Tag Archives: Christopher Bell

Lammermuir: NYCoS Chamber Choir

Loretto School Chapel

Featuring a full complement of the Scottish orchestras, the presence of Scottish Opera, quality string quartets and more top drawer pianists than is quite decent, one of the few things the 2022 Lammermuir Festival is not about is debuts. Or perhaps it is.

With The Marian Consort, Sansara, The Orlando Consort and Dunedin Consort still to come in the chamber choir line-up, that strand began with the first public concert by the newest ensemble under the capacious umbrella of the National Youth Choir of Scotland.

Long in the planning, or at least in the aspirations of NYCoS founder and artistic director Christopher Bell, the NYCoS Chamber Choir takes his example of the pursuit of excellence with the young musicians of Scotland to another level. If the full forces of the senior choir have already impressed some of the world’s top conductors in performances in Edinburgh, London, Europe and the United States, this elite unit of between 20 and 30 young voices is a refinement of that success.

What Bell has done with the formation of the Chamber Choir is select the finest voices within the current cohort – and possibly recent graduates who are beyond the stipulated age-range in future incarnations – and created a group that can tackle specific repertoire. Who knows what that might be in the future, but this first concert set bold, contemporary parameters – putting, perhaps quite deliberately, clear distance between the NYCoS Chamber Choir and the other vocal groups at this year’s Lammermuir.

With Michael Bawtree at the organ for Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which opened the recital, and the piano for Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year, which concluded it, the other two works were a cappella – James MacMillan’s Culham Motets and Caroline Shaw’s And the swallow.

Only the Dove, which dates from 2000, could be described as a secular work, although some of the poetry he sets – Blake, Dickinson and Tennyson among the texts – is faith-inspired. It was an especially appropriate work, not just for an unintended allusion to the death of the Queen, but also because the setting of Dickinson’s Answer July seemed to be a mature version of the sort of songs NYCoS has commissioned as part of its invaluable training of young musicians over its 25 years.

That coming to maturity of the organisation is perfectly celebrated in the birth of this choir. If Britten’s fascinating 1943 work – commissioned by the same clergyman responsible for Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and setting texts by troubled 18th century poet Christopher Smart – is not heard very often, it is because it is far from easy. Here too, though, step-outs from soprano Emily Kemp and alto Olivia Mackenzie Smith take the listener into a child-like world of cat and mouse, while tenor Alexander Roland and bass Christopher Brighty each made powerful solo contributions.

Kemp then supported fellow soprano Lorna Murray in the exquisite close harmony passages of the MacMillan, while all the female voices provided an ethereal underscore to solo tenor Lewis Gilchrist. With alto Morven McIntyre and tenor Jack Mowbray the solo voices in the Dove, this was a chance for individuals to shine, but mainly about the meticulous performance of the ensemble of young men and women whose musical abilities far transcend any “youth choir” or “non-professional” categorisation.

The group also gives Bell access to a whole realm of repertoire, including the newest piece in this programme, the setting of verses from Psalm 84 by America’s composer-of-the-moment, Caroline Shaw. And the swallow is a gorgeous piece which seems to take the sound-world of Whitacre or Lauridsen into a more sophisticated sphere, not least in the imaginative and specific vocal techniques it demands.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Stuart Armitt

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

Making Young Voices Heard

The guy who does Christmas, NYCOS artistic director Christopher Bell, talks to KEITH BRUCE

The artistic director of the National Youth Choir of Scotland is in ebullient mood when I call him.

This is champion, because no-one does ebullience quite like Christopher Bell, as anyone who has attended any of the Christmas Concerts he conducted over the past quarter of a century will know.

Not this year, it’s true, and we’ll come to that.

The cause of Bell’s upbeat mood is not the start of a vaccination programme that should ultimately see the many-tiered organisation he founded and developed operating as intended, with highly trained young-voices impressing audiences, critics and conductors in packed halls across the nation and the world – or at least not the direct cause.

Whether as a result of the new mood of optimism abroad or not, Bell can now start planning for residential courses for his National Boys and National Girls Choirs in April, because one of the schools in Edinburgh that regularly hosts them had just made clear that it is ready to welcome the young musicians through its doors in the Easter holidays again.

This is in stark contrast to the situation a couple of months ago when his attempt to find even an outdoor playing field or sports ground willing to host a gathering of socially-distanced singers was meeting with a frosty response.

NYCOS has far from shut up shop, of course. When the coronavirus struck, just before last year’s Easter courses, the organisation very swiftly moved its work online, and its invaluable education of Scotland’s young folk at a local and national level, and from toddlers to twenty-somethings, continued. It continues still, with a weekend of online singing by the latest recruits to the National Boys Choir just ended and one with the National Girls Choir about to start.

