In conversation with Clare Wilkinson

This month Mezzo Soprano Clare Wilkinson joins the SCO as one of the soloists in Nelson Mass, which is performed in both Edinburgh (28 February) and Glasgow (1 March). We caught up with Clare to hear more about what's in store at these concerts...

Nelson MassWhat can you tell us about Haydn’s Nelson Mass and what is it about the piece that you particularly enjoy? What should audiences look out for in the upcoming performances?

The ‘Nelson’ Mass or ‘Missa in Angustiis’ (‘Mass in Troubled Times’) of 1798 has been described as Haydn’s greatest piece. Its use of a dark key of D minor, martial dotted rhythms for trumpets and timpani, and desperate, pleading ‘Kyrie’ is perhaps a response to Austria’s struggles against Napoleon - the piece was written when he was on the attack against Austria and Britain, and had even crossed the Alps to threaten Vienna. Troubled times indeed.

Shortly before the first performance of the Mass, Nelson had dealt Napoleon a massive defeat in the Battle of the Nile, and although Haydn cannot have known this while he was writing the piece, it came to be associated with the victor. The alternative title was set in stone when Nelson came to Esterhazy in 1800, and may well have heard the Mass.

The Mass has happy associations for me, as we studied it in our class of three for Music A-level. We listened to it over and over again, analysed the structure, talked about why we liked it, and in the end organised a performance with the school choir and orchestra. For me, the highlight of the piece is the virtuosic writing for the soprano soloist and the violins, who caper about in the stratosphere in effervescent semiquavers and triplets. As an alto, my part is much more simple - but that leaves all the more mental space to appreciate the feats of Elizabeth [Watts, Soprano] and our violinist colleagues.

Keep an ear open for the organ, which Haydn uses to create rich, sonorous sounds reminiscent of a wind section. Haydn’s patron had been forced to dismiss the wind octet shortly before this piece was written, so the organ plays a particularly important role in the texture.

The choir has a really challenging role in this piece. Indeed the sopranos of the choir scale heights not even reached by the soprano soloist - watch out for their top B in the Gloria. Listen out too for the old-fashioned strict canon in the Credo, lifted and transformed into something new by Haydn’s filigree violin writing.

You last performed with the SCO in 2011 in A Christmas Oratorio. What is it you enjoy about singing with the SCO and what are you looking forward to most about your return visit to Scotland?

I always love making music with friends I have worked with a lot over the years - David Watkin, Sijie Chen and Peter Whelan, to name but a few, are fantastic players (David has a dual career as a conductor, too) and are such lovely people. The Orchestra has a real spark of virtuosity that sets them apart. The choir has gone from strength to strength in recent years under Gregory Batsleer’s direction and is on absolutely top form! I can’t wait to hear them get their teeth into this juicy choral writing. Both choir and orchestra are incredibly friendly, helpful and welcoming.

In the past you have also enjoyed stage work - do you have a favourite operatic role? Is there an operatic role that you would love to perform but haven’t had the opportunity as yet?

Handel is wonderful to sing, and I have been lucky enough to take on both his ‘Galateas’. I am a big fan of small scale stage work, with the satisfactions of chamber music, and a role I would love to sing one day is Holst’s ‘Savitri’. The beautiful Eastern story (from the Mahabharata) of love’s triumph over death is so touching set in Holst’s modal English style.

Many musicians have a routine that they go through before a performance. Do you have any pre-concert rituals?

Finding a peaceful mental place before a concert is vital, but it can be difficult. Being organised with practicalities is important - making sure I’ve eaten well, but not too heavily, and not too soon before the concert; having had enough water and enough sleep. If the concert is a tough one vocally, I try to keep quiet beforehand, and perhaps have a short sleep.

Of course there’s the ritual of the dress, hair and make-up, which is quite fun. Apart from that, I find it’s best not to think too much when it comes to the concert day; the hard work has been done beforehand, and going over difficult passages endlessly only causes stress. I try to let go and enjoy the music!

The passing of time can be measured by the moving hands of a clock or by the beats in a bar of music. Every time I take part in music-making, I feel how lucky I am to be measuring out so much of my life in that way.