National Youth Training Choir : Search for Serenity
Greg Beardsell, Eunan McDonald, Conductors
Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 24 August 2018
Greeted by whoops and cheers from the audience, the National Youth Training Choir filed onto the stage of the Dora Stoutzker Hall and stood in disciplined rows, each singer taking his or her space, clearly proud to be part of this choir. They had travelled to Cardiff for this performance prepared during a week’s course in Hertfordshire as part of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain Summerfest 2018. These young people – aged 11 to 18 – are at the heart of the work of this organisation, which nurtures many of the UK’s choral singers of the future.
NYCGB’s artistic theme for 2018 is ‘Music and the mind’, and during their course the singers had studied work by composers who had, in different ways, been mentally troubled. Anton Bruckner suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder, Rossini was bipolar, Gesualdo killed one of his wives, Lassus had depression and maybe Monteverdi too. Yet all produced works of ravishing beauty, balm to the soul of singer and listener alike. Was this, we were asked to consider by one of the singers who shared the introductions to the music, because of the mental state of the composers or in spite of it, and does it matter? Each will have their own view; it must certainly have given all these singers pause for thought during their study and singing of the work.
From the opening chords of Bruckner’s motet Os justi, the choir produced such a warm and comforting sound that I felt an immediate and intense emotional response; there is something about a large choir singing a capella that speaks directly to the heart. Singing from memory – another thing which makes for an immediate connection with an audience – these young people achieved the extreme dynamic contrasts demanded by the piece with skill; intonation and balance between the parts were also excellent. In Rossini’s more operatic motet O salutaris hostia the singers displayed youthful exuberance, but with excellent vocal control.
Further nineteenth century Romantic repertoire followed, Hugo Wolf’s Auf ein altes Bild, and the richly harmonised Zuversicht, one of Robert Schumann’s only four double choruses for mixed-voice choir. The choir seemed less at ease in the Wolf than anywhere else in their programme, and I would put this down to it being an arrangement of a solo song, perhaps chosen more for the composer’s place in the theme of the concert than for what it had to offer musically.
Overall though, the singers were as at home with this repertoire as with the contemporary pieces which they sang later in their programme and in which they were able to express additional qualities. Swedish composer Malin Gavelin’s Håll mig kvar (Hold me fast) was, as those who introduced it said, a piece close to the hearts of the singers, in which they very obviously expressed their feelings of joy about their singing time together and sadness at having to part after this concert. It felt very special.
Conductor and NYCGB Deputy Artistic Director Greg Beardsell has clearly made the most of his connections and collaborations with musicians in other parts of Europe in informing his work with young singers in the NYCGB. It was good to hear this choir singing Malin Gavelin’s piece in Swedish rather than an English translation, and the colour which the precisely-worked Swedish vowel sounds added to the music.
Latvian Rihards Dubra is another contemporary composer with whom NYCGB have clearly developed a link – I recall hearing his work for the first time sung by the National Youth Boys’ Choir last year. He describes his music as a style of meditation and so it was in this performance of his Oculos non vidit, in which the shifting curtains of sound, rising to a final crescendo, convey a message and real feeling of hope.
The Renaissance polyphony of Lassus, Gesualdo and Monteverdi is certainly excellent material for a choir which is training young singers in musicianship and vocal technique as this one is doing. Its complexity is, though, a challenge for a large choir, here numbering 97 singers, and there is a risk that the sound becomes muddy and undifferentiated. However, I thought the singers did well in bringing out the vocal lead as it was passed from part to part in the Lassus 6-part motet Ad te levavi oculos meos.
Greg Beardsell and Assistant Conductor Eunan McDonald had clearly thought out how best to ensure balance in the different pieces by having the singers move into different formations between pieces – achieved, I might say, with impressive slickness. I was also pleased that they divided the choir in two for the Gesualdo and Monteverdi madrigal settings, Luci serene e chiare. I would hope that the work they have done in learning these masterpieces would encourage at least some of these singers to tackle them on future occasions in much smaller groups, ideally one to a part, in which they can truly realise and relish the harmonic shifts, clashes and resolutions.
It was an interesting notion to move from the Renaissance to the twentieth century by way of one the six ‘Fire Songs’ on Italian Renaissance Poems written in 1987 by American composer Morten Lauridsen. It contrasted well with the Gesualdo and Monteverdi settings of the same text, and was paired with another of Lauridsen’s Fire Songs, Se per havervi, oime, inhabiting a lush harmonic world which would a few years later reach its apogee in his well-known O Magnum Mysterium (1994).
After singing in Latin, German, Italian and Swedish, it was only in their final number, Eric Whitacre’s slowed-down arrangement of the Depeche Mode classic Enjoy the Silence, that we heard the choir sing in English! I was surprised that for their encore the choir returned to nineteenth century Romanticism, with a motet by Brahms – Wo ist ein so herrlich volk – and to learn that it was their favourite piece of the week!
A little more in English, and perhaps also another upbeat secular number, might have made the programme more accessible to those in the audience coming fresh to the world of classical choral music. But that is no more than a quibble; there was a great deal to admire, enjoy and think about in this concert.