Hamish McLaren, countertenor

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Definitely James Bowman. When I was 11 or 12 and my voice was beginning to break, my mother developed a suspiciously well-timed habit of playing a lot of CDs featuring countertenors when we were in the car together. I was irritated that my treble voice was curdling into something horrifically adolescent, and hearing artists like James Bowman or Michael Chance sing Purcell and Bach for the first time was a captivating experience for me. It gave me some hope that the raucous goose like noises that my baritone voice was producing at the time did not have to be my fate forever. I was extremely lucky that my school had a particularly good music department, and by fluke my singing teacher was himself a countertenor. When I mentioned that I would like to try singing in falsetto he was incredibly supportive, and moreover he had the patience and insight not to panic and discourage me when my raw, untested falsetto inevitably produced some truly agonising squeals in my first lesson as a countertenor. A year or so later my excellent head of music invited James Bowman to come and give a masterclass at which I tentatively sang a famous Dowland song called “Flow my tears”, and he very kindly made something of a fuss over my performance which was deeply embarrassing but also incredibly flattering and exhilarating. I recall being in a giddy state after that masterclass and deciding on the spot to try and be a musician.

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

My career only really began per se when I left university and started studying at music college in late 2016, so thankfully I have been spared anything truly daunting so far. I do have the usual collection of audition horror stories that luckily did not prove completely disastrous; the night before my music college auditions my tonsils launched an impeccably timed rebellion. The next day I had to sing through both tonsils swollen up and literally oozing blood which was as gross as it sounds. I went to a GP in a panic after the auditions and when he looked inside my mouth, he very drily summed it up by saying “It’s a bit of car crash in there.” I did see the funny side in time! Luckily, I still somehow managed to secure a place at music college, but it was a deeply worrying day. More seriously I would have to say that rather predictably coronavirus has been quite challenging professionally. I had just secured my first professional opera contracts when the pandemic started, and it was rather deflating when first the London performance, and then the German performances of this production had to be cancelled. However, I was luckier than most because the opera company was able to reschedule the production to 2022, so with a bit of luck I will eventually perform that role.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I think that I am most proud of an obscure Shostakovich song that I was fortunate enough to record the world première of for a project at music college; a project which eventually, amazingly evolved into my debut CD. The song itself is called “Desdemona’s Romance”, and while its not the most astonishing or virtuosic song I’ve ever encountered (that would be Schumann’s “Belsazar” or Purcell’s “Lord, What is Man?”), the fact that Matthew Jorysz (a really fantastic pianist) and I were able to make the first recording of this song completely astonishes and humbles me. Shostakovich has been my music idol (alongside Bowie) since I first heard his symphonies (and tormented a violin in his 5th at school) and string quartets aged 15, so I never dared imagine I would be so incredibly fortunate to be able to release a premiere recording of one of his songs, especially as “countertenor” and “Shostakovich” hardly ever appear in the same sentence! The piece itself is also immensely fun to perform because the vocal line is a romp of huge legato phrases that undulate along in a deeply satisfying manner, while the piano meshes in and out with a series of thick plangent chords, almost as if it were a guitar or balalaika strumming.

Which particular works do you think you perform best?

I think the songs which I feel the most comfortable and natural performing are the Britten realisations of Purcell. They do tend to divide listeners in a Marmite fashion, but for me I find the eccentric fusion of 20th century and baroque writing intoxicating. Added to this I love the freedom implied by both the florid vocal lines and the almost improvised, hugely virtuosic piano writing. Moreover, the texts that Purcell sets are incredibly rich in powerful imagery. The Harmonia Sacra especially have such dramatic, fire and brimstone texts by authors such as Bishop William Fuller that they feel almost like miniature oratorios or even operas. I studied mostly 17th century history at university, so I have a vague feel for the revolutionary context and turmoil that lurks behind these songs, and that renders them all the more exhilarating to perform.

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I read (and binge watch) a lot of history and historical fiction/series, and since most Handel operas are at least loosely (sometimes hilariously so) based on historical figures and events, this hobby quite often slots in surprisingly well. It feels a bit bizarre to draw the comparison, but in the first lockdown I re-watched the superb HBO/BBC two season series “Rome”. Towards the end of the first season Caesar (brilliantly portrayed by Ciarán Hinds) is presented with the head of his bitter rival but also father-in-law Pompey soon after he arrives in Alexandria. Caesar absolutely explodes with Jovian, terrifying rage at the clumsy act of misguided flattery on the part of Ptolemy. Hinds’ astonishingly powerful and intense performance during this encounter is deeply impressive. Every time I sing the corresponding aria “Empio, dirò, tu sei” from Handel’s “Giulio Cesare in Egitto”, I have his cold, maniacal fury in the back of my mind.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I try to follow a theme or a common thread between projects. For example, at music college I spent a fair amount of time exploring songs by Vítězslava Kaprálová for a recital of women composers for the Bloomsbury Festival, and that naturally drew me on to perform pieces by her contemporary Lili Boulanger, and then in turn the shared Parisian link prompted me to learn several early pieces by Georges Enescu and so on. I find it helpful to create some sort of unspoken dialogue or narrative between pieces so that any inspiration or insight I might have had in previous performances has a chance to inflect and grow in my current repertoire choices and performances. Of course, as a countertenor I try to keep a foot firmly planted in baroque repertoire too, so any exploration I undertake is always alongside a permanent continuo of Handel, Bach, and Purcell.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

This is a bit of a cheat as I only sang there once; it was as part of the Monteverdi Choir not as a soloist, but the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona is so lovely. I’d love to be able to perform there again. The architecture is so characterful and mad, and the acoustic on stage varies enormously if you shift around, its wonderfully versatile.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?

