16 January 2020

University College Utrecht as a gateway to a career as a professional singer

Just before Christmas, a spontaneous concert brought University College Utrecht alumni Arjan Lienaerts and Philip Barkhudarov back to campus. In between of rehearsals for their end-of-the-year tour, they found time to share memories from their years at the college. 

olga vocal ensemble
Olga Vocal Ensemble. Philip is second from the left, Arjan on the far right.

Both alumni from class of 2007, Arjan and Philip now sing together in all-male a cappella group Olga Vocal Ensemble. Earlier based in Utrecht, the ensemble now divides its time between the Netherlands and Iceland, where Philip and another group member currently live. 

Singing was part of their lives already at University College.

Arjan: “When I had just started at the college, one day I stumbled upon a market where the different committees presented themselves, among them the UCU choir, which I joined. There I met Philip. We sang there, and Philip had the idea of forming an a cappella group, and so we started with four of us.”

Philip: “I had been singing at high school in New Mexico. When I first came here, I was missing that part of my life. In the UCU choir I found a way to practice singing, while also hanging out with my friends. The campus life was very vibrant back then.”

 “I had always wanted to become a professional singer. That was not an option where I came from, I had to pursue a ‘real’ career. At the University College I majored in Physics, and after graduation, I did my Master’s in Computer Science at Utrecht University. At some point I started to take voice lessons at Utrecht Conservatory. Gradually the singing became more and more professional, while I was still studying part-time at the conservatory.”

From Hair to Conservatory

Arjan: “I majored in Anthropology and Development Studies and did a minor in Performance Studies. The two first years I was mainly studying, but in the third year I was the musical director of the first on-campus musical production here, Hair, and that was demanding more and more of my time. During that year, I realised that I didn’t want to continue at the university, but decided to focus on music instead. I got accepted at Tilburg Conservatory and did a second Bachelor’s study there. That time, a second Bachelor’s study was still payable…I definitely think that it was a good choice, although I do sometimes miss the academic side of my life. Singing is not always very challenging intellectually, sometimes you are just doing a practical job.”

Philip: “It’s different when we sing with Olga. This is our group and we create everything by ourselves, so we are 100 percent engaged. But we also do gigs, we have to, to earn income, and then you are just a part of a larger production, a voice among others.”

Would you then say that University College Utrecht contributed to the choices you have made for your life? 

Philip: “If I hadn’t come here, I would not have followed the rest of my path. That time, most students came here exactly because they had so many interests, and it was the same for me too. It was important for me to find here a real melting pot. But above all, University College Utrecht gave me the opportunity to come to Holland and establish a life, which connected me with everything else.”

Arjan: “The college allowed me to develop an international mindset. I came from Limburg, I had not seen much of the world or met many people from other countries. That international mindset has become an essential part of my life, and that is thanks to the University College. If I had gone to the conservatory right after high school, my world would be smaller now. At the college we got the opportunity to make a conscious choice for what we wanted to do. Even now, I am a singer but I also like to compose and arrange music. I do many different things. ”

A Full Circle

Like every year, Arjan and Philip are having a busy Christmas schedule with Olga Vocal Ensemble.  The coming days they will have concerts in Utrecht, Amsterdam, Haarlem, Helmond, and further three in Iceland. Next year, they hope to record their long-awaited Christmas CD to accompany the annual end of the year programme. Another CD project is coming up as well, connected to tours in Iceland in the summer and in the Netherlands in the autumn. 

How did Olga Vocal Ensemble come about? 

Philip: “Originally we were all students at Utrecht Conservatory, three Icelandic guys and me. Back in 2012, the four of us were involved in an opera production. One day after the rehearsal, we came together, and one of us happened to have books about the Comedian Harmonists, a 1920s German singing group. Five singers and a pianist, they were fantastic. That led us to start singing in a very casual way. It then happened that the Icelandic ambassador in Brussels invited us to perform at a reception – in Iceland the networks are small, everyone knows everyone. That became our first professional performance. We then started touring, rented space in churches, and that is what we still do.”

Arjan: “I joined the ensemble two years ago. I had been living in the United Kingdom for some time, and when I came back…”

Philip: “Our original baritone was leaving the group and we were searching for replacement. Arjan and I had lost track of each other, but then he showed up at the audition. It was a full circle: we had once started with a cappella at University College Utrecht and came together again.”