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Johnian magazine issue 49, autumn 2022

Playlist: a life in song

Written by Samir Savant (1988)

5 min read

A former Choral Scholar, Samir Savant (1988) built his career in arts management, working in venues such as Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Academy of Arts, and running the London Handel Festival. He is now CEO of St George’s, a world-class music venue in a former Georgian church in Bristol. Here he shares his most significant tracks with us.

Music has always been an essential part of my life. Although my parents were not musical, they recognised the importance of music. As immigrants to the UK, they were anxious that their children should not miss out on any opportunities, so I learned violin and piano from an early age. I also had Indian classical singing lessons and was a member of the Manchester Boys’ Choir. I never studied
music academically, but a teacher played me a recording of St John’s Chapel Choir singing the sublime Duruflé Requiem and I was drawn to the warm, open sound and decided to audition for a choral scholarship. I still sing in several choirs (tenors are luckily in demand) and co-founded a chamber choir in London, Pegasus.

I studied Russian and French and did not have fixed career plans at graduation. After a few years in the travel industry, I decided to follow my passion and studied for a Masters in Arts Management at City University in London. Two decades of marketing and fundraising positions followed in some of the capital’s leading venues including Shakespeare’s Globe, English National Opera and the Royal College
of Music. Arts management as a profession remains sadly impenetrable to ‘outsiders’. I am painfully aware that I am one of very few people of colour in a senior leadership position, and I am a trustee of the Harrison Parrott Foundation dedicated to redressing this imbalance.

An image of the outside of St Georges, Bristol. It is an old Georgian church with four pillars at the front.
St Georges, Bristol
An image of the inside of St Georges, Bristol. It has a stage and seating. It also has chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.
Photos: Jake Janes

I moved to Bristol in September 2021 to take up the post of CEO at St George’s, a vibrant concert hall in the heart of town. It is a deconsecrated church which will be 200 years old in 2023 and it is a successful charity and business. Immediately before this I was Director of the London Handel Festival and able to indulge my twin interests of baroque music and Georgian history. St George’s presents 300 live events annually, across all music genres and the spoken word. Our acoustics are world famous, and I have been lucky in my first year to see distinguished names from Armistead Maupin to Zakir Hussain, from Angela Hewitt to the Tallis Scholars, on our stage. I am particularly proud that the first ever BBC Prom to be hosted in Bristol was at St George’s this August with violinist Alina Ibragimova.

Audiences are 30% down as we emerge from lockdown, and this seems to be the national picture, but I have great hopes and plans for St George’s and want to engage all communities across this wonderfully diverse city in our work. In June we presented Bristol’s inaugural Festival of Voice, which engaged 1,000 singers from many different choirs, including a flashmob ‘Hallelujah!’ chorus with the conductor of my Bristol choir, the Fitzhardinge Consort, dressed as Mr Handel!

Samir Savant in a pink 'Festival of Voice' T-shirt. He is standing next to a man dressed as Handel and another man also in a pink 'Festival of Voice' T-shirt.
Photo: Izzy Jack

Samir’s playlist choices

Erasure, A Little Respect (1988)

This song reminds me of my years as an angry gay teenager in Manchester, going on protest marches against Section 28 and other homophobic legislation at the time. My activism continued at Cambridge, as I was Gay Men’s Welfare Officer for CUSU and ran a group to support those coming out in my room in Chapel Court. The lyrics about showing respect to each other still resonate with me, and the classic 1980s synth sounds take me right back to the dance-floor at student ‘bops’.

A few years after graduation, I met a very special man, Michael Ewart, and was with him for twenty-six years before he tragically died in March 2021 of complications related to long-term diabetes. He was at King’s but ten years older than me, and so we did not coincide at Cambridge, but we loved visiting the city and had such fond memories of our student years.

George Frideric Handel, Messiah Reimagined (2020)

Lockdown hit the performing arts like a bombshell. I had to cancel most of the 2020 London Handel
Festival, and we faced months of inactivity. As the year dragged on I was determined to organise
a creative project which would give work to professional musicians and lift all our spirits. The resulting Messiah Reimagined involved live soloists and orchestra, all socially distanced in Handel’s church, while the choruses were pre-recorded digitally by hundreds of singers from across five continents. The premiere in the run-up to Christmas in 2020 was very special; Classic FM was our broadcast partner, and it was viewed on Facebook by global audiences of over 250,000. Reading the live comments from all over the world was humbling; everyone had really missed live music, especially singing in choirs. The second version (Easter 2021) featured Iestyn Davies, who sang in St John’s Choir with me, as the alto soloist.

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Momina Mustehsan, Afreen Afreen (2016)

A more personal lockdown project was my discovery of the wonderful Qawwali tradition of singing, which fuses different musical genres, including Turkish, Persian, Arabic and Indian, and dates back to Mughal India. The poetic texts are devotional, originating from the mystic Sufi strain of Islam and, to my ears, are reminiscent of the Song of Songs from the Old Testament; in both cases, the poet addresses the divine with thinly-veiled erotic language.

Coke Studio is a YouTube music channel sponsored by the ubiquitous soft drink, watched by hundreds of millions of fans in South Asia, but hardly known in the West. I love their way of introducing younger generations to classical music from the Indian subcontinent by mixing traditional performers with contemporary genres and instruments – the results are mesmerising. In this instance, Khan, who comes
from a family of internationally acclaimed Qawwals, sings alongside Mustehsan, a contemporary Pakistani singer.

Sergei Rachmaninov, Nunc Dimittis from All Night Vigil (1915)

It seems natural that my study of Russian language and literature would extend to history and music. Rachmaninov wrote his Vigil in 1915 as a fundraiser for the Russian war effort – Russia lost millions of soldiers and civilians in both world wars, suffering the greatest losses of any of the fighting nations, which is somewhat poignant given the country’s current role of aggressor in Ukraine. Rachmaninov had a special affection for this movement, the Nunc Dimittis in Russian, which he wanted sung at his own funeral, although in the event this sadly did not happen.

I have sung the beautiful tenor solo many times, including singing it with Pegasus on our CD For the Fallen, released in 2018 to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. I had researched music from the five countries most affected by the conflict, including pieces written by composers directly involved.

Robert Walker, As the Apple Tree (1982)

Michael and I registered our Civil Partnership in August 2006, soon after the law changed to include same-sex couples. The formal bit was at Camden Town Hall in north London, near where we lived. The fun bit was at King’s, with a service of celebration in the chapel sung by Pegasus, with dozens of our friends and family joining us.

We had lots of music of course, including a choral amen commissioned from Thomas Adès (1992), a Cambridge contemporary of mine, and this lovely piece by British composer, Robert Walker, setting evocative text from the Song of Songs which expresses enduring love for a man. Hearing it, I am transported back to that memorable summer’s afternoon when the great west doors of King’s Chapel were opened and the sun flooded in. Although I cry every time I listen to it, my heart is full of happiness.

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Samir is the CEO of St George’s, a world-class music venue in Bristol. He has worked for many years in the arts sector in venues such as Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Academy of Arts and running the London Handel Festival.