Lionel Meunier is the founder and artistic director of Vox Luminis, the early music vocal ensemble which has recently started its residency at Wigmore Hall in London. Earlier this year, the ensemble won the BBC Music Magazine Choral Award for its 2017 recording Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott: Luther and the Music of the Reformation.
How long has the group been going?
We have been singing together for 14 years, and most of the group has remained the same during that time. When we started, my goal was to have one project a year. It was still something on the side and it was so exciting. From students we became young professionals, and then many of us became parents. We all change, but I still see the rest of the ensemble as the college students we once were! It’s an adventure.
At what point did you have to decide whether to take it on fulltime?
After a few years, we had to ask ourselves whether it was really what we wanted to do. We had to ask ourselves whether we could manage it – whether it would fit with the lifestyle we wanted to have. It’s like a train passing – you either catch it, or you don’t get on it and you can’t complain. I had to ask myself whether I would pursue a solo career or whether I would continue with the group. I chose to stay and develop the group. We never thought we would have 60 or 70 concerts a year.
When did you manage to ‘break’ the British market?
It suddenly took off like a rocket in 2011 with our recording of Schütz’s Musicalische Exequien (Funeral Music), which won the Gramophone Recording of the Year. This helped us get management in the UK and made us come here much more, and also to America.
No other early music ensemble had won the award for 20 years, which is when the Tallis Scholars won it. Plus, we weren’t English – it made us stand out. The CD sales doubled in one week, and it started to take off. Then in 2013, we recorded Purcell’s Funeral Music, which got a fantastic review from BBC Music Magazine, who said it was the best recording of this work. People started paying attention! It was a combination of a few recordings which made everyone start talking about us.
What do you think has made Vox Luminis such a success?
I think luck played a big part – we recorded the right thing at the right time. In a funny way, the financial crisis helped us. There was a tradition of using big choirs, and when the crash happened, smaller ensembles started cropping up more and more, because it was cheaper. But we’d already been doing it for many years, so we were really ready. We beat them to it.
People have said we are a mix of British and European: we have the cleanness of intonation like the British, but we bring something unusual and European to the music.
Having no conductor has helped us stand out as well, because there aren’t many groups who do that. With nobody turning their back, the audience has the feeling that they see everything, there’s no secrets. They see how we communicate and feel part of it, which brings the recordings to life. We’re not trying to do anything ‘cool’ either, we just come onstage and sing. I think people respect that.
I created this ensemble out of passion, and all the members came for passion too because we started singing for free. Our goal is to remember why we decided to start this ensemble in the first place, and why we wanted it to become our lives. If you keep that determination inside you, the audience responds and notices.
We’re all freelancers – there are no contracts in this ensemble. There is no obligation, but we’re so stable. No one feels trapped by a contract, although sometimes I’m sure it would be a lot easier to have contracted singers because I’d know when everyone was available for concerts! Our freedom allows us to be much more creative.
You’ve just started a residency at Wigmore Hall. How did this come about?
When we first performed at Wigmore Hall five years ago, the director John Gilhooly saw the concert and said, ‘we need to talk’. He told us we needed to build our audience there and we should come back once a year. He had already planned for us to have this residency in 2018/19. He felt that this was the perfect stage for us – ten singers, it’s perfect.
When you build a relationship with a concert hall, you get to know the acoustics so well, and you start to consider what would really work for that space. It’s so exciting. Even the backstage area at Wigmore Hall is amazing – it has the original green room, and there are photographs on the walls of the most incredible people. It’s full of history.
You made your debut at Aldeburgh Festival last year with Britten’s Sacred and Profane, a piece very different from the early music you usually perform. Was it a challenge?
When they said they wanted us to perform a work by Britten, I assumed they meant Hymn to the Virgin, which is written by Britten but in quite an early music style. But they wanted us to do Sacred and Profane, because they could imagine us singing it well. Initially I didn’t like it – I didn’t think it was for us. But I wanted to have a residency in Aldeburgh, so we did it!
We studied intensely for seven days for this 15-minute performance. It was a completely new language for us, and a lot of people think of it as Britten’s most difficult work. We did it, and people loved it and we’ll probably do more Britten in future. If you had told me three years ago that we’d perform Sacred and Profane by Benjamin Britten, I would have told you that you were out of your mind.
Do you plan all the group's concert programmes?
Yes, I do all my programmes at night. Sometimes I think about them during the day, but I’m a night bird. When everything gets calmer and quieter at night, I feel like my head slows down and I can channel the right things. I’ll have a herbal tea or a gin and tonic. I like to tell a story or have a thread through the programme.
What repertoire do you hope to explore in the future?
One big dream I have is to perform Thomas Tallis’s Spem in Albium for my 40th birthday in 2021. I’ve got it all planned – I want to do a tour with 40 people, with the current ensemble and those who have performed with us in the past. It will be called Vox Luminis XL, because XL is 40 in Roman numerals.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.