A Young Choir creates an Hour of Radiant Order on a Chaotic Day

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Gibbons, Schütz, Monteverdi, Bruckner, Brahms, Vaughan Williams, Hamilton, Wheeler, Swingle:  National Youth Chamber Choir / Greg Hallam (conductor), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 17.6.2016 (GPu)

Orlando Gibbons: O Clap Your Hands
Heinrich Schütz: Selig sind die Toten
Claudio Monteverdi: Cantate Domino
Anton Bruckner: Christus factus est pro nobis  WAB 11
Johannes Brahms: Warum ist das Licht gegeben Op.74.No.1
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Three Shakespeare Songs
David Hamilton: Caliban’s Song
Janet Wheeler: Music to Hear
Ward Swingle: It Was A Lover and His Lass

On a day of derailed and cancelled trains, dark skies and flash floods, with a host of ensuing confusions and difficulties, it was good for the temper and the soul to be able to hear an hour of music from 16 impressive young voices in a lunchtime concert. As with most youth choirs the overall sound was sometimes a little light at the bottom end, but the precision of the choir’s singing and their frequent beauty and radiance of tone were a real joy. In the absence of any kind of printed programme, I am unable to name-check the members of the choir, though their conductor, the young (but experienced) Greg Hallam was familiar to me – I know him from his work as Musical Director of the Swansea Bach Choir. The youth choir he was directing on this occasion is one of the choirs existing under the aegis of that valuable organisation National Youth Choirs of Great Britain (see https://www.nycgb.org.uk/) of which Hallam is an Assistant Musical Director.

The music performed on this occasion fell into two groups. The first half of the concert was made up of a selection of a capella sacred music from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century, from Gibbons to Brahms. The second half consisted of some twentieth and twenty-first century settings of Shakespeare. The stylistic and technical demands were, therefore, quite varied, but Hallam and his young choir coped with them all.

Orlando Gibbons’ anthem was sung with precision and enthusiastic exuberance held in fitting balance. Control of Gibbons’ counterpoint was fused with a good sense of the dramatic nature of some of the exchanges between voices and all was sustained by a strong sense of rhythm, though just one or two entries were very slightly blurred. The overall sound was attractively (and appropriately) bright – “God is gone up with a merry noise, and the Lord with the sound of the trumpet. O sing praises, sing praises unto our God”. Schütz’s from the of 1648 presented rather different problems and perhaps the young voices of this choir were not heard at their very best in the dark colours of this powerful motet. Here, more than anywhere else, one felt the need for greater weight in the basses. Monteverdi’s (its text taken from Psalm 96) felt like a better ‘fit’, its opening beautifully springy and sung with vivacity and vitality in a reading well shaped by Greg Hallam.

In Bruckner’s motet Christus factus est pro nobis (actually the composer’s third setting of this particular Latin gradual) the choir created a strong sense of faith in the opening and rose to a radiant climax at the words “Propter quod et Deus exaltavit illum”. The whole was a memorable reading of a powerful work.

Brahms’ motet Warum ist das Licht gegeben dem Mühseligen (with its spiritually searching text, compiled by the composer, made up of Biblical texts – as translated by Luther, from Jeremiah, Job and James, along with the so-called Lutheran ‘Nunc Dimittis’) is a complex and demanding work. Its 12 or so minutes traverse some difficult emotions and ideas, beginning in anguished bewilderment (expressed in the repeated ‘Warum’ / ‘Why) at the ways of God, before reaching an accommodation with the human reality of death, accepted in patience, the accommodation enacted musically in the quasi-Bachian chorale which forms the last of the work’s four sections – “Mit Fried und Freud ich fahr dahin” – “With Peace and Joy I depart”. It is an ambitious work for a Youth Choir to undertake – not so much because of its purely musical demands (though these are considerable), but because of its emotional gravity. Asking a Youth Choir to sing it feels a bit like asking a talented seventeen year old actor to undertake the role of King Lear. Technical skill is not the only requirement, a fully satisfactory performance is necessarily grounded in a rich and complex life experience. Although the performance we heard did a good deal of justice to this remarkable work (I have heard inferior performances by more experienced choirs), there was still a sense that its profundities had not been fully articulated.

Vaughan Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs have been deservedly popular ever since they were written for the 1951 National Competitive Festival of the British Federation of Music Festivals (Vaughan Williams being its president). My own favourite is the first ‘Full Fathom Five’ with its sense of mystery and the presence of enough madrigalian elements and enough word-painting, to give it a quasi-Elizabethan quality. The choir (and conductor) relished these elements and gave a delightful performance. Equally attractive was ‘Over Hill, Over Dale’, sung with rapidity and an all-embracing spirit of gaiety. Slightly more problematic as a setting and thus, inevitably, as a performance is ‘The Cloud-Capp’d Towers’, where Shakespeare’s spoken text has a complexity of tone and layering of meaning difficult to sustain in the transition to song, though the shifting harmonies around the lines “all which it inherit, shall dissolve,/ And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,/ Leave not a rack behind: We are such stuff / As dreams are made on” made their usual delightful effect.

These three settings by Vaughan Williams were followed by three more, each by a different composer. The New Zealand composer David Hamilton was represented by his ‘Caliban’s Song’, a setting of lines from Act three scene 2 of the Tempest, spoken by Caliban, from “ Be not afeared, the isle is full of noises,/Sounds and sweet airs” to “when I waked / I cried to dream again”. Hamilton’s setting begins and ends with wordless sighs and vocal noises, evocative the magical music (non-human in origin) on the island, and elaborating many moments of real beauty inbetween; yet for all the skill of Hamilton’s writing and of the choir’s committed performance, I could not help but feel that much was, again, lost in the singing of words, rich in significance, originally designed for speech and bound up with the nature of Caliban as we have seen it and heard of it in all that has previously happened in the play. (I confess that I have known these lines by heart since I was about fifteen, though I don’t remember ever trying to learn them).

Janet Wheeler, in setting the eighth of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, ‘Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly’ took on a task of at least equal difficulty and, like Hamilton produced some attractive sounds without quite persuading one that this was a wholly achievable undertaking. It is easy to understand why composers should be particularly attracted to Shakespearean passages about music or full of musical imagery, but in both these cases, it involves taking lines away from the contexts which give them much of their meaning and almost inevitably robs them of some of the ambiguities of meaning which are intrinsic to their greatness as poetic/dramatic language. However, both ‘Caliban’s Song’ and ‘Music to hear’ left me with a desire to hear more of the work of their respective composers.

By way of conclusion / encore, we were treated to the late Ward Swingle’s setting of the song ‘It Was a Lover and his Lass’, sung by the pages in Act 5, Scene 3 of As You Like It. The song has been set many times over the centuries by, for example, Finzi, Warlock and Rubbra. As anyone familiar with the work of the Swingle Singers will expect, Ward Swingle’s approach is a good deal ‘jazzier’ than that of such predecessors. Though the members of the NYCC didn’t strike me as instinctive or natural ‘jazzers’, they clearly enjoyed singing this setting – in which I particularly liked the way in which Shakespeare’s ‘nonsense’ syllables, “With a hey and a ho and a hey nonino” or “hey ding a ding a ding” began to function a little in the fashion of a jazz singer’s scatting – and successfully communicated that enjoyment to their audience. It made for a sprightly conclusion to an enjoyable concert, before we exited (if not quite “pursued by a bear” at least in expectation of more “wind and rain”).

Glyn Pursglove

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