2016, Anna Lapwood became the youngest-ever director of music of an Oxbridge college at just 21. And her schedule since, with its high-profile organ recitals and plans as one of the Royal Albert Hall’s new generation of associate artists, suggests that two rehearsals and one Choral Evensong with her girls’ choir each week during term time must rank low on her priority pecking order. Lapwood suggests otherwise. “There’s something about those rehearsals that gives me so much energy. No matter how bad a day I’ve had, I come out flying! I think that tells you you’re in the right job, right?”

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