Perfect pitch of musical pearls

Cork Choral Festival is more than competition, it is primarily about the joy of singing, writes Declan Townsend

Ateneo de Manila College Glee Club from the Philippines were one of the highlights of the Cork International Choral Festival. Picture: Michael MacSweeney

THE number of open competitions for Irish choirs in which a first prize was not awarded suggested to me standards had, perhaps, dropped at this year’s Cork Choral Festival … until I looked in the programme for the names of choirs which have been regular visitors to the festival and discovered their absence.

New names sprang out at me and, yes, the marks awarded by the five distinguished international adjudicators were lower than the competitors would have hoped for. However, Irish choirs that have won first prizes in national competitions in previous years are now competing at the highest international level, thus proving the success of the festival in promoting the highest standards and challenging Irish choirs to attain these standards. That these are attainable can be gleaned from the 91.75% awarded to Presentation Secondary School, Ballyphehane, Cork (conductor, Anne Dunphy).

This festival, however, is not just about competition. It is primarily about the joy of singing, sharing a musical experience with others, striving for the highest standards, and making something beautiful, just for the pleasure of doing so.

This sense of joyful music making was most evident in the performance of the choir that won the Fleischmann Trophy, Ateneo de Manila College Glee Club from the Philippines. I was fortunate to hear their non-competitive performance in the lovely surroundings of Triskel Christchurch, and sit alongside a sullen-looking group of teenage boys whose whole demeanour changed to joy and enthusiasm on hearing them. Earlier I had enjoyed the exceptionally beautiful singing of the Vocal Ensemble of Risbergska High School from Sweden in the packed Masonic Hall.

This same joy in making music was also evident in the Composers in the Classroom seminar, held in the Millennium Hall, when transition-year students from Coláiste an Chraoibhín, Fermoy; St Aloysius College, Carrigtwohill; Regina Mundi, Cork; and Gaelscoil Mhuire, Cork, performed music they had created in school under the guidance of professional composers, musicians, and their teachers. The standards of singing, playing, and presentation in this educational initiative seem to improve every year and it was wonderful to witness the joy of these young musicians in listening to the short recital afterwards, given by the young Varmlands Nations Choir from Sweden.

An important aspect of this festival has been the associated seminar on Contemporary Choral Music. Chaired by composer, Rhona Clarke, the National Chamber Choir of Ireland (conductor, Paul Hillier) performs the work commissioned for the festival that were premiered the previous evening. There followed a discussion between the chair, composers, conductor, audience and choir members that sought to elucidate what has motivated the composers to create the music.

Gerald Barry chose to set the first two pages of a Proust novel to music, just using the scale of C major, ascending and descending, mirroring the banality of the text with the most banal musical material he could find.

Frank Corkery won the Seán Ó Riada Competition prize with ‘Two Unholy Haikus’, brief settings of his own haiku texts in which he was playing with the words and the notes as if they were Lego bricks and seeing what he could do with them. I can’t suggest either composer has added anything of significance to the choral repertory.

The gala concerts each evening were wonderful. Following Wednesday’s superb performance of the Mozart Requiem, Thursday brought the Kings Singers to the Opera House. Five English madrigals (brilliantly sung), followed by three settings by Parry and Stanford (all of which need a full, large choir to make their effect), did not make for an exciting start. When they lightened their programme with Ligeti’s very funny Nonsense madrigals and Paul Drayton’s ‘Masterpiece’ things improved, and by the time they reached Michael Bublé’s ‘Let Me Go Home’ they had the audience enthralled.

The Irish Colloquy the National Chamber Choir presented in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral was like a string of perfect musical pearls. Except for Nicholas Maw’s Five Irish Songs (composed for the Cork Seminar) the whole, incredibly moving programme was composed by living composers. From St Fin Barre’s we went to the North Cathedral where the beauty, dynamic control and vocal resonance of the Czech Gentlemen Singers were even better than those of the Kings Singers. Poulenc’s gorgeous St Francis prayers remain a particularly beautiful memory for me.

Sunday night’s closing gala brought choirs and a folk orchestra (Ceoltóirí Chairbre) from nine different countries, all performing for the sheer pleasure of making music.


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