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Cambridge first for youth choir

08 September 2017

Garry Humphreys on avant-garde outing

THE National Youth Choir of Great Britain is perhaps seen as the poor relation of the National Youth Orchestra: after all, everyone can sing! But, if proof were needed of the virtuosity and mature musicianship of this ensemble — in its way the equal of its instrumental counterpart — it was clearly shown at the concert in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, on 25 August, conducted by Trinity’s own director of music, Stephen Layton.

In a review (Arts, 28 April 2009) of a concert he conducted with the Trinity College chapel choir on Low Sunday 2009 as part of Cambridge Cantat — celebrating the 800th anniversary of the University’s foundation — I referred to Layton as “a man who galvanises audiences as well as choirs”. This remains true, if only measured by the silences that he can hold after the end of each work, a tribute to his powers of concentration and its effect on others, including many who can see only his back.

The programme, entirely unaccompanied, was a challenging one, which the choir dispatched with aplomb, having learned and rehearsed the music during the previous week’s residential course. Several of the shorter pieces were sung from memory. The only music familiar to me was the Mass for double choir by the Swiss composer Frank Martin, which always strikes me as a Continental cousin of Vaughan Williams’s Mass in G minor (another difficult work to sing).

“Revolutions: Voices of Change” was the title of this sequence of music tracing the movement during the 20th century of the European choral avant-garde from West to East. The concert began with Poulenc’s Exultate Deo, its ever-changing bar lengths negotiated with ease, followed by Messiaen’s O Sacrum Convivium, with its unusual four-and-a-half crotchets to the bar; both sung from memory, with some delectable pianissimos, completing the first half with the Martin Mass.

The second part concentrated entirely on music from Eastern Europe. The Lithuanian Vytautas Miškinis (b.1954) is a singer and well-known choir director in his own country, so as a composer knows what makes singers tick; his Angelis suis Deus was sung from memory.

Ugis Praulinš, born in 1957, is Latvian, born in Riga — his Missa Rigensis, the most substantial piece in the second half, has been recorded by Layton and his own Trinity College choir. An exciting piece, with dramatic effects and contrasts, but the spoken parts at “Confiteor” in the Credo — marked in the score to be whispered by a second choir, working up to a climax at the end, while the main choir sings fortissimo above it — are, frankly, a pointless misjudgement, even when the whispered part is bellowed into a microphone by the conductor, as on this occasion. I can’t imagine any circumstances, other than in a recording or broadcast, where this would work. The audience must have wondered what was going on. The spoken “Domine Deus” at the end was a different matter. I have not heard Layton’s recording of this otherwise splendid piece. The composer was present.

We also heard the world première of Salutation (words by Rabindranath Tagore) by another Latvian composer, Eriks Ešenvalds (b. 1977), no stranger to Trinity College, where he was Fellow Commoner in Creative Arts from 2011 to 2013. This was a commission by the NYCGB New Music Programme, an initiative to encourage the choir to sing new music specially written for it. There were lovely bottom Ds from the second basses at the end.

The programme ended with Nunc Dimittis by Pawel Lukaszewski (b.1968), who has been described as by far the best-known Polish composer of his generation, in Poland and abroad. He wrote this setting in 2007, but, as well as liturgical and sacred choral music (”resolutely anti-modern”, in the judgement of the Polish-music scholar Adrian Thomas), he has written symphonies, concertos, chamber music, songs, and music for theatre and films. This was another Trinity commission. During its mellifluous progress, a distant group of soloists intones the word “Domine”.

It is sometimes difficult to maintain audience interest in a wholly choral programme, particularly unaccompanied and of largely modern music, but the vibrant and varied choice of works, the thorough preparation, and the immaculate delivery ensured that this was not such an occasion. The audience acknowledged this with rapt attention followed by enthusiastic applause, for the music as well as for the performers.

This was not just a matter of the right notes in the right places, but of mature delivery and real musicality, as if the singers had lived with the music for a long time, not just one week, undoubtedly thanks to the brilliant Robbie Jacobs, who prepared the choir for Layton. The entire concert can be viewed on YouTube, and some clips of spontaneous outbursts of singing on concert day in Trinity Street, showing the same high quality — notably of Elgar’s As Torrents in Summer, as good a performance as I’ve heard anywhere — can also be found there.

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