Sunday, 27 September 2015

London International A Cappella Choir Competition - Heat 2

Sansara preparing for the London International A Cappella Choir Competition at St John's Smith Square
Sansara preparing for the
London International A Cappella Choir Competition at
St John's Smith Square
London International A Cappella Choir Competition - Heat 2; Sansara, Ardu, The Gesualdo Six, Blossom Street; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Sep 25 2015
Four contrasting ensembles in the second heat of the competition.

For this year's London International A Cappella Choir Competition, seven choirs are coming together to compete at St John's Smith Square, with heats on 24 and 25 September and the finale on 26 September 2015. The Schola Cantorum of The Cardinal Vaughan Memorial School, The Templar Scholars and The Epiphony Consort competed on 24 September in Heat 1, and we went along on 25 September to hear Sansara, Ardu, The Gesualdo Six and Blossom Street competing in Heat 2 in front of a jury consisting of Peter Phillips (chair, director of The Tallis Scholars), Mark Williams (director of music at Jesus College, Cambridge), Lionel Meunier (director of Vox Luminis), Ghislaine Morgan (vocal coach) and Gabriel Jackson, the festival's featured composer. Each choir had to perform a 20 minute programme comprising a work of Renaissance polyphony, a work by Gabriel Jackson and music of their choice.

The Gesualdo Six
The Gesualdo Six
The four featured groups in the second heat were remarkably varied, with two vocal ensembles and two choirs and each had a very distinct personality, I certainly did not envy the judges having to select just two of the groups to go forward to the finale.

The evening was opened by Sansara, a 19 voice mixed chamber choir (both men and women on the alto line). The group was formed in 2013 and the singer are all young professionals. A feature of the group is that they have no specific conductor but use different ones from the group. Their programme consisted of Wie liegt die Stadt so wust by Rudolf Mauersberger (1889-1971) conducted by Tom Herring, Gabriel Jackson's Peace My Heart (from his Requiem), conducted by Meghan Quinlan and Gombert's Lugebat David Absalom (conducted by Benjamin Cunningham).

Mauersberger was the director of music at Dresden's Kreuzkirche for over 40 years and composed Wie liegt die Stadt so wust after the bombing of Dresden, setting texts from Lamentations. It is an austere, chorale-like piece in which the choir showed lovely control and intensity bringing out the drama. They made a lovely clear bright sound, and this came out in the clarity of texture in Jackson's piece, especially the finely unsentimental performance. Again, the Gombert had great clarity with a sense of interweaving lines, and a clear feeling for the sombre tone of the work.

The Irish group Ardu, founder Ciaran Kelly, is a vocal ensemble which specialises in arrangements of well-known popular music exploring the use of the voice as an instrument. You felt that their programme, Stanford's The Bluebird, Josquin Des Prez' Gaude Virgo Mater, Gabriel Jackson's Magnificat from the Truro Canticles, Byrd's Justorum Animae and Senfl's Das Glaut zu Speyer, was something of a step into unknown territory. What was very noticeable was how each piece was given a very specific performance style, and that each work was performed to the audience in a very engagingly direct manner rather than the sense, often felt with such vocal ensembles, of the singers performing either to their music or to each other.

The Stanford had a lovely solo soprano, with the whole having a feeling of the individual voices rather than blended into a whole. Josquin's piece was sung with a very different vocal style, very upfront, and vibrant. Gabriel Jackson's Magnificat was given with a purer vocal style and a lovely sense of control, including the interesting Celtic snaps in the vocal line. Byrd's motet had a fine blend, almost too much so and felt rather slow. The Senfl was great fun and full of vibrant character.

After the interval there was another vocal ensemble, the all male Gesualdo Six, director Owain Park; though there were only five of them, and afterwards Mark Williams suggested that in true Gesualdo fashion they had murdered their sixth member. Their programme consisted of Jackson's Ite Missa Est, Gesualdo's Felice Primavera, Clemens Non Papa's O Maria vernans Rose, Claude le Jeune's Recevy venir du printans, and Martin Pickard's arrangement of Harold Arlen's Somewhere over the rainbow.

The Jackson, with the soloist stood above and behind the group, was confident with a lovely sense of style. The Gesualdo had great beauty of tone with a nice fluidity, whilst the Clemens Non Papa who had great control and shape. The Claude le Jeune was quite interior but still vivid, and the Harold Arlen had some lovely close harmonies.

