Spring 2017 Concert Showcase
Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, 12 April 2017
Director: Greg Hallam
Assistant Director: James Slimings
Piano: Conal Bembridge Sayers
How thrilling to see a choir of around 80 boys on stage in the RWCMD’s Dora Stoutzker Hall. Even more thrilling to hear the full-bodied sound they produced in their opening piece, Alan Bullard’s Cantate Gloria, and this from a group of whom the eldest are only 15 years old.
This showcase performance by the National Youth Boys’ Choir was the culmination of a five-day training course at Llandovery College, the first that the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain have held in Wales. The NYCGB now has nine choirs in all, and the Boys’ Choir is made up of two of them, Trebles and the changing voice ensemble Cambiata. Singing together and separately in this concert, they were indeed a great showcase for the work of the NYCGB organisation.
While young people’s brains are obviously adept at absorbing a mass of information quickly, it was nonetheless impressive to hear what these young people had mastered in such a short space of time. In the contrasting ‘There is no rose’ and ‘This Little Babe’ from Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols, the Trebles sang with good tuning, clear diction and close attention to both legato line and rhythmic precision. They also demonstrated lovely unison singing, never easy to achieve. They followed this with an arrangement by Ken Johnston of the traditional Scots song, Johnnie Cope, in which they clearly particularly relished using their Scots accents, and did so with great aplomb and a crescendo of energy.
As the choir’s director Greg Hallam explained, at the start of the residential course all the boys had been seen individually and placed in groups for work on vocal production and musicianship. It is a splendid thing that the NYCGB organisation has set up a specialist ensemble for boys whose voices are changing and that their teachers are paying attention to their vocal needs at this crucial time. What both the boys choirs achieved in five days was remarkable. Clearly they had done work on crucial elements of choral work such as unified vowel sounds, something which will stand these boys in good stead if they continue to sing through their teenage years and into adult life, as I hope many of them will do.
One expects enthusiasm from young people in choirs, but too often accompanied by insufficient attention to vocal technique, resulting in a shouty sound. No such problem here. In Robert Shaw’s Vive l’Amour the Cambiata choir sang with spirit and character – including a communal hiccough! – but their singing never became coarse. Indeed, it is remarkable for such young voices to produce such a fine male-voice choir sound. If the word “l’amour” (love) sounded more like “la mort” (death) this is a quibble, something for further work in the future. For choral singing is a work in progress for these young people, and this concert was not about perfection. One could not expect perfect blend from young people who had only been singing together for a matter of days, many of them new to the NYCGB. If individual voices were audible it showed that the boys were singing out with confidence, and how good to hear that. How many adults hide out in choirs, hanging on the coat-tails of their neighbours?
Singing off the copy always enables a choir to be more attentive to the conductor and so deliver better ensemble singing. It was impressive to see and hear these young people doing this with material they had worked on for such a short time, and in different languages too. The Trebles handled the Spanish of ‘Creo en dios’ from Francisco Núñez’s Missa Pequeña with apparent ease.
It was not surprising that the Cambiata choir needed copies, however, for two challenging Schumann pieces in German from his Drei Lieder für Männerchor – ‘Der Eidgenossen Nachtwache’ and ‘Freiheitsleid’. While no doubt providing excellent experience for the boys, these pieces were less immediately appealing to listeners than the rest of the well-chosen programme, which covered a remarkable range of interesting repertoire. It also offered the boys tastes of different styles of singing, from close harmony in Michael Neaum’s arrangement of the spiritual My Lord, what a morning sung by the Trebles to plainsong from both choirs as a prelude to the combined choirs singing Jehan Alain’s O Salutaris Hostia.
The text ‘Over hill, over dale’ from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has given inspiration to many composers. Here the boys sang a catchy and rhythmically challenging setting by the contemporary American composer Andrea Ramsay who, like other composers represented in this programme, works with specific attention to the voices of young people. Benjamin Britten was another such, although in fact his dramatic piece The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, performed here by the Cambiata choir, was written for musicians in a prisoner of war camp in Bavaria in 1943. This piece was first performed by the NYBGB Cambiata Choir in 2016, on the strength of which performance the choir has been invited to perform it at Snape Maltings this summer. It is a compelling work, sung here with the necessary engagement.
The concert came to a committed and thrilling conclusion from the combined choirs with the trebles on the major seventh of the chord which ends Latvian composer Rihards Dubra’s 6-part O Radix Jesse, and the audience’s fulsome applause was rewarded with a madrigal by Hassler as an encore.
The direction given to the two choirs by their conductors Greg Hallam and James Slimings, and the teaching from the other NYCGB staff involved resulted in an impressive and very enjoyable performance by these well-disciplined choirs. Pianist Conal Bembridge Sayers, stepping in at short notice, gave strong support.
Header photo courtesy of the National Youth Boys’ Choir