Simply the Best
Choir supremo Christopher Bell tells KEN WALTON about the exciting new NYCOS initiative he’s launching at the Lammermuir Festival
No sooner has the buzz of the Edinburgh International Festival dissipated than the Lammermuir Festival bursts into action with a programme of equal calibre. From 8-19 September all the big Classical Music action is in East Lothian, opening on Thursday with the compelling pianism of Jeremy Denk in Dunbar, and an operatic rarity – Massenet’s Thérèse – courtesy of Scottish Opera in St Mary’s Church, Haddington.
Elsewhere over the next 12 days regular morning coffee concerts include a series of song recitals by various star vocalists partnered with pianist Malcom Martineau; the chamber music programme ranges from string quartets Quatuor Mosaïques and Quatuor Agate to such invigorating couplings as cellist Laura van der Heijden and pianist Tom Poster; larger scale events extend from Bach cantata performances by the Marian Consort and Spiritato to orchestra programmes by the RSNO, SCO, Royal Northern Sinfonia, and the BBC SSO.
Among this cornucopia of delights, however, there’s one event that deserves special mention. It’s at Loretto School Chapel this Sunday (11 Sep), and it might take a second glance at the billing to appreciate that this isn’t just by any old National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCOS) ensemble, but a brand new initiative that its artistic director Christopher Bell expects will personify excellence. Bell makes no apology for the selectivity of its 24 members. “They have to be at the top of their game to be chosen,” he says.
This is NYCOS’ “First XV”, singers taken from the current flagship National Youth Choir who are deemed the star players. Bell recognises that such a strategy goes against the inclusive brigade who’s view is you shouldn’t be leaving people out. “I’m quite surprised that 25 years on from founding NYCOS I’m still making the argument that to get the vey best results you have to have the very best singers,” he says.
His methods are tried and tested. The current lead ensembles – which also include the National Girls and National Boys Choirs – have performed at the highest level, from the BBC Proms and Edinburgh Festival to highly-acclaimed appearances in the USA. They have even been the choir of choice for Sir John Eliot Gardner and his Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique.
To get them to that level, Bell’s preferred model is pyramidal. At its base are the 14 regional choirs that eventually feed the national ones. But there are also parallel strands that address inclusivity. “Everybody at school should experience singing, which is why we run a programme of general access educational work where we’ll do singing days and teach teachers through workshops. Alongside that there’s the progressively-structured choir activity.
“But it’s like when a school wants a winning football team. Yes, everyone’s done PE, but you want the players that will get the ball in the net. When it comes to choosing a choir, particularly when it’s outside school, you want the best singers.”
One of the express aims of the new Chamber Choir is to tackle some of the most testing and varied repertoire. Sunday’s recital will include Britten’s slightly mad cantata Rejoice in the Lamb, James MacMillan’s Culham Motets and Jonathan Dove’s Passing of the Year. “Jonathan’s piece is really brilliant, very thoughtful, but joyful too,” he explains. “It’s about the arc of the year expressing the arc of life in symbolic terms. The funeral march near the end will break your heart.”
For this, Bell has been very specific in the voices he has recruited. They have to suit the repertoire of a given programme. “But it will be horses for courses,” he adds. “”It won’t necessarily be the same 24 people all the time. If we decide to do a more operatic programme, we choose the right voices. For a more churchy programme, a kind of Tenebrae meets Tallis Scholars, again we choose the best voices for the job. I even reserve the right, if there isn’t the right level within the group, to bring some NYCOS alumni back to ensure it’s of a decent level.”
“There’s capacity for the new choir to do really hard music, for us to make recordings of very different repertoire. This concert is the official launch of that idea: an idea we put to the Leverhulme Trust who came up with a very nice amount of money, which means that for the next three years we will be able to do it.”
The Chamber Choir sneaked in a soft launch recently in St Andrews and will do the same in Helensburgh this Saturday. But Sunday is the big moment when Bell introduces his newest choral initiative to a discriminating Lammermuir Festival audience. Thereafter it has a Scottish tour planned and recordings that include one for the BBC. “What we are not looking to do is crash in on already existing ensembles,” Bell stresses. “We’re looking to find maybe a niche, one that gives the really experienced NYCOS singers a chance to do yet more detailed and high level work, and not to stand on anyone’s toes!”.
The new NYCOS Chamber Choir launches at the Lammermuir Festival on 11 Sep (3pm) in Loretto School Chapel, Musselburgh. The Festival runs in venues around East Lothian from 8-19 Sep. Full details on www.lammermuirfestival.co.uk