Ulster Youth Chamber Choir

Graeme Stewart visits the Ormeau Baths Gallery for the chamber choir's inaugural concert

Formed almost ten years ago, the Ulster Youth Choir’s revered reputation among singers across the UK is well deserved. 

The educational and musical value of the group is made even more apparent with the creation of their new ensemble - the Ulster Youth Chamber Choir. 

Under the direction of UYC artistic director and conductor Greg Beardsell, the best singers have been selected from the 120-strong choir. Tonight they prove their worth, performing a challenging programme of eclectic styles.

Eric Whitacre’s epic setting of 'When David Heard' opens the concert with the choir singing from behind the audience, in the centre of the gallery. Particularly effective, the music soars above the audience's heads, creating an effervescent glow around the audience. 

In the past few years Whitacre’s profile as a choral composer has gone from strength to strength, and his writing evokes a sense of the ‘symphonic choir’.

Seemingly treating the singers as a large string section, his music evokes much emotional conflict and angst, as the following lyrics attend: 'When David heard that Absalom was slain, He went up into his chamber over the gate and wept, My son, my son, O Absalom my son…' 

The effect is remarkable. Focusing on the words 'my son', this repeated mantra has variations and is unique for its poignant use of silence. 

Indeed, after this first performance, Beardsell tells us that the venue of the Ormeau Baths Gallery informed his choice of repertoire when he came to programme the concert. Much of the music that follows wouldn't seem out of place in similarly reverberant spaces. 

Richard Rodney Bennett’s 'Good Night' is another piece with warm harmonies and a strong traditional ancestry. Written in memory of Linda McCartney, and using the 17th century prose of Francis Quarles, this is a requiem to an individual described by Bennett as a 'remarkable woman'. 

The choir’s performance of the work is sensitive and solemn in tone, bringing out Bennett’s beautiful renaissance-styled harmonies with great clarity. 

The theme of sleep is then carried through into the next work, John Tavener’s 'Birthday Sleep', written to mark the millennium and first performed in December 2000. 

From a sonic point of view, this piece certainly benefits from the gallery’s acoustics, having originally been written for performance at Edinburgh's St Giles' Cathedral. 

Tavener’s reputation as Britain’s leading composer of sacred music is built upon some of contemporary choral music’s great works, including 'The Lamb' and 'Song for Athene'. 

Here the composer utilizes a nativity text by Vernon Watkins, set in three verses. Each verse seems to be broken into three sections, each with a different musical personality. Particularly striking is the rising motif set the middle lines, intensifying into a fortissimo chord. 

For this performance, the choir move to a room adjacent to the main stage which, although still providing a sense of distance and atmosphere, doesn't work as well as Whitacre’s opening piece.

To wrap up the evening the audience is treated to five traditional arrangements starting with 'Bushes and Briars', an English folk song arranged by Donald James. The choir’s instinct for the nuances of this type of chamber music is fantastic, with beautiful solo singing at the beginning and end. 

This is followed by John Rutter’s arrangement of the Somerset folk song 'O Waly Waly'. Rutter creates a set of variations which all work fantastically well across the five verses, each performed with its own unique setting and character.

A folk piece from Newfoundland, 'She’s like the Swallow' is also well executed, followed with another Rutter arrangement of 'Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron'. Although his arrangements are often performed, it’s always great to hear one that brings smiles to the singers - and audiences - faces, with a cheeky ending to boot.

In current times the arts in Northern Ireland have been under pressure to deliver programmes and performances of a high standard while funding and financial assistance become ever more difficult to find. 

The calibre of singing and musical sensitivity displayed by the Ulster Youth Chamber Choir vividly displays the importance of nurturing creativity (particularly the abundance of local talent), and providing a platform where it can be shown for all to enjoy.