Monks' passion

This year's Felicia Blumental Festival features a young musician who caught the 'conducting bug.'

Christopher Monks 88 298 (photo credit: )
Christopher Monks 88 298
(photo credit: )
'I only program concerts of music that...I would desperately want to go," says Christopher Monks, the 33-year-old conductor who will open the Felicia Blumental Festival on May 14 with his Armonico Consort Ensemble. The young musician will be conducting a mass and premiering "Dixit Dominus" (Thus Sayeth the Lord) by Francesco Scarlatti (1666-after 1741), the long neglected younger brother of Alessandro and uncle of Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757). The following evening he and the consort - without the orchestra this time - will present the requiem mass by composer Tomas Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), regarded as the greatest Spanish composer of his time. Both works "are very special to me," he says. "The two Scarlatti pieces are truly spectacular with 16 individual voice parts...Audiences adore them. I was the first to record them in 2003...I recorded the Victoria requiem just when my father died, which had a profound effect on me. Composed just over 400 years ago, it still leaves an audience breathless and is generally regarded as the last great work of polyphony." Polyphony can be said to define the Armonico Consort Ensemble, a 16-strong vocal consort that often works with an orchestral ensemble playing on period instruments. Monks says that Armonico evolved gradually while he was working as acting music director of a church in Warwick, a historic town in central England. In 2001 Armonico went professional, giving its first and very successful concert with soprano Emma Kirkby who has since become a patron, as has percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie whose association with Armonico began with a series of concerts in 2004. Armonico's first love was, and remains, the Renaissance and Baroque, but since their work with Glennie "we'll perform whatever we think we will do well and want to sing." One of the things Monks has done well, and that keeps getting better, is his Armonico Education program that brings music and opera in English (another very successful Armonico venture), to some 15,000 children a year in schools all across the country. Monks began the program because of a visit to a local primary school that had had no musical education for about four years. "So rather than getting up on a soap box, and wasting time and money [campaigning], we just started up with what we thought was a good idea. The only way this is achievable is through our brilliant team. They are the inspiring ones, not me." MONKS WAS born "the same day as Victoria Beckham," on April 17, 1974. He grew up in the Midlands town of Solihull, a town not too far from Birmingham. There wasn't much money in the family and "my mother baked wedding cakes to make ends meet." Musically gifted, Monks was offered an organ scholarship at Solihull School and went on from there to study music at Cambridge University. It was at Cambridge Monks met his wife who was a choral scholar at Trinity College at the time. He proposed to her in a boat on the River Cam and the couple was married at Winchester Cathedral where Monks had been offered a post as one of the organists after his graduation. He stayed at Winchester for two years. During this time he studied conducting, and still does, with David Hill, the world-renowned choral director who was the cathedral's music director at the time. It was then, even though he'd been conducting off and on since age 14, that "I really caught the choral and conducting bug. To this day, David Hill is still the most inspiring and exciting musician I have ever worked with. He lit the flame inside me which still burns. "The thing I love about conducting is the bringing together of many people who love what they are doing [in order] to form one idea. Collective passion is the most important thing anyone can achieve from a group in a performance. "I have always enjoyed working with people and when you train as a keyboard player, it is a very solitary existence sometimes, and whilst I love that too, there was a side of me itching to get out and share my ideas with others." The ninth Felicia Blumental International Music Festival from May 14-19 celebrates the 250th anniversary of Domenico Scarlatti. The festival offers a rich and varied program of movies, music and theater, including Nordic Voices with a program of eight centuries of sacred and secular music from Norway and other Scandinavian countries. All events are at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.