Ulster Youth Training Choir gain valuable live performance experience at Craigavon Civic Centre
It is no small challenge to gather 100 or more singers together to prepare an entire concert programme in just a week, but this is what the Ulster Youth Choir does every summer.
So successful has the choir become that a Training Choir was established some years ago to provide experience to more singers, who may feed into the choir itself, and who come from post-primary schools from across Northern Ireland.
As UYTC conductor Dominic Peckham tells the audience at some length at this concert in Craigavon Civic Centre, some of the youngsters arrive without ever having read music or sung in a choir before.
Peckham's repeated emphasis of the 'journey' they have all been on threatens to dominate proceedings, but ultimately the music and the young musicians tell the story far better than any over-proud facilitator ever could.
The concert's title and theme – Rhythm Nation – is established with the choir's entrance from the back of the hall, vocalising a pattern along the lines of 'doot, do do doot', which becomes the underlay of a Ward Single adaptation of 'Pastime with Good Company', attributed to King Henry the VIII. There are some tentative entrances at various turning points in the music, but as an opener, this is an effective choice.
Lotti's 'Regina Caeli' suffers from the same indecision of attack at some points, but singing from memory and unaccompanied, the choir is challenged in ways that reveal a cohesive, youthful sound, full of character and colour.
The complexities keep coming, with Mozart's 'V'amo di Core', full of rhythmic and textural challenges. The tenor and bass sections of the choir punch above their weight throughout, though one of the three pieces they sing on their own does not succeed as a performance – I would have liked to hear another number from the female voices. Their version of 'Dream a Little Dream' Is stylish and well-balanced.
Balance in general Is occasionally troublesome. Tenors and basses are greatly outnumbered by sopranos and altos, but it ought to have been possible to manage this, and more dynamic contrast is needed in full choir works. There is nothing more thrilling than large numbers of musicians singing or playing very quietly, and we don't really experience this at any point in the concert.
Peckham's conducting style is dynamic, bordering on the hyper-active, and I wonder whether his contantly gesturing, pointing and spinning hands – combined with facial expressions and near-dancing on (and off) the podium – is really what these young singers need. Surely a clear beat is more suited, especially when syncopation is involved.
For the most part, texts are clearly delivered by this large and promising group, and in 'Star of the County Down', the addition of regional accent ('kynty dine') adds interest. A specially commissioned work by Ed Rex, 'It Feels A Shame To Be Alive', with a text by Emily Dickenson, is a resonant evocation of the price of battle. Set for choir and trumpet, it combines the Last Post with finely suspended harmonies, and is breathtaking.
Other highlights include 'Gamelan', a mouth-music work by Raymond Schafer. and 'Soon Ah Will Be Done', a spiritual by William L Dawson.
Ultimately, this was a fine night's music-making, made over-long by too much commentary. However, it is abundantly clear that whatever 'journey' the Ulster Youth Training Choir is on, it needs to continue, so that more and more young singers from across Northern Ireland can benefit from working at such a high level.