Ulster Youth Choir, Actively Seeking Singers

Artistic Director Greg Beardsell wants to flip a choral music switch 

The setting is a café in the East End of London. Greg Beardsell, Artistic Director of the Ulster Youth Choir, and Paul McCreesh, animating spirit of the world-famous Gabrieli Consort, are sipping coffee, and swapping ideas about the current state of choral singing.

McCreesh, an outstanding practitioner of period performance and an award-winning recording artist, has, it transpires, a particular bee buzzing in his bonnet: not enough young people know the great choral classics, he argues. Not enough young people are actually singing them.

‘Paul told me that he wanted to launch a young singers scheme, tapping into established pockets of excellence which he and his Gabrieli colleagues had already identified,’ explains Beardsell. ‘And the Ulster Youth Choir was one of them.’

It was a massive vote of confidence in the UYC from one of choral music’s top international practitioners. Why, I wonder, had McCreesh singled out the Ulster choir as one he specifically wanted to forge a special relationship with?

‘I think he was very touched by the work that I was doing at UYC,’ says Beardsell. It is work routinely involving visits to schools in Northern Ireland, introducing pupils to choral singing, and demystifying the whole process of making a joyful noise together. It’s a part of his job that Beardsell clearly regards as particularly important.

‘It’s a fantastic thing to do,’ he enthuses. ‘You can actually flip on a switch in an hour and a half, working with a set of children who don’t enjoy a great choral provision at their schools. You can turn on lights; I’ve seen it happen. Some of those children might hopefully have the guts to go for an audition or investigate further.’

There are benefits also for the UYC itself. ‘We go out and do workshops,’ explains Beardsell, ‘and we’ll actually work with the music teachers who are there, and try to identify those stars, those little people that show potential, but haven’t perhaps been able to push through, or locate their local community choir, or perhaps money’s an issue.’

And what happens when a young singer of high potential is actually identified? ‘We essentially offer them a place in the Ulster Youth Training Choir on the spot. And that’s responsible for the 50% year-on-year increase over the last three years in the membership of the training choir.’

Beardsell’s policy of pro-actively seeking out and nurturing excellence is clearly paying rich dividends for UYC recruitment. He’s firmly of the opinion, however, that the advantages that the choir offers to its members are far from being merely musical.

‘It’s not just the choral thing,' he says. ‘It’s learning things like leadership and team-work, and those things hopefully lead on to being free from prejudice, having a more open mind and heart.

‘When you sing in different languages, and from different eras, it actually allows young people to have a far more wide-angled lens than when they’re stuck behind their 11 year old eyes, living in a modern world which is all internet, computer games and too much TV. So we just help scope out their vision a fraction.’

The two-dozen members of the Ulster Youth Chamber Choir who participated, again at McCreesh’s invitation, in this summer’s highly acclaimed Proms performance of Mendelssohn’s two-hour choral masterpiece Elijah will undoubtedly have had their personal vision ‘scoped out’ more than a fraction.

‘We were one of four youth choirs invited to participate, along with the Gabrieli Consort, a massively expanded orchestra, and a brilliant philharmonic choir from Wroclaw in Poland,’ says Beardsell. ‘It was an amazing sound. It was exactly the kind of project we want to be offering the members of the UYC.

‘We try to give the best and the brightest within UYC those connections which can directly lead them into a professional career. I was saying to the principal singers in Gabrieli, "Listen, there’s a couple of people in my choir who have got their eyes on the professional thing. Would you mind just sitting next to them, mentoring them over the course of the next four days, giving them some advice?" And that’s the bit that’s really invaluable. We need to be training up the next generation of professionals.'

Reviews of the Gabrieli Elijah were unanimous in praising the extremely high quality of the choral singing, no doubt reflected in the CD recording (complete with UYC contingent) made in the immediate aftermath of the concert. It will be released next year on McCreesh’s own Winged Lion label.

The five years of Beardsell’s tenure as UYC Artistic Director have already seen imaginative collaborations with the Sonic Arts Research Centre at Queen’s University and the Ormeau Baths Gallery. He views this spirit of adventure as crucial to his future involvement with the choir.

‘I have such an addiction to collaborating, to stepping outside of my known comfort zone, and encouraging the young people to do the same,' explains Beardsell, ‘that it kind of feels like the sky’s the limit. So I certainly see a lot of innovation going forward.'

A joint venture with the Irish Youth Choir, of which Beardsell is also Director, is described by him as ‘a no-brainer’, and should happen in 2013/14. Visit the UYC website for information on forthcoming concerts.