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Cool choristers

08 November 2013

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IT HAS been a while since I last tuned in to the annual Young Choristers of the Year competition. Since then, the programme has been bumped from its slot in Radio 2's Faith in the World week, and appeared last Thursday in a 10 p.m. slot - beyond, I would hope, the bedtimes of most participants.

And yet, in this, of all competitions, when the MC says that the competitors were all brilliant, she is telling the truth. The singing of the four boys and four girls in this year's competition was preternaturally good; and, in the case of one or two, I would almost say, too good - accomplished, polished, mature in a way that children's voices ought not to be.

Part of it was the choice of hymns and anthems: Bach and Handel predominated, and hardly a worship song in earshot. All the competitors appeared to be as cool as cucumbers, bantering with the host, Diane-Louise Jordan, with an assurance from which a seasoned professional might have learnt a thing or two.

Peter chatted about how he likes to split logs with his granddad, before launching into a wonderful rendition of "Be still, for the presence of the Lord"; and Laura revealed that the secret of her success was smiling at the audience. And, in her case, it worked.

In contrast, the adults sounded forced. Jordan's links would have made even a regular Radio 2 listener blush ("Henry is now going to sing 'Just as I am' - well, Henry, we want to hear you just as you are!"), and the inclusion of a female a cappella group to break the spell of Baroque masters with a rendition of "The Way You Look Tonight" looked like an attempt to counteract the children's high-brow tastes with some grown-up easy listening.

The only time when the competitors appeared vulnerable to nerves came in the final piece, when the two winners were given the task of singing the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria" with the a cappella group. And it is hardly any wonder: the piece is a big ask of any singer, even ones who have not had to endure a night of high-level public performance. What was the second prize: Queen of the Night with the LSO?

Still, it is reassuring to see church music-making flourish, even when Anglican churchgoing continues to decline. Perhaps, in the end, only the songs and ceremonies will survive, long after the doctrines have lost their appeal - that would certainly be the conclusion to be drawn from a feature on last Friday's World at One (Radio 4), in which Robert Pigott met people attending a Sunday Assembly in Leeds.

The Sunday Assembly is a movement of atheists who gather together to sing songs, meditate, and listen to an inspiring speaker. Sound familiar? The assembly that Pigott visited was being held on a Tuesday evening, since their venue - the redundant St John the Evangelist, Leeds - has alternative uses for its space on a Sunday. But, in almost every other respect, this was a gathering that traditional C of E congregations would have found familiar.

There was cake after the service; songs that the "congregation" said were too high to sing; and a leader expressing doubts about the central doctrines of the Christian faith.

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