Finally the choir, Blossom Street, founded by conductor Hilary Campbell in 2003, a 17 strong mixed voice group with a mixture of men and women on the alto line. Their programme consisted of Byrd's Laudibus in Sanctis,  Jackson's O Sacrum Convivium and Paul Burke's Fare Thee Well. From the very opening notes of the Byrd, it was clear that the choir made a highly different sound. They performed the Renaissance polyphony with great vibrancy and a strong sense of vibrato in the voices, this was a thrilling sound and a very distinctive one. There was some lovely rhythmic detail in the work, but overall it felt a bit too steady. The Jackson was more restrained but still a very vivid tone quality. Paul Burke's folk song arrangement was very effective, and had some incredibly loud climaxes.

One of the, perhaps slightly unnerving, features of the competition is that after the performances the judges come onto the platform to say what they thought. I managed to make a summary of their comments and hope that I have correctly reflected the judges views.

Ghislaine Morgan commented on the programmes and how all the groups were moving into repertoire not normally sung. She enjoyed the sense of atmosphere created by Sansara, saying they did more than read the notes, but wanted more text in the Mauersberger with a sense of the work having something to say. She found some lovely detail in the Jackson, and wanted a greater depth of feeling in the Gombert. She thought Ardu brave and enterprising, with beautiful moments in the Stanford, though noticed technical issues in the Josquin. The Jackson was a good choice, whilst some of their choices were hard as they were singing one to a part. The Gabrieli Six brought a different sound scape, and the Jackson made a great start. She wanted the Gesualdo to be more sung through, and the Clemens Non Papa had a lovely sense of shape. The Claude le Jeune had good ensemble though she wanted it to be more robust, and the style of the Harold Arlen worked well. She commented on the full voices of the Blossom Street Singers and felt that there were parts of the programme which were over sung. Though the Byrd was full of energy it lost clarity, and though she like their approach to the Jackson it seemed to lack blend, and she enjoyed the colours they brought to the Burke.

Lionel Meunier was impressed with the soft piano sound made by Sansara in the Mauersberger, and did not feel they got the same quiet tone in the Jackson. Whilst he enjoyed the tempo of the Gombert he felt the first half was too nice. He wished that Ardu had brought one of their vocal arrangements. He felt they waited too long before starting the Stanford and risked losing the audience's attention. He did not like the style of the Josquin but admired their courage. He liked the Jackson and its flowing sense. The Byrd he felt, didn't work so well after the Jackson. The group's pronunciation in the Senfl came in for a lot of comment. He liked the Gesualdo Six's performance of the Jackson and wondered if they should be renamed the Jackson Five, but liked their Gesualdo least, feeling that they did not take enough risk, and the Clemens non Papa he liked better. Regarding the Claude le Jeune, he commented that it was in French so he had not come to the competition for nothing, then said though it was charming that they should have either sung it in modernised French or properly Renaissance French and not a mixture. He liked the Harold Arlen a lot but did comment on the tuning. He liked that Blossom Street tried to sing the Byrd with a large sound, but felt it over sung. The Jackson had good moments, and the Burke was a courageous choice as it was difficult vocally but had some nice moments.

Mark Williams said he enjoyed the performances very much and admired them all greatly. He thought Sansara made a warm sound, and commented on how unusual it was to have a choir using different conductors but felt that the conductors allowed the singers too much time to breath so that the music kept stopping. There was comment about what pitch they sang the Mauersberger at, and they seem to have sung it a semi-tone higher than written but by accident! He was impressed with the way Ardu communicated with the audience, and found it refreshing though he did comment on tuning problems and though the Jackson he found captivating he worried about singing Byrd's Justorum Animae with a big smile on your face. The Gesualdo Six had impressive ensemble, and he felt they were a mix of the Hilliard Ensemble and the Kings Singers. In the Jackson he commented that they looked up a lot at the audience, in a difficult piece. The Clemens was a fine polyphonic performance, and though he liked Somewhere over the rainbow he thought the pauses between phrases were too long. He admired Hilary Campbell's conducting of Blossom Street Singers, but worried about the choir being too loud at times, with the singers pushing the sound too much. He could tell the audience was held by their performance of the Jackson.

Gabriel Jackson commented just on his own pieces. He liked Sansara's performance, saying that the piece was quite hard and that some groups have come to grief and they didn't, but he didn't think they conveyed what the piece was about. He though Ardu's performance was terrific, and it was the best of their pieces. He liked the panache of the opening solo in the Gabrieli Six's performance, and he was going to complain it was too slow until he actually looked at the metronome mark, but he did want more pizzaz. Blossom Street's performance he liked, commenting that no-one has ever sung the piece exactly as it was written.

Peter Phillips had just a couple of comments. He felt all the groups needed to think about what they were trying to achieve when singing loudly, and that the sound can sound fractured. And that in all the programmes it was the Jackson which came out best. It was Sansara and the Gabrieli Six who went forward to the final with the Epiphoni Consort from the first heat.

(Update: At the final on 26 September, Sansara took the first prize and the audience prize, with the Epiphoni Consort taking second prize).

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