Ulster Youth Choir

The Ulster Youth Choir's 10th Anniversary Concert proves that the group is a force to be reckoned with

The Ulster Youth Choir first took to the stage in 1999, providing a platform for hopeful and ambitious young singers from across Northern Ireland. Ten years later, the choir's 10th Anniversary Concert in Belfast’s Ulster Hall reaffirms the passion and enthusiasm the group has to offer.

Joined by members past and present, the predominantly modern programme of contemporary repertoire displays the varied and wide-ranging talents of a choir in their prime.

Opening with 'Kalinda' by Sydney Guillaume, the concert gets off to an energetic start with the tribal, primal energy of the piece blowing any cobwebs from the vocal chords. Conductor and artistic director of the choir, Greg Beardsell, makes no secret of the fact he is here for a celebration. His emphatic and at times infectious sense of adventure is palpable in the work’s final bars. A great opening number.

The theme of the concert, Adoro: Love and Adoration - The Sacred and the Secular reflects the choir’s Irish roots, whilst looking further afield to works examining the notion of love.

The traditional 'Gallant Weaver' by Scottish composer James McMillan is a work you can get lost in. Similarly, Irish composer Michael McGlynn’s 'An Oiche' is suitably restrained and tempered with the musical character McGlynn made famous through his work with the choir Anúna, opening with some lovely singing from the sopranos and altos.

Traditional works aside, the rest of the programme features compositions by composers from across the globe. Worth a special mention is Eric Whitacre’s incredibly personal and beautiful 'A Boy and a Girl'. The work is full of close and full-bodied harmonies, layered with rich tones.

In closing the first half a piece by Richard Allain originally written for the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, 'Love and Sleep' challenges both the singers and the audience. Described by some as ‘aleatoric’ music, the piece allows for much individual freedom for each singer, culminating in over 30 independent parts throughout the work.

Technically the piece is a fine example of the possibilities that modern choral music has to offer, but is perhaps less successful as a listening experience; even to the most seasoned aficionado of contemporary repertoire the piece lacks soul and, contrary to the title, ‘sleeps’ more than ‘loves'.

The second half of the concert opens with Mendelssohn’s 'Hear my Prayer/O for the Wings of a Dove'. The work is both dramatic and tender, no doubt the reason for its enduring success and affection with audiences. It’s also a work which allows for all voices to come through and establish themselves, this performance being no exception.

This is perhaps the choir’s greatest attribute. The ability to move from one genre to the next is often a difficult thing to achieve, especially with such modern pieces flanking more classical works. But the UYC do not disappoint.

A work by Anthony Pitts follows Mendelssohn with a delicate setting of 'Adoro Te', or 'Thee We Adore, O Hidden Saviour'. Pitts creates a simple but effective recurring motif which serves as the backbone to the work accompanied by harmonies evoking a calm and devout observation of its text.

Alexander Campkin’s 'Calm me, O Lord' does something similar, although the former work is certainly the most refined of the two, the latter becoming a little too repetitive at times.

Of these more ‘sacred’ works, it is perhaps Pawel Lukasewski’s setting of the 'Nunc Dimittis' which best serves as an example of a modern take on an older form. One of the most emotive performances of the night, the choir bring out the music’s underlying mood of sadness, with a hint of peaceful resolution, making it one of the best choral performances I have heard.

To finish, Mia Makaroff’s 'Armottoman osa' or 'The Orphan', a great work displaying some fantastic cross-rhythmic singing with a hint of the infectious tribal characteristic from the opening 'Kalinda'. The piece is one of many triumphs the night has to offer, finishing with another lively piece, suitably entitled 'Have a Good Rest'.

I have never really been a fan of choirs dancing on stage, finger-clicking or any kind of percussive mimicry but I enjoy the moves these guys pull on stage in an encore performance of their opening piece, especially the tenor section who really burn it up at the front.

While performing a programme slightly heavy with contemporary choral repertoire, the group’s programme on ‘Love’ shows that the Ulster Youth Choir are a force to be reckoned with. Greg Beardsell’s appointment as artistic conductor has certainly yielded fruit, and if music be the food of love… play on.

Greame Stewart