Mary Woodward Review

National Youth Choir of Scotland Chamber Choir, Loretto School Chapel, Musselburgh, Review:

**** (4 stars)

Lammermuir Festival

This was a very exciting first – the first public performance of the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s chamber choir, formed earlier this year – and they did themselves and their conductor Christopher Bell very proud indeed.  The chamber choir’s members, aged between 18 and 25, are selected from the NYCOS, entry to which is by audition.  Unlike many choirs, they don’t have weekly rehearsals, instead coming together for a residential course during which they learn their repertoire for the coming year: in this case a very challenging quartet of choral works, the earliest of which was written in 1943 and the newest less than ten years ago.

The programme opened with Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which I remember struggling to learn many years ago.  Using fragments from the longer poem Jubilate Agno [rejoice in the lamb] written in the later eighteenth century by Christopher Smart while he was incarcerated in St Luke’s Hospital, Bethnal Green and subject to the inhumane treatment which was then meted out to people with mental illnesses.  

The opening Rejoice in God, O ye tongues had strong, confident choral singing, underpinned by the organ, and a wonderfully hushed Hallelujah, which I remembered as one of the highlights of the piece.  For I will consider my cat, Jeoffrey / For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour and For the flowers are great blessings all featured excellent solos.  In For I am under the same accusation with my Saviour we could clearly hear Smart’s agony; and then relax and rejoice with the sections praising God.  For H is spirit and therefore he is God featured another excellent solo; again I remembered fun of singing For the instruments are by their rhimes.  The piece ended with the calming For at that time malignity ceases and its segue into a repeat of Hallalujah from the heart of God.

This piece alone would have been enough to command my respect for this new chamber choir, but then they presented me with three complex and brilliant works I’d not heard before – the way these were handled was extremely impressive, and bodes well for the future of this group of singers.

James MacMillan’s Culham Motets were written in 2010, and was ideally suited to the acoustic of Loretto’s chapel, where the sound could ring and soar and the silences blazed with light.  Sung a capella, the music seemed to me to be somehow much more credible and relevant, with a much cleaner sound.  There were more excellent solos and some fascinating aleatoric passages – the singers know the pitches they have to sing, but it’s up to each individual to decide exactly how long their particular notes will last.  [I’ve sung such a piece myself, and it’s both enormous fun and absolutely terrifying – full credit to the choir for making it seem unbelievably east and simply great fun!]  The final motet Your light will come, Jerusalem was full of edgy harmonies and striking silences which expanded out into the chapel like rays of light bursting through the clouds: not a comfortable light…

After the interval we heard Caroline Shaw’s And the swallow and Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year.  Caroline Shaw (b 1982) is an American singer, musician and composer and the youngest-ever recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Music (2013).  And the swallow sets portions of Psalm 84, using the choir antiphonally, overlapping words and phrases to create a multi-layered web of sound from which individual phrases stand clear.  It’s absolutely gorgeous and virtually indescribable!

I first came across Jonathan Dove’s work when Scottish Opera staged his opera Flight, which deals with the plight of a stateless person who is, in effect, trapped in an airport, unable to leave because he has nowhere he can go.  Earlier this year I was enthralled by one of his choral works, Bless the Lord my soul, which soared above us in St Giles’ Cathedral and made my spirits soar.   The NYCOS chamber choir had worked on The Passing of the Year in May, but the words took on an extra significance in the light of the Queen’s death.  The work opens with the spring opening of buds, the glories of blossoming summer, the frantic skittering of bees around the bushes: it’s suffused with radiant joy.  Hot sun, cool fire contrasts shimmering heat with the coolness of black shade, the sound lush and voluptuous; Ah, Sun-flower is full of the chiming of bells, their glorious cacophony celebrating the fullness of autumn and then fading away.  Adieu! farewell earth’s bliss is quiet and sombre: a constant ground of have mercy on usunderpins a great crying- out – I am sick, I must die: death comes to us all, rich and poor alike.  The final movement Ring out, wild bells sets Tennyson’s poem: we have arrived at the turning of the year, not lamenting the death of the old but rejoicing in the birth of the new.   Apposite, indeed…

 As with the other three pieces, The Passing of the Year was greeted with a deeply appreciative silence which then became loud and prolonged applause as the audience saluted the impressive talent of the NYCOS chamber choir.  Soloists Emily Kemp, Olivia Mackenzie, Alexander Roland, Christopher Brighty, Lewis Gilchrist, Lorna Murray, Morven McIntyre and Jack Mowbray were all warmly applauded: all are singers to look out for in future.  Pianist and organist Michael Bawtree and conductor Christopher Bell also took their bows as we acknowledged the sterling contribution each had made to a memorable afternoon.

I’m sure I’m not the only person looking forward with great interest to the next outing of the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s chamber choir.  They are already fully-formed and raring to go – from here onwards, I trust they will only get better. 

National Youth Choir of Scotland Chamber Choir ,Run Ended.

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