Vocal Group Sestina Adapt The Fairy Queen

Mark Chambers, director of Sestina vocal group, on fostering new talent and Henry Purcell's 'semi-opera'

Two years ago a group of classically trained young singers from Northern Ireland gathered for a weekend in Belfast to rehearse Mendelssohn’s great oratorio, Elijah. The piece is performed frequently, but this was anything but a routine read-through, or a routine choral gathering.

A Proms performance of the work at the Albert Hall, London, was in the offing, with the world-famous Gabrieli Consort and Players, under their dynamic conductor Paul McCreesh. The concert would be broadcast by the BBC, and there would also be a CD recording.

Counter-tenor and teacher Mark Chambers, one of McCreesh’s regular singers, was asked to take the Belfast rehearsals, and regards the whole Elijah experience as crucial to what happened afterwards with his young singers. ‘It had an unbelievable effect,’ he remembers.

‘What was different was they really were treated as professionals. It was, like, ten o’clock, the red light was on, Simon Keenlyside [the baritone singing Elijah] was there, and you were expected to be on it. There was no compromise, there was no “Oh, they’re only kids”. You were one of 160 people, and if you fluffed it, that take was not useable.

‘And also,’ continues Chambers, ‘they had the experience of working with professionals on either shoulder. You had the Wroclaw Philharmonic Choir there too from Poland, one of the best choirs in the world, and they really tank out some noise. The whole mixing-pot was like a window onto the world of professional music-making.’

The Northern Irish contingent involved in the Elijah project looked at that window, and liked what they saw through it. ‘Two or three days afterwards,’ recalls Chambers, ‘they came to me and said, “We really want to do some more, as a group”. So we organised it.’

The Fairy Queen


And that is how Sestina came into being. The name comes from a piece in Monteverdi’s Sixth Book of Madrigals, performed at one of the new ensemble’s early concerts. ‘My original concept for Sestina was to give them a platform to be able to collaborate with professional musicians,’ explains Chambers. ‘They’re expected to arrive and to work at that level from the beginning.’

The idea of implanting the Sestina singers in a solidly professional environment is one that’s central to the group’s latest project, a concert performance of Purcell’s baroque masterpiece The Fairy Queen, at the Ulster Museum in Belfast on Friday, April 12 and the Great Hall at Magee, Derry~Londonderry on Saturday, April 13.

The professional element is reflected particularly in the group of instrumentalists who will perform Purcell’s music on the evening. Among them are players of world-class standing in the realm of period instruments.

Violist Rebekah Durston, cellist Jonny Byers, oboists Hannah McLaughlin and Leo Duarte, trumpeter Neil Brough, percussionist Robert Kendell, and theorbist Paula Chateauneuf – all have extensive experience in historically aware performance, and have played regularly with top ensembles such as the Gabrieli Consort, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and John Eliot Gardiner’s English Baroque Soloists.

It’s quite a context for the five local Sestina singers – Fiona Flynn and Caroline Jones (sopranos), Michael Bell (tenor), Aaron O’Hare (baritone), Brian McAlea (bass) – to perform in, and quite a work in which to showcase their individual vocal talents.

‘I personally think The Fairy Queen is Purcell’s best piece, it’s just some of his most beautifully-crafted music,’ says Chambers. It is, however, a difficult work to categorize, a so-called ‘semi-opera’, with spoken text included alongside the singing and the spectacle.

‘I’m calling our performance an entertainment of music, dance and image,’ adds Chambers with a smile. ‘Theatre and music in Purcell’s time was just that, it was like a musical, you had to tick all the boxes. You had spoken word, you had dance, you had spectacular scenery, lighting, great singers, you had everything.’

Sestina’s version of The Fairy Queen won’t quite have ‘everything’ in it. The spoken sections (based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) are omitted, to keep the evening to a manageable duration, and costumes and props will be minimal.

Chambers has, however, included elements of dance to complement the singing and playing. ‘We’ve got two dancers, a male and a female, representing Titania and Oberon – Bridget Madden, who is the lead dancer and the choreographer, and Ryan O’Neill.’ Madden and O’Neill will perform not just in instrumental numbers, but during other parts of the score too.'

‘There’s a beautiful duet at the opening of Act Three,’ explains Chambers, ‘called 'If Love’s a Sweet Passion' (see video above). It’s very much a dialogue between a male and a female, so we’re going to reflect that, with them almost dancing the feelings that the singers are singing about.’

In the course of discussing Sestina’s forthcoming production, Chambers consistently deflects attention away from himself, and on to the young Northern Irish singers who will feature as soloists. It’s obvious, however, that the project simply wouldn’t have happened without his extensive list of contacts in the music community, and the verve and enthusiasm he has brought to putting the show together.

Chambers will also be busy on the evening. ‘I’m going to be directing it, singing in the chorus, and doing one solo,’ he laughs. ‘But I’m also a facilitator, I’m giving these guys an opportunity. The singers we’ve got are now going off to music colleges, their careers are blossoming, they’re all really on the brink of something.

‘I would like to think that when we do a Christmas concert, or an Easter concert, or a summer concert, or whatever, they come back, and Sestina continues to grow. I want the group to continue to give the fantastic vocal talent around Northern Ireland exposure to excellence, and make people aware of just what level they need to be at to be taken seriously. The voices here are pretty much second to none.’

Sestina perform The Fairy Queen at Ulster Museum, Belfast on Friday, April 12 (028 9044 0000) and at the Great Hall at Magee, Derry~Londonderry on Saturday, April 13 (028 7126 4455).