Saturday 26 April 2014

London International A Cappella Competition - round 2

London International A Cappella Competition 2014
The London International A Cappella Competition is taking place at St John's Smith Square from 21 to 26 April. The events launched with a concert from the Tallis Scholars, and their director Peter Phillips is the chair of the jury for all the competitive heats in the competition. Eleven choirs are taking part from all over the world and we went along to round 2 on 24 April to hear Reverie (director Robbie Jacobs) from the UK, Dysonans Chamber Choir (director Magdalene Wdowicka-Mackiewicz) from Poland, Renaissance (director Ben Rowarth) from the UK and Voces Musicales (director Risto Joost) from Estonia.

Each choir sang a 30 minute programme including three pieces from a set list, and rather interestingly all four programmes mixed early music with contemporary with very little in the way of 19th century repertoire (no Brahms for instance). Three judges were Peter Phillips, Mark Williams (director of music  of the choirs and Jesus College) and Alastair Hume (founder member of the King's Singers).

Reverie - photo credit Charlie Ding
photo credit Charlie Ding
Reverie, conducted by Robbie Jacobs, opened proceedings; they are a 13 voice ensemble based in London. They started with a lively performance of Arvo Part's Bogoroditse Djevo sung with lovely clear tone. The Sanctus and Agnus Dei from William Byrd's Mass for Four Voices followed, in a low key and relaxed performance with some nicely shaped phrasing. Part's Triute to Caesar was poised, with the notes beautifully place, this was followed by a flexible account of Byrd's Laudibus in Sanctis. James MacMillan's Christus Vincit was fascinating for the composer's use of different textures, the lovely interweaving of parts and the influences of Scots Gaelic Psalm singing. Finally came Vaughan Williams' Valiant for Truth, in a well placed, well shaped performance.

Dysonans Chamber Choir
Dysonans Chamber Choir
Dysonans Chamber Choir came next, directed by Magdalena Wdowicka-Mackiewicz; they are a 24 voice ensemble based on Poznan in Poland. Rather impressively Wdowicka-Mackiewicz conducted the whole programme from memory. They opened with a light textures, nicely rhythmic account of Henry Purcell's I was glad, though the choir seemed a little challenged by the English. Next came Juz sie zmierzka by the 16th century Polish composer Waclaw z Szamotul, sung by just 12 of the singers; a gently melancholy, chant-inspired piece. Vox in Rama by the 17th century Polish composer Mikolay Zielenski was also sung by the smaller group. The piece had some nicely naughty bits in the harmony.The full choir returned for Palestrina's Tu es Petrus (the first part of the 6-voice motet); taken at quite a speed in a nicely flowing performance with a lovely clear sound. Howard Skempton's Three Latin Motets were simple but effective, with some deft harmonic touches and attractive lyrical moments. Vissarion Yakovlevich Shebalin was a 20th century Soviet Russian composer, his Zimnyaya doroga was a charming folk-influenced piece. Finally Andrzey Koszewski's Ave Maria. Koszewski is a contemporary Polish composer (born 1922) and the piece was spare but with a fascinating use of different choral textures including spoken passages.

Renaissance chamber choir
After the interval came the 14 voice Renaissance chamber choir from Durham, conducted by Ben Rowarth. They opened with a confident, lively and rhythmic account of Byrd's Vigilate sung by just five singers. The full group gave us Sheppard's Libera Nos combining a rich warm sound with a sense of line, they followed this with Macmilan's Christus Vincit. Four singers then performed the Sanctus from Byrd's Mass for Four Voices, singing it at a lower pitch with a tenor singing the alto line. The whole ensemble showed fine control and lovely tone in John Tavener's One who has slept and they finished with the Agnus Dei from Byrd's Mass for Four Voices. This was sung at the conventional pitch, with the first two verses sung by soloists and the whole choir joining in for the final Agnus Dei.

Voces Musicales
Voces Musicales
The final group was Voces Musicales from Tallinn in Estonia. A 24 voice ensemble, conducted by Risto Joost. They opened with a confident, bright toned performance of Palestrina's Tu es Petrus. Here and elsewhere in the programme the conductor unashamedly used the full forces of the choir, still producing great clarity of sound. Part's Tribute to Caesar was sung with an excellent command of English, whilst Byrd's Ladibus in sanctis was large scale and brilliant in sound. After these set pieces the choir performed just one further piece, the substantial Hear my prayer, O Lord in the version of Purcell's original by Sven-David Sandstrom in which Purcell's music is heard first before dissolving into something completly astonishing. The result was stunning.

After a short pause the judges gave their verdict. Alastair Hume talked of the many different elements that make up a cappella singing and the difficulty of getting them all to happen at the same time, the fact that singers really need to in habit the language all the time. In his comments on the choirs, he mentioned the sense of menace that Reverie brought to Part's Tribute to Caesar and he made particular note of the fact that Wdowicka-Mackiewicz had performed everything from memory.

Mark Williams commented that we had heard two very different types of a cappella singing, consort and large group, both having different challenges. He commended the clarity and transparency of the Polish choir and the conviction with which they performed their last piece. Renaissance were applauded for their well balanced programme and their conviction, whilst he commented on Voces Musicales forthright and exciting sound and absolute commitment.

Peter Phillips made some remarks on singing in different languages and highlighted the different attitudes of the jury members, commenting that we had heard some very peculiar English, whilst commending the Polish choir's Russian. He pointed out that Part's Tribute to Caesar had only one single bar at forte, with the rest at a lower dynamic level; something that did not come over in the performances. He commended Renaissance for some of the most beautiful singing that we had heard, and said that he had never heard Sheppard's Libera nos performed better. But he also said that he though the use of solo voices was a mistake. He talked about Voces Musicales being strong and exciting, that they really sang to us and thrilled us by it.

Voces Musicales were the winner of the round and will go into the final on Saturday 26 April. The audience also got chance to vote and the audience choir winner chosen form all the choirs will also perform on Saturday.

CD buy: Voces Musicales in Arvo Part's Pilgrim's Song on ERP records

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