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Monday, 28 April 2014

The final - London International A Cappella Competition

Coro El Leon de Oro - winners of the London International A Cappella Choir Competition
Coro El Leon de Oro
winners of the
London International A Cappella Choir Competition
The first London International A Cappella Competition reached its climax with the final at St. John's Smith Square on Saturday 26 April. Choirs from Italy, Spain, Estonia, the UK and Ireland performed, having first successfully competed in one of the heats earlier in the week (see my review of the second heat). New Dublin Voices, conductor Bernie Sherlock, had won the Audience Price and performed non-competitively on Saturday. Four choirs were in the final; Voces Musicales, conductor Risto Joost, from Tallinn in Estonia, Costanzo Porta, conductor Antonio Greco, from Italy, the Erebus Ensemble, conductor Tom Williams, from Bristol and El Leon de Oro, conductor Marc Antonio Garcia de la Paz, from Asturias in Spain.

The judges were Peter Phillips (of the Tallis Scholars), Mark Williams (Music Director of the Choirs of Jesus College, Cambridge), James O'Donnell (Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Cathedral) and the distinguished soprano Dame Emma Kirkby. Phillips and Williams had been present on the jury for the entire week, so had in fact heard all the ensembles before. All the choirs sang a mixture of compulsory and free choice pieces and one of the interesting aspects of the various programmes was to see what works the choirs' had chosen to complement their compulsory works.

The other fascinating element was hearing four very different ensembles performing the same or similar works with John Tavener's The Lamb being in every programme. The festival was initially planned as a celebration of Tavener's 70th birthday and the inclusion of his music was deliberate. As well as this, his widow Lady Tavener presented the prizes.


Voces Musicales performed first. They fielded an ensemble of 12 women and 12 men. Their programme consisted of Gibbons Hosanna to the Son of David, Tavener's As one who has slept, the Credo from Franck Martin's Mass for Double Choir, the Estonia composer Veljo Tormis's St John's Song - Jaanilaul and James MacMillan's Laudi all Vergine Maria. It seemed to take the choir a while to find their form and the Gibbons and Tavener lacked the technical perfection and bright exciting sound of their performances in the second heat. They hit form with the Martin, and both this and the Tormis were stunning. Their control and accuracy in the Tormis was amazing. The choir also made a tour de force of the elaborate part-writing in the MacMillan.

Costanzo Porta fielded an ensemble of 10 women and 10 men. Their programme consisted of Purcell.s Remember not, Lord, our offences, Gibbons' Hosanna to the son of David, Tomkins' When David heard, the Kyrie and Agnus Dei from Victoria's Requiem, Israeli composer David Zehavi's Orcha Bamidbar, Lassus's Ah, quanti gia felici from Lagrime di San Pietro and Tavener's The Lamb. Their performances were vibrant and intense, with vivid, strongly shaped phrasing. It was lovely to hear the Lassus sung with bright Italianate words. Conductor Antonio Greco controlled his choir with a sequence of extraordinary gestures and body language, but it certainly worked.

The Erebus Ensemble are a young group with the singers in their early 20's, with just 10 people (4 sopranos, 2 counter-tenors, 2 tenors and 2 basses) performing very much in the English tradition of the Tallis Scholars. Their programme was Gibbons' Hosanna to the son of David, Tomkins' When David heard, Purcell Remember not, Lord, our offences, Sheppard Libera nos, salve nos, Tavener's The Lamb, Clemens non Papa's Ego flos campi and Tippett's Dance Clarion air. They sang with a fine sense of line, great attention to the words and beauty of tone. In the Purcell there were some finely intense moments and the Tippett had great clarity and precision. But, as with many such smaller groups, there was a suggestion that the singers were performing to the conductor and to each other rather than to the audience.

The final group was the El Leon de Oro and they numbered over 40 singers. Their programme was Purcell's Remember not, Lord, our offences, Gibbons' Hosanna to the son of David, Tomkins' When David heard, Tavener's The Lamb, Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara's Suite de Lorca, the Kyrie from Rheinberger's Cantus missae E-flat and German composer Michael Ostrzyga's Iuppiter. For the first Purcell, Gibbons and Tomkins Garcia de Pax used an ensemble of around 16 to 20 singers, with a different grouping for each item and it was only with the Tavener that we heard the full choir. They made a lovely vibrant sound, surprisingly flexible and disciplined for so large a group. Their tone in the quiet moments of the Tavener was stunning. The Rheinberger for double choir was an interesting piece and it was nice to hear some 19th century music. Here, their climaxes were simply thrilling. The Rautavaara, setting Lorca in Spanish, used all sorts of vocal techniques and was vividly dramatic. Whilst the Ostrzyga was new to me, it was an astonishing piece with moments not unlike Arvo Part, but also involving whispering, speaking and whistling. Stunning and vividly dramatic.

Whilst the judges retired, we were treated to a short performance from New Dublin Voices, who had won the Audience Prize. Singing without music, they performed Stephen Stucky's O Sacrum Convivium, Alex Ryan's In the Bleak Midwinter, and Michael Ostryzyga's Iuppiter (again!). Alex Ryan is in fact a member of the choir, and also a rock musician. The Stucky was tonal, with interesting rhythmic and harmonics moments. Whilst the Ryan had rather jazz-like close harmonies, creating some magical moments. It was fascinating hearing so different a choir make Ostryzga's piece their own.

First of all Lady Tavener presented the Audience Prize to New Dublin Voices, and then the judges each gave their summing up.

Emma Kirkby commented on the beautiful and very different ensembles. Voces Musicales were commended for their good ensemble, sweet tone and their authenticity in the Tormis. Costanza Porta's Purcell had such vigor, with a round and full sound, their Victoria was full blooded whilst she like the soloistic freedom o the Zehavi. The commended the Erebus Ensemble's great tuning and balance, and the lovely diction in the Tippett. She confessed that their sound was a little bit too British for her taste, but noted their palpable enjoyment. She talked of the tingle-factor in El Leon de Oro's performance, their Purcell was so string and the whole performance an absolute joy.

Mark William's commended the wide dynamic range, committed sound and well balanced programme of Voces Musicales. He talked of how wonderful it was to hear The Lamb sung by Estonian, Spanish and Italian  choirs and that they had heard some extraordinary language at times but that the most important thing was to convey the meaning of the words. Costanza Porta he commended for their beautiful singing and nicely shaped phrases. Erebus were commended for the beauty of their performance. El Leon de Oro's performances he said were very exciting, with vigor and incredible control; he talked of their passion, committment and discipline.

James O'Donnell said how much he enjoyed Voces Musicales performance, with their very appealing sound. Costanza Porta he described as an excellent group and commended their shaping of the English music. He called the Erebus Ensemble very impressive, describing their sound as more objective and more formal, with a madrigalian sense to the Gibbons, and that the Tomkins was ideal. He said that El Leon de Oro's programme was the most varied one, and that they were an impressive ensemble, with a sense of unforced discipline and unanimity, and their direction was masterly.

Peter Phillips said that the project started out as an experiment. He said that all the groups were wonderful singers and that the judges had had a terrible job. He also commented on how most groups had sung either early or late music with nothing in between but that there was some wonderful 19th century music and it was great to hear the Rheinberger.  He also said that it had been a wonderful experience for those who love John Tavener's music. They will be doing the competition again next year, but later this time probably 22 to 26 September 2015.

The Erebus Ensemble took second place, with El Leon de Oro in first place.

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