Helen Brinkman caught up with bass singer and choral conductor Chalium Poppy to talk about his busy musical life and upcoming concerts with Scholars Baroque Aotearoa and NZ Barok.
Chalium, when did you know that you wanted to be a professional musician?
I’m not certain I could possibly pinpoint an exact moment in my life when I consciously made that decision. I never actually considered myself to be that talented. Looking back, I think it was actually at the encouragement of others that I really pursued a career in music. That being said, music, in one form or another, has been a significant part of my life from an extremely young age. I couldn’t really imagine myself doing much else. So, on some level, I suppose I always knew that music would feature as one of the more prominent threads in my life story.
You’ve had an incredible international career. What made you choose Tauranga, NZ as your home base?
That’s an interesting story. I never really chose Tauranga (or Aotearoa, for that matter) as my home. I suppose one could say, it chose me.
I was living and working in Canada 14 years ago when quite unexpectedly, I met a beautiful, charming, and wonderfully handsome kiwi chap who was on his O.E. It was on a Sunday afternoon in an Irish pub. I had stopped in for lunch. I was between services at the cathedral just up the road. The morning services had just finished and I had about two hours before I needed to be back to prepare for Evensong. It was love at first sight and a whirlwind romance. Within weeks Michael and I were engaged and within a few short months we were married.
Michael’s family home is Mount Maunganui. He grew up here. He was on a temporary visa in Canada, so we eventually needed to come to a decision about where we would ultimately make our home. Michael couldn’t see himself living so far away from his family for any great period of time, so the decision was relatively simple and quick for us to make. We were married in February and arrived in June.
I honestly fell deeply in love with Mount Maunganui the moment I arrived. It’s such a special place. I knew this would be our new home. Shortly thereafter I found the beautiful stone church of St. Peter’s and that became my spiritual home in New Zealand.
How did Scholars Baroque Aotearoa come into being?
Soon after I arrived, a local choir whose conductor had recently retired, made contact with me. They were searching for a new conductor. They sought me out and asked if I’d be interested, so I agreed. In the end, it wasn’t a good fit for a number of reasons. I was quite eager to have a choir who challenged me and who also wanted to be challenged.
By that point, I had begun a church choir at St. Peter’s as there hadn’t been an established choir there in many, many years. Of the singers who joined the parish choir, there were a significant number who wanted to do more – not just sing the morning Eucharist and Evensongs – but explore larger choral works and perform them. Many of them coaxed me into forming an auditioned chamber choir.
In a lot of ways it made sense. Tauranga is the fifth largest city in Aotearoa and the arts here are grossly underrepresented. Many didn’t think there was enough room for another local choir, but, 13 years later, the Scholars are growing from strength to strength. I tend not to see them as a local choir as much as a regional ensemble with a mission to share our music with as many communities as we can. We’re Tauranga based.
When we began the local newspaper kindly ran an editorial on the “new” choir starting up. I suppose that was news for Tauranga back then! In the same article, they also advertised auditions for us – and from that point, the Scholars were born.
You have worked with NZ Barok since 2015 performing Handel’s Messiah plus other concerts. Why did you choose us?
Well, I was aware of NZ Barok some time before that. I had sung as a bass soloist in a performance of Bach’s Easter Oratorio years before. That was the first time I had heard the orchestra. I loved their sound and their approach to music making. I closely observed how they worked during that time.
I was immediately attracted to their sound and the high standard of their playing. Their meticulous attention to Baroque performance technique. It’s rare to find orchestras with this sound in this part of the world. Their musical ethos really fit with that of myself.
Some years later, the Scholars Baroque were celebrating their 5th year anniversary and we marked it with a large performance of the Mozart Requiem with Opus Orchestra. Graham McPhail led the orchestra for that performance and I thoroughly enjoyed working with him. He noticed at that time that part of our anniversary celebrations that year included the first annual performance of Messiah at Christmas. He asked who our orchestra was going to be. At that point, I had no idea. And it was HIS suggestion that we collaborate. Since then, I have treasured our special relationship with the orchestra. We have formed some wonderful friendships and made some absolutely stunning music together.
Over the past few years you have begun taking concerts to smaller centres. What has the feedback been like and what can the Karangahake audience look forward to?
Yes. That is correct. It is our feeling that a lot of the smaller communities in New Zealand miss out on good quality music and one of the aims of the Scholars Baroque is to bring music to these places. These communities are starved and eager for classical music. But sadly, by virtue of their size or remoteness, the larger national orchestras and choirs give them a miss. We have found that our concerts are extremely well attended and our audiences are just full of appreciation for who we are and what we do. We are always invited back – which is a good sign.
Karangahake is quite special this year as they’ve just opened their new hall which provides a gathering centre to an awful lot of smaller outlying communities – especially those at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula. They’re very proud of the new facility and really want to see it used for just this sort of thing. We’re really very honoured to be one of the first classical concerts they’ve hosted in this new space.
Specifically, the Karangahake audience can look forward to an exciting and well-polished delivery of this seasonal favourite. Having performed the work so many times together, we have a real feel for the work and we always manage to find new ways to breath life into this masterpiece. Messiah is always thrilling when performed by NZ Barok and the Scholars Baroque Aotearoa.