National Youth Choir of Wales, Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, 24 July
National Youth Brass Band of Wales, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 26 July
One of the most encouraging aspects of music-making in Wales is the way in which its national youth ensembles have developed over the last few years. Evidence of their high standards could be heard last weekend in two Cardiff concerts by the National Youth Choir of Wales (NYCW) at Llandaff Cathedral and the National Youth Brass Band of Wales (NYBBW) at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama.
The National Youth Choir is busy preparing for a tour of Argentina in October marking the 150th anniversary of the first Patagonian Welsh settlers; this summer’s one-off concert combined a heady mix of both South American and Welsh music under Camilo Santostefano, from Buenos Aires, and one of Wales’s rising young choral conductors, Nia Llewellyn Jones. Delivered with wonderful aplomb and confidence by the choir, this was a programme whose demands might have taxed some of the country’s most ambitious choristers. In particular it is gratifying that both the choir unashamedly included a wide selection of Welsh music in their programme, from classics by Mansel Thomas and Mathias, though the late Mervyn Burtch’s Tair o Alawon Werin and Hilary Tann’s Paradise, to a newly commissioned work by Paul Mealor.
Sounds and Sweet Airs is a setting of Caliban’s words from Shakespeare’s The Tempest in which he describes the mysterious music of his island home. In setting these words Paul Mealor marked both the forthcoming Bard’s 400th birthday with words that must have reflected the feelings of the first Welsh settlers in Patagonia. It’s an occasional piece, but one that demonstrates the composer’s extraordinary deftness is responding to special occasions: a deeply sonorous and serene opening followed by a light-hearted tango (accompanied here by the wonderful accordionist, Mario Conway). It’s easy to see why choirs are queuing up for new works from this composer.
It was the first of two premieres for Mealor last weekend (his equally buoyant Celtic Overture was heard at the Welsh Proms the following night) and the choir’s concert also included the first of two premieres by Ferndale-born Hilary Tann. Although she has now been resident in America for some thirty years, her work has been much in evidence in Wales in the last few years and this summer she has been Tŷ Cerdd’s first Composer in Residence. Tŷ Cerdd, in conjunction with the WJEC, administer both the NYCW and NYBB, so this was an opportunity for the young musicians to work with one of Wales’s most experienced composers.
Paradise, for the NYCW concert, is a George Herbert setting from 2008, demonstrating the composer’s usual lyrical yet very focused musical voice. More ambitious was a newly commissioned score for the NYBBW, All the Moon Long. Taking words from Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill, it was Tann’s first work for brass band and, in its adventurous exploration of sonorities it very much lays outside the usual conventions of the ensemble. But its sense of free-wheeling fantasy and intriguing textures caught perfectly the wonderment of Thomas’s words. The NYBBW this year, under conductor and composer Philip Harper (whose idiomatic scores also featured in the concert), were in superb shape and more than a match for this bold new commission.
Photo of composer Paul Mealor with the NYCW courtesy of Tŷ Cerdd