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Music: "The cardinal sin is being boring"

An alumnus of Harvard and Cambridge, who has performed as an international soloist, John McMunn picks up the baton as Chief Executive of the Academy of Ancient Music this month. Latterly general manager at Gabrieli, he tells Velvet why music is his lifeblood. . .

Musical inspiration

Music has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I was lucky enough to have music lessons in school, and I started learning the piano at five, but it wasn’t until I saw an ad for the San Francisco Boys Chorus that the love affair really began. On a pretty basic Xeroxed poster in the corner of my school’s music classroom was a sign that read: ‘Tour the world, sing at the opera, join the San Francisco Boys Chorus’. To a precocious ten-year-old with a burgeoning wanderlust it was a compelling message! I auditioned and within a year I was indeed singing at the SF Opera in their children’s chorus. The experience of working in the War Memorial Theater and being treated like any other member of the production was empowering and intoxicating - it is probably why I still do what I do today.

John McMunn, new CEO of the Academy of Ancient Music (39220919)
John McMunn, new CEO of the Academy of Ancient Music (39220919)

Soloist memories

I have been privileged to perform in many of the great halls of the world, of which none can compete with Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. I sang there on a number of occasions, one of the last times with Academy of Ancient Music – a Monteverdi Vespers in 2010. I had a temperature and a streaming cold and had missed my flight out from London that morning, meaning I arrived at the hall only just before the concert. Not only did I miss rehearsal, no one warned me that all the soloists were to enter the stage from above the choir, down the Concertgebouw’s notoriously steep (and handrail-free) stairs. I was so nervous I’d fall to my death before I’d even sung a note, the concert seemed easy in comparison!

Time at Gabrieli

Gabrieli and Paul McCreesh are renowned for their ambitious (if not audacious) historical recreation programmes, and the 2018 recording An English Coronation was perhaps the organisation’s biggest project to date. Comprising a symphony orchestra of more than 100 – all performing on period-instruments c.1903, of course! – 20 fanfare trumpeters, and a choir of more than 300 (250 of whom were teenagers from the Gabrieli Roar choral training scheme), this was by far the most complicated and demanding project I have ever taken on. To deliver it with my colleagues, and rather well at that, was immensely gratifying, all the more so given the profound impact it had on our youngest performers.

Cambridge links

I’m becoming something of a ‘Cambridge lifer’! I moved to the UK nearly 16 years ago to sing in the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and take an MPhil in Musicology at the University. After an eight-year hiatus living in London, I returned to Cambridge to take a fundraising role created specially to support plans for AAM’s 40th anniversary. I subsequently worked in communications and marketing for the orchestra, before serving as Artistic Director of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival for a year. For the past four years I’ve been commuting daily to Gabrieli’s London office – not a journey I’ll miss, if I’m honest!

Academy of Ancient Music, Picture Patrick Harrison (41648973)
Academy of Ancient Music, Picture Patrick Harrison (41648973)

My new role

The Academy of Ancient Music has had a long and storied history, but it’s really the future that most excites me about the Chief Executive role. In 2021-22 we will welcome a new Music Director, and in 2022-23 we celebrate our 50th anniversary. While we will continue to celebrate past achievements, I relish the opportunity to develop a new artistic strategy that looks to the future. What are the next frontiers for historically informed performance practice? What great works remain unjustly neglected? How can we make early music relevant to the modern concertgoer? To have the opportunity to explore these problems with one of the world’s great orchestras is a privilege.

AAM aspirations

Our core mission to explore, reveal and preserve the great treasure house of baroque and classical music will remain unchanged. The cardinal sin in this business is being boring. If AAM is still challenging, surprising and delighting audiences in ten years’ time, I think I’d take that!

Find out more about The Academy of Ancient Music at aam.co.uk

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