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Bridget Halpe and Peradeniya singers on producing new music:

The music will go on

When I went to interview Bridget Halpe at 'Varama', the beautiful tranquil abode of the Halpes, she had just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of her marriage to Prof. Ashley Halpe. The house is a treasure trove of paintings and other artefacts bearing testimony to the artistic creativity of the Halpe family and tokens of Halpe's deep involvement in music, with which she has lived from her sixth year.

In the following interview, she speaks of Peradeniya Singers, her brainchild choral group she continues to direct from 1962, taking over from its founder, Robin Mayhead.

How did Peradeniya Singers begin?

The group began in 1953, with efforts from Robin Mayhead, a lecturer of English from the University of Cambridge. He was devoted to classical music and got together a group of enthusiastic University people at the university of Ceylon, Peradeniya, where we graduated. When my husband and I were students, we participated in this small choir group called the University Group, under Robin Mayhead's guidance. Later, he left the country. My husband and I went to England for post graduate studies and returned in 1962. Some singers of the choir were any way Christians who went to church services and sang. We had what was called the Newman Society, a Catholic group, which used to sing very complicated music, even in church services. We had a fine group of singers. Claver Perera, the priest, and Ray Forbes, Fred Ludowycke, Monica Ludowycke, Bernie Marcelline, Rene Malawana, my husband and myself.

Ashley and Bridget Halpe

We did not do any public concerts, nor did Robin Mayhead. It was like an extra curricular activity. In 1962, I thought I will continue the University Singers doing serious and complicated music, with the experience I had in England from 1959 to 1962. I received my licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music (LRAM) in pianoforte performance which was a coveted diploma and met world standards. I also did the B. Mus course at the University of Bristol. Singing in many concerts and very specific choirs like the Paragon Choir and another select choir in the Bristol University, I gathered music. I thought why cannot our people sing that music. Sri Lankans are very talented. It is simply that some of them lack the focus because they are so desperate to make ends meet. They feel that music is a subject of leisure and do not realize its value. On a personal, psychological and community level, what you sing is not for yourself. It is a musical message to be shared by listeners and you, the singer. There is a famous saying, He who sings, prays twice over The spirituality of singing is being twice blessed. Choral music is a very demanding art.

Do Peradeniya Singers sing only choral music?

Yes. After Robin Mayhead left, I continued. It was attended very keenly, but gradually, through the years, the students who came to the University found that singing took time away from their business of cramming. They quietly dropped out. Perhaps my move to a distant place like this (Kandy), made it difficult for students to come. Singing was a vital part of their personality development, but they wanted to be focused only on cramming, studying and passing their exams. They do not see the wider picture of being a wholesome human being. I have been directing the choir. My daughter in Colombo, Haasini Halpe Andree, performs as an Assistant Director. She trains the members in Colombo. I train the bulk of the choir in and around Kandy. Once the University involvement became less I thought the best thing was to rename it Peradeniya Singers but there is a lot of grumbling from the members because it is not only Peradeniya.

How many members are there in the group?

Roughly about 40. We sing for the pure love of singing, not for money. I had a few sad instances where parents refused to send their children because there was no money in it. What we do, we do fundamentally to develop the community. Every song we sing is a message, a theme. It can touch somebody in a special way, if you do it well. That is why we always sing for charity. That gives us an added happiness or thrill.

How often do you sing?

Minimum twice a year. We just finished a concert for the Cuban Embassy. Whoever invites us, we are willing to sing. Alliance Francaise gave us sufficient funding to help the deaf and blind. Our concert projects have been deaf and dumb, deaf and blind, HIV/AIDS, Oxford University scholarship, cancer and Sadaham Dehena which is a cultural program for underprivileged children. After our overheads of travel and feeding the crowds are covered, we have this extra money, which is not given to the students. They have to learn to give.

Do you sing only serious and complicated music?

Yes. God has given me some talent through which I received exposure from England, America, Australia and Germany. I have been to these countries and sung in their choirs. In our last concert, we sang music from a Pharsee called Dravidian Dithyramb, a song of praise. What better time than today, when we are not thinking of a conquest of Tamils but a conquest of terrorism, to give this tribute to the Dravidian people. It is a song where you use the drum beats in words, nana nana thinthak, thana nana thinthak. It is accompanied by thabla, and we sing just that.

What are the upcoming events of Peradeniya Singers?

The next is the Christmas concert, which too will be for some charity.

Who are the members of Peradeniya Singers?

A variety of people. Prof. Ashley Halpe is the oldest University member. There are other professors, people who have been abroad and expats who love to sing in the choir. I do not sing soul or gospel music. I leave that to people like Soundari David. Some sing pop like Ruvini Seimon. Revelations too, are doing a very good job. But their music is not of the same musically demanding level like ours. We take very challenging works of advanced choral repertoire. There are tricky dissonances and timings. A very famous examiner of the Royal School of Music attended our Jubilee concert in 2003. She was full of high praise.

Who are your audiences?

In a way you can say, the elite. I try to put in a little pop to my music to dilute it but that is why I have a very limited audience. They are people who know the seriousness and the challenges of the music I do. A lot of my music students have 'voice' as one of their subjects. I encourage most of my students go into choir singing because singing is a discipline of listening first and foremost. You listen and give your contribution both simultaneously. That is the vital difference of choral singing in this kind of music. We are reading from a score, seriously printed music by the composers. I try to do some Sinhala and Tamil items during Christmas time particularly, and have my own harmonies and arrangements.

What is the Sri Lankan response to good classical music?

It is a bit of a hybrid situation in the sense that we have the serious elite that think of Western classics which I would say is the smallest coterie. At the other end, pop is the most popular and they get audiences and money. I feel that kind of music is big today and gone tomorrow. It does not last like the classics and the great masterpieces. We have just sung Verdi's Requiem which is a huge undertaking and required a classical music understanding.

Is it only a select crowd that comes to your concerts?

People have asked me why I do not bring my music down to the level of common people. There are others who can do it. Why should I? I have my little talent and that is to educate people in the new genres of good classical choral singing. I mean classical in the broader sense, not in that narrow sense that denotes a period but classical as opposed to pop. There are lots of other choral groups that sing a variety of items from pop to classical.

Is this field competitive?

No. I have taught my kids to sing with me. If it does not clash with my program, I say, go and sing in anyone's group. But I am afraid a lot of other choristers and choir trainers feel competitive.

What are your plans for the future?

I have obtained from an Austrian Professor of music some new choral Christmas items and want to try my hand at them. My choristers can sing German, French, Italian, Sinhala and Tamil. In the United States, I was introduced to the beautiful choral works of Joshua Jacobson, from the Sephardic Jewish community that dispersed with the attacks on them.


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