Utrecht-based Venus chamber choir has a tradition of working with young talents as directors, like Daniel Reuss, Peter Dijkstra and Gijs Leenaars. In September 2016, just after her Cum Laude graduation at the Amsterdam Conservatory, Krista Audere became the young and inspiring new conductor of Venus. Halfway the rehearsal period of our first joint programme Schöne Chansons we interviewed her.

Krista Audere, director of the Venus chamber choir
Interview: Monique Janssens and Bram Verkerke
Photos: Sijmen Hendriks (swimming pool) and Bram Verkerke (portraits)

When did you decide to become a conductor?

That’s a miracle! I had the Beatles on my piano at home, and I was doing ‘Hey Jude’ from an early age. I think my parents realized I had some musical instinct. My mom sings in an amateur choir, and my dad was a nice boy singer, but he soon became more interested in ice hockey. Teachers told my parents about the Dome Choir School in Riga, the best school for choir singers in the country. When I was seven, my mom took me to the auditions, and I got in. They decided to leave their life and move to Riga. Our classes were next to the ballet school and the instrumentalists. So, until I was ten, I thought there were only musicians and ballerinas on this planet. We had conducting lessons from the age of fifteen. I liked waving my hands for the choir, and thought: Let’s go for it.

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Why did you come to the Netherlands?

During a five month stay in Stuttgart, I had realized how much there was in the outside world I didn’t know about. In Latvia, we have a rich choral tradition, with song festivals every five years, where choirs come together to sing. During each period of five years, they are building up their festival repertoire for this one big goal. I always saw myself as a part of that culture. But it offers less freedom for the conductor to do other kinds of repertoire. My stay in Stuttgart taught me I don’t have to live in a specific place to be a Latvian musician. I wanted to see if I could work somewhere else as well.

Did it work out for you up till now?

I am growing. More than I would have grown at home. That’s always the case, isn’t it? You move and you grow. You go where you don’t know anything, so you figure it out. I had to leave all my choirs in Latvia. And now I am doing great repertoire I never could have dreamt about doing, working with four Dutch choirs. I feel very young for many things that we are doing right now, but I just dive into it and do it. If Venus is prepared to go for it, and do Schönberg and Webern, I say: Yes, let’s try it! Probably in ten years I will approach this music differently, but I need to start somewhere, and I’m starting now, trying to reach the musical ceiling as fast as I can.

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How did the Schöne Chansons program come about?

When I start with a new choir, I’m interested in what they would like to do. Where do they come from? What would they like to do differently? I like them to come forward and say: This is who we are, and this is how we want things to be – and then me adding to it, not necessarily changing things. In this case, the idea of German music was there, and I added a French component. It was because of Schönberg that I really had to say Yes to Venus. I have said yes to many things, so I’m kind of used to saying Yes, even if it’s No. Ha-ha. And now I’m learning to say no again…

Why do you conduct choirs, not orchestras?

I remember lifting my hand for the first time, and I am sure I then had the sound of a choir in my head, not a violin sound. I grew up between singers and choir conductors, and I loved singing. I enjoyed the repertoire and was part of the song festival tradition. I am still more strongly connected to the sound of the voice than to the sound of instruments. I enjoy to explore the different sounds of a choir. As a conducting student, I learned to conduct an orchestra as well, and later in life I would like to do more of the instrumental repertoire.

Are you performing as a singer these days?

I just need to sing, even if it’s by the Christmas tree. I have some gigs here and there, mostly as a soloist, in oratorios for example. In Riga, I used to sing much more, and did less conducting, and now it has flipped to the other side. Somehow, I must find the balance. Singing asks a lot of time, presence and planning, conducting asks a lot of rehearsing and studying the pieces. That is my struggle today. And now I’m thinking of ways to get back to choir singing as well.

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How do you connect your talents and experience to Venus? What can we offer each other?

We are still in a fresh relationship, which is very exciting. I can’t tell yet what is there to be found. The biggest value of Venus is that there are people who have sung in the choir for quite some years, with great conductors. There is a certain level of expectation that makes me try to live up to that standard. This experience is combined with enthusiasm and openness. I can experiment and learn, not only about the choir but about myself as well.

For example?

Venus has an identity, a sound to work with. There is a lot of bone in the choir. You know who you are and what you’re at. It’s a great challenge for me to find ways of getting a new spark in something that exists already. Venus will try anything, even if it’s silly or doesn’t seem to make sense. You will go for it and see what happens. So, there’s both the grown-up aspect and the sense of childish experimentation. That’s just perfect for me. And I hope you learn something from me too! The beauty about this work is that I can’t do it alone.

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You combine a very serious approach with lots of humor. Is that a conductor’s strategy?

That’s just who I am, ha-ha. I switch emotions easily. But, more importantly, I believe that people only will sing at their best when they enjoy it. As a singer, I have worked with many conductors. Sometimes I had a feeling that it was all about the result instead of the process. My favorite part is the rehearsal. Of course, there is pressure. But if I need you to do your best, I need you to enjoy it. It’s as simple as that. I try to take care of the choir as a social being, in a sense that the singers are relaxed and challenged at the same time.

Each rehearsal starts with a bit of physical exercise. Why is that?

You can’t come to the choir, open your mouth and sit for the rest of the rehearsal. It just doesn’t work like that, even with professionals. In Amsterdam, my singing teacher is Geert Bergs. From him I copied exercises that helped me, adding to it and making my own mishmash. There are some breath exercises in it, there is some yoga, some meditation, and, honestly, some joking around. I try to make you do things without being too serious about it. We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously, should we?

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Venus did a program in swimming pool De Kwakel. Can we expect more of these original programs?

I hope so! We should get out of the concert hall and try to get new people interested. There is a misconception of what choir music is, what choirs do, where they should sing. I hope there will be many crazy projects. I’m up for anything. I will conduct under water, if necessary.

Venus is known for commissioning compositions. What is your opinion on that?

This is the very reason why I called Venus. I have always wanted to find a group to do contemporary music with. It’s not performed enough! During my studies in Riga, I was lucky to work with composers my age. There was a strong relation between the conducting students, the composition students, the teachers, and the singers. And in Amsterdam as well I liked being close to the composers. I’m hoping to meet people who have new ideas about sound. It’s great if there is no recording of a piece yet, so you must figure it out from scratch. You call the composer and discuss aspects of the piece, send a recording of the rehearsal and talk about rewriting a few details. I can’t wait!

Have you ever done things that have nothing to do with music?

When I arrived in the Netherlands, I was completely lost. I had no money, no friends, no family calling me up daily to ask me how I was. I was on my own, and started to take small jobs. Apart from piano teaching, I did babysitting and I worked in a bar. I did not stand before a choir for almost a year. And then someone called me up: Hey, someone fell ill, can you come? And you don’t know the repertoire, but you say: Of course. And then you cry on the way to the rehearsal, because you realize how much you’ve been missing it. Now I appreciate my work more than ever, because I know how it feels to study scores on your own, with no one singing at you.