began life in 2001, set up by Christopher Monks and a group of university colleagues with a shared passion for music from the Renaissance to Baroque, coupled with the imagination to find new and unusual ways to present concerts.
Audiences seemed to love their engaging and imaginative approach, and most concerts in the first years sold out. “That gave us confidence, energy and self-belief to carry on and do more, also to take more risks with our programming, and keep on experimenting,” says Christopher.
The ideas kept flowing, as did the titles (“many of them were created down the pub”) including the concert programmes Naked Byrd and Supersize Polyphony, and newly-created operas Monteverdi’s Flying Circus, Too Hot to Handel and Baroque Around the Block. Their horizons broadened to include later repertoire but at the heart remained music of the Baroque and Renaissance, including some rarely-heard gems, performed by the finest singers and players using period instruments. “We take great care to craft programmes which bring as much little-known music to life as possible, and find new and imaginative ways to bring this music to audiences. I’m particularly proud of Supersize Polyphony where we perform forty and sixty-part works by Tallis and Striggio completely in the round, interspersed with Hildegard of Bingen”. It earned the group their first five-star review, from The Times, and there were plenty more to follow.
Among many notable events were their Wigmore Hall debut in 2003, performing at the Hampton Court Palace Festival with violinist Nicola Benedetti (beginning a continuing musical friendship), Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Barbican and giving the first performances of Francesco Scarlatti’s music in Italy (Naples) and Tel Aviv.
An education programme was fundamental to Armonico Consort from the outset and now encompasses six AC Academy after-school choirs and an in-school Choir Creation programme which trains teachers as choir leaders, leaving a strong legacy in each school. This Choir Creation scheme became the backbone of AC Academy reaching 15,000 children a year. By 2020, Armonico Consort aims to create 300 children’s choirs and 300 new choir leaders.
Armonico Consort counts Dame Judi Dench, Jeremy Irons, Nicola Benedetti, Sir Willard White, Ian Bostridge and Catrin Finch among their many guest artists. They have developed relationships with major concert halls across the UK and their recordings are regularly featured on BBC Radio 3, Classic FM and radio stations across the world. They continue to produce innovative new projects including Oz & Armonico Drink to Music with wine writer and broadcaster Oz Clarke, as well as touring their flagship programmes and seeking out new relationships.
The founder and Artistic Director of Armonico Consort and its ground-breaking education programme AC Academy, Christopher Monks has established himself as a versatile and prolific conductor and keyboard player.
Specialising in the performance of music from the Baroque and late Renaissance, Christopher is equally at home with major and modern choral repertoire, and during his career he has conducted at many of the greatest concert halls in the UK, including the Royal Albert Hall, Barbican, Wigmore Hall and Cadogan Hall in London, Bridgewater Hall Manchester, Symphony Hall Birmingham, St David’s Hall Cardiff and the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Christopher performs regularly at major national festivals and has worked extensively abroad, including in Israel, Italy, Ireland and France. Alongside his work with Armonico Consort, he has conducted internationally renowned orchestras and ensembles such as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the Philharmonia and European Union Chamber Orchestra. Christopher also coaches and lectures on the MMus choral conducting course at Cambridge University and is a guest speaker on the Harvard Global Leadership Programme. Christopher is also part of a programme to role out the choir creation project and leadership programme with institutions aiming to restore street children back into main stream education in Kenya.
It was as a chorister from the age of eight that Christopher was introduced to the music of Byrd, Tallis, Bach, Monteverdi and Handel, of which today he is a highly acclaimed champion. After taking on piano at about the same age, he took his grade 5 in just 18 months as he wouldn’t otherwise have been allowed to start organ lessons, although by his own admission:
“I ignored this, and spent my spare time doing stealth practice in cold churches.” After graduating from Cambridge University, where he was organ scholar at Gonville and Caius College, Christopher went on as an organist under David Hill at Winchester Cathedral. Through David’s inspiration, he developed a passion and a talent for choral conducting.
“David Hill taught me the importance of performances being live and crafted ‘in’ the performance rather than a sanitised replication of hours of careful preparation. At school, I used to gather together musicians and singers, and perform pieces like Monteverdi’s Beatus Vir, and that sort of passion never stopped. But it was David Hill, the single biggest influence of those early years, who made me want to be a professional conductor”.
Although he admits to being cautious of much contemporary music, Christopher has commissioned many new works, including the ambitious Prodigal Son by Girling, premiered with Dame Evelyn Glennie, and Beowulf, an epic drama by Toby Young, premiered during Armonico Consort’s 2017 season.
Christopher records regularly under the Signum Classics label and his recordings, including Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas, have earned him several five star reviews in The Times, The Independent and The Guardian. Amongst recent projects are the first of a unique 3-disc set of complete recordings of Bach’s Cantatas for solo soprano with Gillian Keith (2017) and Supersize Polyphony, a recording of 40- and 60-part masses by Tallis and Striggio (2019) on Signum Classics.
A passionate advocate of reaching out to children of all backgrounds through the creation of youth choirs, Christopher founded and developed AC Academy, a music education programme
“which is unique in the UK, highly effective in its legacy and absolutely brilliant in quality. I never cease to feel proud of it.” A founding principle of the Academy is that the children learn all genres of music and perform regularly alongside professional orchestras and bands. They do everything from Bach to Jazz, folk to pop, ethnic music to musicals.
“I think it is vital that young people have the opportunity to perform all genres of music. As a chorister in a church, I only knew that repertoire, and I think this held me back as a musician in so many ways.” When not conducting, Christopher loves fine cooking. After a long day of music preparation, he often enjoys going for a cycle to process everything he has worked on, and on many occasions, this is where he feels that the real music learning takes place.
To anybody who asked him whether he has ever thought to give up his musical career, Christopher would bluntly reply:
“No, it feels bizarre when I talk to other people about their jobs for which they struggle to get out of bed, and I have never felt like a have a job. I just wake up and do a hobby.”