Q&A with Helen Charlston

Helen Charlston (mezzo soprano) tell us what to expect from her concert: ‘The Honour of William Byrd’ with Chelys Consort of Viols on 10 February.

Tell us about how the idea of the programme with Chelys was formed.

Back in 2019, Dame Emma Kirkby celebrated her 70th birthday in a big concert at Wigmore Hall in London. She very kindly invited a host of artists to share the stage with her, and as part of this invited me to sing Byrd Ye Sacred Muses with Chelys. It was wonderful to have the chance to work together for the first time and from then on, we were looking for more opportunities to perform together. As we moved towards the anniversary of Byrd’s death in 2023, we devised this programme, and it has been one that we have been performing together for the last couple of years since its first performance in Edinburgh two years ago.

What can the audience expect from ‘The Honour of William Byrd’?

I hope this programme will introduce you to the many different sides of William Byrd. From the sacred to secular; dances to dirges; vocal to instrumental: there is something for everyone. Byrd’s musical language is always full of surprises, I continually find myself smiling at something new each time I hear his music.

What’s been your personal favourite concert you have given?

That’s probably too hard a question! A few highlights include an exhilarating performance of Mendelssohn Elijah at the BBC Proms with Scottish Chamber Orchestra (some of the best chorus singing I think I’ve heard in that piece: kudos to the SCO chorus they were on fire that night!), singing Didoin Purcell Dido & Aeneas with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants at the Royal Opera in Versailles and my first Mahler 3 with Kensington Symphony Orchestra at Fairfield Halls in Croydon. I love commissioning new music, and the performances of pieces that were written for me are some of my most cherished musical experiences. Last Autumn I premiered Heloise Werner Knight’s Dream written for me and pianist Sholto Kynoch as a companion piece to Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe. Werner’s songs are extraordinary, and a perfect partner to that well-loved song cycle. It was such a privilege to see our audiences in Holywell Music Room and Wigmore Hall, come along on such a rewarding emotional and musical journey with us.

Do you have links to Cambridge?

I was a music undergraduate here at Trinity College from 2011 where I also sang as a choral scholar. I met my husband here and we were married in 2022 in the chapel at Trinity, so this magical city holds a pretty special place in my heart! There’s no doubt it has given me some of the most formative years, both musically and personally. It’s always a joy to be back, so thank you for having me.

It’s our 30th anniversary this year. If money and time were no object, how would you choose to celebrate with us?

So many possibilities… in the spirit of anniversaries, maybe it’s time for a fully staged Handel Giulio Cesare which was first performed 300 years ago this year? No one does story telling quite like Mr Handel, and its got some of the best tunes, best love duets (and best baddies) around.