“Suddenly, things seem a lot more hopeful,” says Bell. And fortuitously NYCOS has a Christmas recording poised in the blocks and ready to remind everyone what an essential treat music-making by young voice is at this time of year. (See review by Ken Walton elsewhere on Vox Carnyx)

The lead single from the seven track Signum release is a Paul Mealor original, I Pray, which features the solo voice of tenor Jamie MacDougall and the highlight of a set recorded seven years ago.

“Christmas is the time when you miss people who have gone, and this Christmas we are all going to miss people because we can’t link up with them. This song that Paul Mealor has written is about the people we are missing and the people we’ve lost. I lost my own father on Christmas Day, so that makes I Pray particularly special for me,” says Bell.

“The music is from a book, called Carols for Everyone, funded by the Carnegie Foundation and published by Novello in 2013. The idea was that these arrangements could involve an SATB choir, or a children’s choir, or both. We were contacted by Tern TV to record a few tracks for the Watchnight Service they were filming in Aberdeen. We got a choir together and we recorded all the songs in the book.

“This year I got in touch with Tern TV and asked what we were allowed to do with the tracks, and they were quite happy for us to use them.”

It is the latest in a sequence of releases that has kept NYCOS in the public ear, including a July 4 selection of music by Aaron Copland and Irving Berlin and a St Andrew’s Day double A-side. The sequence started with an album with the RSNO featuring Sir James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados alongside songs by Eric Whitacre, Thea Musgrave and Sir Michael Tippett.

“Cantos Sagrados reached number 13 in the Classical Charts and had brilliant reviews, including one in Gramophone Magazine” says Bell. “The releases have been very important in terms of keeping the NYCOS sound alive in the year that NYCOS can’t sing in public. It is about awareness, and I think I Pray could do well.”

Mr Christmas, Christopher Bell (credit Drew Farrell)

Mischievously, Bell compares that the current situation for choirs to the resourcefulness of Catholics after the Reformation, meeting in secret to sing the Mass in Latin.

“There are people still singing and keeping the flame alive, and we are trying our best to keep Scotland’s young people singing. We are just having to do it online. The NYCOS regional choirs across the country have been rehearsing online since September, and have had online Christmas events.” 

After detailed risk assessments, one choir met outside, in a park. Groups of no more than 20 gathered to a strict timetable for half an hour of singing, and then had to return, by a different route, to the carpark where parents waited.

“At the end, it left us thinking that those choirs working in areas in Tier 1 and 2 could feasibly have outdoor events.”

There has been a positive side to learning to work online as well.

“For NYCOS it has been a huge opportunity. When we did our Kodaly teaching in August, we had 300 participants including people in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Singapore, England, Ireland, and Scandinavia. People joined our online courses who wouldn’t have been able to do it.

“The NYCOS philosophy and NYCOS publications have been winging their way to the four corners of the world as a result of being able to do our courses online. We are currently talking about how we can capitalise on that in the new year.”

And there have been more specific practical benefits in learning to operate online.

“Boys’ voices change, and between our auditions in November and course in April is long enough for significant changes in the voices of the boys we’ve chosen. So frequently at the start of the course I have a mad morning listening to 40 or 50 boys to hear whether their voices have changed since I last heard them. Zoom is going to allow me to do that in the days before the course.

“Singing teachers are now able to do consultation online, and share resources. We are going to be able to be better at what we do as a result of Zoom. Nobody wanted to do a singing lesson online prior to March, but this has opened our eyes to the fact that it is possible.”

But the Christmas concerts that were another aspect of Christopher Bell’s career are another matter. 

He has a good story about being recognised at his local petrol station with the question: “Are you the guy that does Christmas?” His interrogator went on to say that a family outing to the RSNO’s Christmas Concert at the Usher Hall always marked the official start to his festive season.

Bell had handed on the mantle of chorusmaster at the RSNO Junior Chorus and his staff link with the orchestra before the current crisis, but the days of conducting as many as 18 Christmas concerts are understandably on his mind at the moment, and technology cannot replicate the thrill of those events.

“It was about engaging with the audience, giving people that warm feeling at Christmas time. I need the orchestra, the choir and the hall; we inspire each other to create a unique experience.

“I did RSNO Christmas concerts for 25 years, and I will need to find something to replace it next year. I’m not sure if Christopher Bell’s Christmas Concerts would have marketing appeal, but maybe we’ll test the market.”

The NYCOS mini album Until We Meet Again and the single I Pray are out now on Signum Classics.