Cork Choral Festival: Toasting the city of song

Cork Choral Festival 2013 was another huge success, writes Declan Townsend

JOHN Fitzpatrick, Director of Cork International Choral festival, estimates that more than 5,000 people visited Cork for this year’s festival and reminded the audience for the final night that this 59th festival is exactly what the instigators of An Tóstal had in mind when the festival was founded.

Lord Mayor, John Buttimer, paid tribute to the huge contribution the festival has made to The Gathering in Cork and he praised the spirit of volunteerism that makes it so friendly and so successful. Although competition is, primarily, what draws choirs to Cork (this year’s Fleischmann International Trophy Competition drew choirs from nine countries), choirs from a further nine countries came just to take part in what has become one of the premier choral festivals in Europe.

A perusal of the results of the various competitions in the 59th Cork International Choral Festival seems to suggest that standards of choral singing have, once again, edged ever so slightly higher than in previous years. Not very long ago, a choir that was awarded an overall mark of 85% was exceptionally pleased and almost certain to be awarded a prize. Nowadays, the perceived barrier that seemed to prevent choirs achieving marks higher than 85% has disappeared and the top marks awarded in recent years have exceeded 90% and it was so again this year, when no fewer than 16 choirs were awarded marks between 86% and 93%, the latter being awarded to Presentation Secondary School Choir, Ballyphehane, Cork (conductor, Anne Dunphy).

Competitions, though, are just one part of this marvellously entertaining festival and I derived much pleasure from the huge amount of new music that I heard and the wide spectrum of vocal and choral styles on offer.

The virtuoso National Chamber Choir, for instance, performed four pieces ‘entitled ‘Four Gallows Songs’, all of them spoken (not sung) in Finnish and a wordless piece, called Euphony, meaning pleasing sounds, that they had commissioned from Dublin-based composer, Enda Bates, both of which drew ecstatic applause from the capacity audience in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral. Their programme, entitled A Eurocry, embraced music from the 16th to the 21st century, my favourites being Ligeti’s humorous Alphabet Song and a very warm-toned love song by Louis Andriessen (b.1939).

In contrast, The Real Group from Sweden drew a young, enthusiastic audience to the Opera House. Here we were treated to a virtuoso display of unaccompanied vocal styles that embraced jazz, swing, and quasi-barbershop singing that had the audience shouting for more. The perfectly balanced voices of the two girls and three men were skilfully amplified and their rhythmic effects were wonderful. My favourite piece was their ‘send-up’ composition of a Nashville-style country song, superbly delivered.

Another contrast was provided by the six members of the Songmen, who performed the late-night Evocations concert at a packed North Cathedral. Here we heard deeply religious music dating from the 16th century to the present day, magnificently sung. Their opening ‘Totus Tuus’ by the Polish Henryk Gorecki was exceptionally moving and their wonderful changing of textures in Victoria’s Lamentations for Holy Saturday IX was very impressive.

Triskel Christchurch once again provided some very happy memories with their lunchtime concerts. This beautiful venue was home, on Wednesday and Thursday, to Voci Nuove Chamber Choir from Cork, Te Deum Adoramus Chamber Ensemble from Bulgaria, and Coro, from England. Each choir chose music that entertained, rather than challenged the audience. I particularly enjoyed Arvo Part’s setting of St Patrick’s Breastplate (called The Deer’s Cry for some reason) sung by Voci Nuove, the gorgeous Prayer by Georgi Popov (Te Deum Adoramus), and Dowland’s ‘Sleep Wayward Thoughts’ sung with marvellously clear diction by Coro.

The educational aspect of this year’s festival was particularly interesting. While I was unable to attend the Composers in the Classroom seminar, I greatly enjoyed both the 45th Seminar on New Choral Music as well as the Seán Ó Riada Competition Seminar and launch of the ‘Choirland’ anthology of Irish Choral Music, each of which was graced by Paul Hillier and the National Chamber Choir. On Friday, Rhona Clarke led a discussion of both Enda Bates’ ‘Euphony’ and Solfa Carlile’s Ó Riada-prizewinning composition, ‘Upon the Rose’ with the composers, Paul Hillier and the National Chamber Choir which was lively and illuminating.

Both events were well attended by aspiring composers and others with an interest in new music. All must have been inspired by the attention that Hillier and the singers in the National Chamber Choir obviously pay to every element in a new composition. I was particularly impressed, having heard and enjoyed Solfa Carlile’s music, with the discussion that ensued.

Sunday night’s Gala Concert was a celebration of the joys of singing and music by 12 choirs plus the marvellous Ceoltóirí Mhúscraí. One aspect of previous choral festivals that really irritated me was the omnipresent black that both men and women singers wore. Last year broke that mould when the wonderfully colourful costumes of the Ateneo Manilla Glee Club brightened the City Hall stage. This year only one choir, the Fleischmann trophy winners, University of Oregon Chamber Choir, wore black. All other choirs had added colourful scarves, sashes, ribbons etc to their outfits and their singing was equally colourful and festive.

SEE BELOW FOR A FULL LIST OF CHORAL FESTIVAL WINNERS


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