Ulster Youth Chamber Choir

Clonard Monastery provides a special backdrop to one of the classical concerts of the year

This year marks the 10th anniversary of concerts by one of Northern Ireland’s finest choral ensembles, the Ulster Youth Choir. 

Since their inception the UYC has branched out, adding the Ulster Youth Training Choir and most recently the Ulster Youth Chamber Choir, who gave a fantastic inaugural performance at Ormeau Baths Gallery.

Sunday night at Clonard Monastery proves no exception to the variety and standard the chamber choir (and their audiences) have become used to. Tonight's eclectic repertoire is spans a century of great British and Irish works by contemporary composers and arrangers. 

At the top of the bill is the 17th-century traditional work Siuil a ruin, re-telling Clonard Monasterythe story of a woman who flees to France in support of James II. Conducted by Greg Beardsell, the work is a beautifully crafted arrangement by Michael McGlynn, currently Northern Ireland’s premier composer of contemporary choral music. 

Largely characterised by its close part harmonies, soprano Tara McNeill provides the delicate but solemn solo voice which works well with the other textures, particularly with the fantastic acoustic quality of the monastic setting.

Other McGlynn works include his piece An Oiche, the 18th-century text providing a fantastic poem on young love akin to (as guest conductor Eugene Monteith describes) the stories of Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet. Monteith draws out the dynamics and character of the work well, bringing McGlynn’s music to life. 

Another original composition, The Green Laurel is a love song. McGlynn's trademark ethereal harmonies add to this simple story of lovers parted in the hope of a reunion. 

Finally, his arrangement of the traditional Sí do Mhaimeo í allows the choir to flex its vocal chords, with its staggered openings and layered parts marking it out as one of the best McGlynn works of the night.

The rest of the programme is helmed by Greg Beardsell. It is varied and requires the choir to have great clarity of intonation and collective musical understanding of the composers’ work. 

Among musical fripperies such as Rutter’s whimsical Dashing Away with the Smoothing Iron, Beardsell’s programme is a personalised exploration of music from Great Britain and Ireland, including arrangements by great English composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and Tippet and also Irish artists like Charles Stanford. 

Vaughan Williams's arrangement of the Scottish folk song Ca’ the yowes is one of the evenings highlights, full of RVW character and showing his skill for choral writing and love of folk melody. 

Clonard MonasteryEqually charming is Rutter’s adaptation of O Waly Waly, also performed at the chamber choir’s inaugural concert. With the added numbers tonight, however, the work takes on a different character. 

Rutter’s skill as an arranger is palpable as he easily weaves the main melody from the choir with great solos from all sections of the ensemble.

Michael Tippet’s Four Songs from the British Isles is perhaps the curiosity of the evening. As Beardsell remarks, 'this is not oft performed music.' Which is a pity. 

The piece displays much in the way of 20th-century compositional technique including use of complex cross-rhythms and diatonic key movement between parts. Tippet’s multifaceted musical language gives the work an edge, unique among the other songs included in this evening’s concert.

Crowning the night is a work by the Irish-born composer Stanford. Scored for baritone, male voice choir and orchestra, Songs of the Sea was written for the 1904 Leeds Festival, with texts by Henry Newbolt. 

The work is a shamelessly bombastic salute to the British Navy and ‘all who sail with her’, telling the story of a sailor named Drake. Stanford’s music narrates the joy, laughter, sorrow and pride of a sailor as he ponders life in the service with a yearning to be home. 

The solo baritone, provided by bass section leader Eunan McDonald, is performed with great a sense of purpose. His performance is matched by the choir who are only too happy to get into character, so well that you expect a 20-cannon salute and great big Union Jack to fall open behind them at the end.

Rarely do Northern Irish audiences get a chance to hear such a variety of genres and composers, let alone choral works, in one evening - a treat for all concerned in one of the most splendid venues the country has to offer. 

Greame Stewart