I have a hunch (admittedly far from original!) that ever closer engagement with digital media is probably the way to go. I was recently lucky enough to be involved in a small way in an English Touring Opera project which reimagined Handel’s opera Amadigi into an animated film aimed at children. The music was all brilliantly adapted and recomposed, there was an amazing (and hilarious!) new English libretto, and the whole project just felt so relevant and apt. Opera in particular sadly struggles to throw off the cliché of being seen as the quintessentially elitist art form, and I think the quickest way to dispel this toxic misnomer is to repackage it in an undaunting form which people (particularly children) can access casually at home online from a sofa, and which puts it in the same category as Netflix etc. Hopefully lockdown and the online streaming frenzy that came with it has turbocharged this trend. Classical music folded into film has always had immense appeal and power, so it makes sense to capitalise on that. I remember seeing the last Bond film (Spectre) in the cinema while at university, and I was delighted and deeply amused when in one scene Bond does his suave thing killing and seducing all over the shop, while in the background the French countertenor Jaroussky (I think it was him…) sang a haunting baroque aria! I have no idea which opera or oratorio the aria was from, but its mad to think how many ears that piece reached and intrigued courtesy of it being included in the film.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

When I was studying at the Royal Academy all the singers were asked to form a massive chorus for a performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony”. Most of the countertenors demurred due to clashes or because they very reasonably enough pointed out that Mahler’s muscular alto lines and falsetto voices used to Bach were not a natural or even painless pairing. A few of us clung on, lurking in the shadows, and hoping no one thought twice and fired us! I’d sung in the children’s chorus of Mahler’s 8th symphony as a teenager but being part of something so massive as an adult was really cool. The conductor (Semyon Bychkov) was so inspiring, and the two performances in the Royal Festival Hall and the Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy were utterly mesmerising, even for such a tiny and incongruous cog that I was! I have rarely been buffeted by so much awesome, close quarters brass playing.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

In the current rather drab context its simply being able to stay motivated and pay the bills, in more healthy times the more I can engage with audiences, and ideally introduce them to more obscure repertoire, the more successful I feel. Also touring – especially abroad – is probably the most fulfilling experience I can think of. Just before the pandemic I was lucky enough to take part in a Monteverdi Choir tour to South America, and to be able to perform Scarlatti in Montevideo of all places made me feel like I had won the lottery twice over. It also helped that I love naval history, and that city hosts some interesting artefacts from the Battle of the River Plate…

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Again, it’s something of a well-worn cliché, but I would say curiosity and flexibility. I rather stubbornly and obsessively pursued obscure song at music college, and while in many ways I did myself a disservice by appearing to be disinterested in baroque music (of course I’m not!), in the end I have ended up with a wonderfully eclectic collection of unusual, poignant, but crucially also amusing pieces to deploy at the end of recitals. In retrospect I wish I had ticked a few more conventional repertoire boxes and jumped through a few more hoops, but on the plus side I now have a song by Vítězslava Kaprálová about various birds screaming “Happy Christmas” in Czech. It only lasts for one minute, but it is pure Central European joy in feathery form. Prove you can perform the core/popular repertoire but try not to limit yourself to it unnecessarily.

What is your most treasured possession?

My aunt and uncle visited the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Somehow and somewhere (I think Leningrad?) and for God knows what reason they acquired a fake red velvet, equally fake gold braid, double sided soviet propaganda banner which weighs a tonne. They very kindly gave it to me when I was fourteen, and it has been my absurdly inappropriate and ridiculous bedspread ever since. It even made an appearance on stage as a prop (and about 70% of the set) for a Shostakovich operetta I performed in at university. Its so tacky and over the top, but I love it none the less.

Hamish’s debut album Sphinx is released on 7 May on the Orchid Classics label. Recorded with the pianist Matthew Jorysz, the CD explores Russian and Soviet art song, and includes première recordings of Shostakovich, Myaskovksy, and Elena Firsova. More information

Hamish McLaren graduated from St. John’s College, Cambridge with a BA and an MPhil in History and Early Modern History in the summer of 2016. During his time as an undergraduate and graduate student at St. John’s, Hamish sang both as a choral scholar and as a lay clerk in the Choir of St. John’s College Cambridge under Andrew Nethsingha.

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