Tag Archives: Ayr Choral Union

Ayr Choral Union: Masterworks

The vaccine roll-out in the UK may be the most important work the National Health Service is doing at the moment, but regular encounters with Ayr Choral Union should also be available on prescription.

Following the same model as the online Messiah last October, but with the bonus of choir director Andrew McTaggart joining the same quartet of soloists – soprano Catriona Hewitson, mezzo Penelope Cousland, tenor Ted Black and baritone Colin Murray – this was a greatest hits package from the Ayr chorus, hosted on Zoom. It is not a platform suited to audio collaboration, so hearing the choir sing together is not an option, but McTaggart and the 150 others who joined him do not allow that to stand in their way. The community of singers were all muted, but they could be seen lustily joining in with the young professionals on a programme that began with Handel’s Coronation Anthem Zadok the Priest, and included selections from Bach’s St John Passion, Mendelssohn’s Elijah, the Requiems of Brahms, Mozart and Faure, and contemporary work by Ola Gjeilo, Morten Lauridsen and the choir’s patron Sir James MacMillan.

Sir James had actually been part of the coaching sessions, guiding the choir through the Lux Aeterna from his Strathclyde Motets at one of their online meetings prior to this concert. Others were sectionals, with the soloists joining McTaggart to work on the repertoire. When they are permitted to sing together again, Ayr Choral Union will be nearer match-fit than many choirs.

The accompaniment for this concert was a string quartet (Katrina Lee, Kirstin Drew, Aaron McGregor and Alice Allen) filmed in Glasgow Cathedral with Andrew Forbes on keyboards. He was also responsible for editing the contributions of the singers and players together in what was a very slick split-screen operation. There was some lovely ensemble work from the quartet – notably on the Mozart Lacrymosa and Gjeilo’s Northern Lights – and McTaggart sometimes popped up in duplicate, conducting and singing, including a fine solo Libera Me from the Faure Requiem.

Not only has Ayr Choral continued to work through the pandemic, it has also been raising money for charity, regardless of the lack of ticket money for the coffers. In her upbeat introduction to the concert, choir president Kate Wilson may not have used the words “deficit be damned” but the implication was there.

So if your choir needs a kick-start after Covid, get in touch and see if they’ll share their fine film for a few quid. Just say VoxCarnyx sent you.

Keith Bruce

Messiah/Ayr Choral Union

When awards are made for the contributions to the beleaguered worlds of music and the arts during the health crisis, the name of baritone Andrew McTaggart should be one of the first on the list.

As a singer he was one of the first musicians back out on the road as part of the small team that took Scottish Opera’s Pop-Up versions of three very different shows to outdoor venues across the country when the weather still made such an exercise an optimistic possibility. And as a choir director he has kept the enthusiastic amateur voices of Ayr Choral Union exercised at a time when meeting together in a room has been impossible.

That project and purpose continues, but on Sunday the choir, four young soloists and a fine compact chamber ensemble came together online to perform Handel’s best-known oratorio in a manner that set its own template.

There are many ways to make a Messiah, from the small professional group giving a meticulous historically-informed performance through to Come & Sing versions for massed untrained voices. McTaggart conducted one that used the technology everyone is learning to embrace, YouTube and the Zoom platform, to combine elements of both in a communal experience.

His soloists – soprano Catriona Hewitson, contralto Penelope Cousland, tenor Ted Black and bass Colin Murray – had been leading sectional training online to supplement McTaggart’s own coaching of the choir in a time of social distancing, and for Sunday’s culminating performance they were also the onscreen, one-voice-to-a-part chorus, self-shot from where ever they happened to have been living at the time. The solo recitatives and arias, however, had been filmed in one session, in the same space as the socially-distanced twelve-piece ensemble, with McTaggart conducting.

The elements had been assembled for a full performance in which the sound quality was quite remarkable, and the pictures were more than just the icing on the cake because McTaggart was directing not only the people visible on screen, but also his 100 or more choristers singing along at home.

It was a compact version of the score, clocking in at well under two hours, but all the essential elements were there and the playing of the instrumentalists (with some well-known faces from Scottish music) and the performances of the young soloists were top class. Black and Cousland added some fine ornamentation, while Hewitson and Murray tended more towards playing with a pure-toned straight bat, while all four combined on Part Two’s sequence of choruses and then the Hallelujah in a way that suggested some very skilful sound engineering.

In some parts of Ayrshire it was perhaps possible to wander down the street and hear their voices leading members of the Choral Union who were joining in lustily in front of their own laptops and televisions. In the charitable tradition of the work, as the choir’s current President Kate Wilson pointed out, all donations supporting the performance are going to Help Musicians UK, which has plenty need to meet at the present time. McTaggart and Ayr Choral Union did Handel proud.
Keith Bruce

Image: Andrew McTaggart ©Julie Howden