The Voice I

Open [World premiere]
An American in Paris
A Rose Tree Blossoms
On the Underground [Set 2]
I have had singing
We Turned on the Light [BBC commission: first realisation]
Chichester Psalms

Susan Gritton (soprano)

Sam Adams Nye (treble)

Carol Grimes & Manickam Yogeswaran (singers)

The Shout
The Rabble
Orlando Gough

National Youth Choir of Scotland
Christopher Bell

National Youth Choir of Great Britain

Rudolfus Choir

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
Martyn Brabbins

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 29 July, 2006
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Following on from last year’s “Violins”, the Proms this time celebrated “The Voice” over two concerts – with choirs large and small and ‘The Rabble’, a chorus of enthusiastic novices.

The first, afternoon, Prom included the National Youth Choir of Scotland with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra adding weight to the Scottish element and a number of Scottish flags that fluttered in the breeze of the air-conditioning.

There was less than an hour of music in the concert’s first half, but it felt much longer, largely due to the number of pieces, albeit short that were performed. The world premiere of Orlando Gough’s “Open” utilised the whole of the hall with melismatic solos echoing from the stage, back of the hall and high in the gallery. Choral punctuation over a Middle Eastern drone set the vocal tone for the afternoon shattered by the incongruity of Gershwin’s An American in Paris – what this had to do with the ‘voice’ theme I do not know. That said, the performance of one of Gershwin’s most successful pieces, was artfully managed. Well-articulated strings bounced along with just the right amount of joie de vivre while the shining brass never gave a hint of over-blowing despite being positioned above the rest of the orchestra; lush harmony was intensified.

As a showcase for the National Youth Choir of Scotland, Christopher Bell, its Artistic Director and conductor, led three a cappella works. Especially impressive was the clarity of diction; this is so often forgotten about, even in professional choirs. Every word was distinctly audible.

“On the Underground” by Scotland-born, America-domiciled Thea Musgrave is inspired by the “Poems on the Underground” series that has adorned London Tube trains since 1986. These delightful settings were a fabulous choice for the choir, the singers gleefully relishing the word-painting, in particular in “The Subway Piranhas” – a faster-moving setting that came close to making the choir stumble.

Ending the first half was a gritty performance of Poulenc’s “Gloria”. This ‘late’ work was commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation who were anticipating a symphony or an organ concerto. Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra provided a well-balanced accompaniment to the choir and soloist Susan Gritton. Again the words were superbly enunciated by the choir – light work made of the Latin text.

However, it was Orlando Gough’s “We Turned on the Light” that stole the show. To words by Caryl Churchill, jazzy dotted rhythms enthused the choir to move and almost dance along with the fast, triple-time music.

Continuing with jazzy cross rhythms, Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms ended a tiring if rewarding afternoon. The commission by the Dean of Chichester Cathedral was for all-male voices, but Bernstein conducted the premiere of the work a fortnight before the performance at Chichester Cathedral and this was in a mixed-choir version, as performed here. Sadly the choir did sound tired. The clarity of the earlier pieces was lost in Hebrew enunciation that requires all parts of the mouth to work at the same time and often in contradiction to what we in the West would consider ‘normal’. Treble Sam Adams Nye beautifully tackled the long phrases in ‘Psalm 23’ (The Lord is my Shepherd) without the breathlessness that boy-trebles often exhibit in this movement. The sudden switch to the Allegro feroce for ‘Psalm 2’ was far from ‘furious’ and a long way from the ‘minim equals quaver’ tempo marked in the score.

Orlando Gough said in his introduction for the Prom guide: “Amo, amas, amat … amateur. It doesn’t mean you’re no good, it means you do it for love”. These musicians clearly loved what they were doing, very little needed to be “given way” in recognition of amateur status. Judged by professional standards, the musicianship of the ‘National Youth’ choirs of this country suggests that we have little to fear for the future.

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