Monday, 3 July 2017

Final of the London International A Cappella Choral Competition

Arvo Pärt with Copenhagen Chamber Choir Camerata, winners of the 2017 London International A Cappella Choral Competition (Photo Amy Ryan Media)
Arvo Pärt with Copenhagen Chamber Choir Camerata,
winners of the 2017 London International A Cappella Choral Competition (photo Amy Ryan Media)
Final of the London International A Cappella Choral Competition; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 1 2017
Choir's from Poland, UK, Hungary, Norway and Denmark competing in the presence of Arvo Pärt, the competition's featured composer

The London International A Cappella Choral Competition has been running all week at St John's Smith Square, and Saturday 1 July 2017 saw the final with five choirs competing for first prize. This year's competition has been remarkably diverse with choirs from Colombia, Chile, Indonesia, and India as well as the UK and Europe. For the final, the winners of each of the four heats were joined by a wild-card choir selected by the jury, so that we heard Dysonans Chamber Choir, conductor Magdalena Wdowicka-Mackiewicz, from Poland, the Renaissance Singers, conductor David Allinson, from the UK, Istvánffy Kamarakórus, conductor Muntag Lörinc, Copenhagen Chamber Choir Camerata, conductor Jakob Hultberg, from Denmark, and Ole Bull Kammerkor, conductor Jon Flydal Blichfeldt, from Norway.

Ole Bull Kammerkor, second prize winners of the 2017 London International A Cappella Choral Competition
Ole Bull Kammerkor, second prize winners
of the 2017 London International A Cappella Choral Competition
Each choir sang a 20 minute set, with one piece of Renaissance polyphony, and one work by the competition's featured composer, Arvo Pärt, plus music of the group's own choice. Arvo Pärt was present at the event and presented the prize, and in fact has been in London all week attending the competition. It was lovely seeing one of the world's greatest composers queuing up to buy coffee from the bar and happily chatting to people. The jury consisted of Peter Phillips (chair), Tönu Kajuste, Ghislaine Morgan, Graham Ross and Carolyn Sampson.

Dysonans Chamber Choir opened proceedings, with Byrd's Laudibus in Sanctis, Tomkins' When David Heard, Arvo Pärt's Morning Star and Ave Maris Stella by the contemporary Norwegian composer Trond Kverno. (It was fascinating that few of the choirs sang music from their native countries.) Magdalena Wdowicka-Mackiewicz conducted the choir from memory, and in all four pieces drew a light, transparently clear sound from the choir. The Byrd danced, but was lighter and far more gentle than I am used too, and throughout the performance  was notable for expressive lightness and rhythmic vitality. The choir's English in the Tomkins and Pärt was highly communicative whilst not being completely idiomatic.

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The Renaissance Singers, conductor David Allinson, performed Mouton's Ave Maria, gemma virginum, Byrd's Rorate caeli, Pärt's Magnifica, and Josquin's Benedicta es, caelorum regina. The choir sang with a warm, soft-grained sound achieving notable smoothness in the Mouton, and much rhythmic felicity in the Byrd. The Pärt had a fineness to the tone quality, even in the loud passages, with a very concentrated feel.

Istvánffy Kamarakórus, conductor Muntag Lörinc, performed Byrd's Ave Verum Corpus, Pärt's The Deer's Cry, Reger's Der mensch leb und bestehet, Rachmaninov's 'Dnes spaseniye' from Vespers (All Night Vigil) and 'Kherubimskaya pesn' from Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. The Byrd was performed with a reduced number of singers, the choir's very distinctive timbre giving the piece a highly sculptural quality. In the Pärt it was the quality of the silences in the music which was notable (something which is very important in Pärt), whilst the choir's English was creditable but not quite idiomatic. In the Rachmaninov we noticed again their distinctive timbre, and also the fabulous low basses.

Copenhagen Chamber Choir Camerata, conductor Jakob Hultberg, performed the version of Purcell's Hear my Prayer by the Swedish composer Sven-David Sandstrom, Mogen Pedersøn's Gloria , Pärt's The Woman with the Alabaster Box and Ola Gjeilo's Unicornis. The Purcell/Sandstrom was spectacular, the hushed Purcell dissolving magically into the Sandstrom, this was a technically impressive performance which was intense as well. The Pedersøn was lively and rhythmic, with the choir really moving to the music, whilst the Pärt was intense and concentrated, with fine English, and the Gjeilo made a really infectious final piece.

The last choir was Ole Bulle Kammerkor, conductor Jon Flydal Blichfeldt and their programme consisted of Pater Noster by the Polish composer Jozef Swider (1930-2014), Giaches de Wert's Paccavi super numerum and Pärt's Which was the son of... The choir sang all three pieces from memory, particularly impressive in the Pärt with its setting of the genealogy of Christ. The Swider combined long melodies, with jazzy counter melodies and the choir caught the atmosphere of the piece just right. With the Wert, they combined a bright sound with vibrant rhythms and appealing sense of engagement. The Pärt was sung in excellent, highly communicative English with a wonderful strong sound and a good crisp rhythm, making a gripping piece of musical theatre.

Whilst the jury deliberated we heard more Pärt as one of the St John's Smith Square Young Artists, Mathilde Mildwidsky (violin) accompanied by Somi Kim (piano) performed Pärt's Fratres.

The Estonian Ambassador to the UK, HE Mr Lauri Bambus welcome Arvo Pärt, and said he could not imagine a better start to Estonia's assuming the Presidency of the EU for the first time, and that Estonians knew from the past that singing can accomplish miracles. He also commented on the absence of Estonian choirs from the competition because this weekend is the Estonian Song Festival in Tallinn, the most important choral event in the Estonian calendar.

Each of the judges made one or two general comments about the performance, without singling out individual choirs. Ghislaine Morgan commented on the importance of listening for a good technique, and the importance of breath, using the whole body as well as mind and heart. Carolyn Sampson commented that she came with fresh ears as she had not been able to attend any of the heats, and noted the presence of some of the choirs on stage, that there was a different quiet in the hall when choirs focussed on what they were doing. She also noted that the singers' energy levels could affect intonation. Tönu Kajuste began his speech in his native Estonian, emphasising the importance of communication even if the audience did not understand the text, and he brought out importance of the combination of text and music. Graham Ross commented on the importance of the choice of repertoire, choosing the right music to make the choir sing best. He also commented on the conductors, saying that less was often more, and they needed to let the music sing for itself and the most impressive  being those who embraced stillness and silence. Peter Phillips said that nerves whilst going on stage were natural, and it was important that choirs accept this and address it, otherwise nerves make the singers sing faster and louder than you want to, and that the most impressive choirs were those who were poised from the word go.

Peter Phillips, The Estonian Ambassador to the UK, HE Mr Lauri Bambus, Arvo Pärt, Jakob Hultberg, Ghislaine Morgan, Carolyn Sampson, Tönu Kajuste, Graham Ross at London International A Cappella Choral Competition 2017 (photo Amy Ryan Media)
Peter Phillips, The Estonian Ambassador to the UK, HE Mr Lauri Bambus, Arvo Pärt, Jakob Hultberg (conductor of Copenhagen Chamber Choir Camerata), Ghislaine Morgan, Carolyn Sampson, Tönu Kajuste, Graham Ross at London International A Cappella Choral Competition 2017 (photo Amy Ryan Media)

The first prize was received by Copenhagen Chamber Choir Camerata, with the second prize going to Ole Bull Kammerkor.

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