Durham Vocal Festival: NYCGB Fellowship Octet

Alongside the higher profile concerts in the Cathedral, the first Durham Vocal Festival has a very strong educational strand running through it, with plenty of events involving primary and secondary school children. Today, the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, whose head office is in Durham, brought their support to this new venture by bringing their Fellowship Octet to spend a day at Ushaw working with primary school pupils in the morning, and then giving workshops to their teachers. They rounded off what must have been a pretty hectic day with a short recital in the theatre at Ushaw, with music that somehow took us from Monteverdi madrigals and Renaissance motets to Spiderman and Billy Joel.

The NYCGB Fellowship Octet is a new venture – this is its second year – and is an intensive one-year programme for experienced young singers who are embarking on professional careers. As well as giving its participants the chance to develop musically, the programme also nurtures their educational and leadership skills, through events such as today’s.

Photo of NYCGB Fellowship octet

Two five-part madrigals by Monteverdi opened the concert: the singers skipped buoyantly through O Primavera, before soprano Hannah King led off passionately into Rimante in pace, and they steered their way carefully through Monteverdi’s stark and often surprising harmonies.  In Ramsey’s Sleep fleshly birth the passage describing showers of flowers was beautifully done, the repeated descending phrases scattering like petals through the texture. In te domine speravi was written by Nicholas Gombert in attempt to win pardon from Charles V who had sentenced him to the galleys for a nasty crime, and there was something in the Octet’s restless, pulsing performance that suggested that the threatened punishment was very much on the composer’s mind.

One of the themes running through the programme was Shakespeare settings, which meant I had another chance to what is clearly an NYCGB favourite, David Hamilton’s Caliban’s Song – it was my highlight of the NYCGB chamber choir concert the Gala a couple of years ago, so it was great to be reminded of it. This dreamy setting, beginning and ending with whispered voices, really brings out the pathos in Caliban’s character, and builds up to an agonised climax, and a feeling of a soul in torment with the voices battering the listener’s mind. In the first half, we heard Owain Park’s Shakespeare Love Songs – a setting of four texts. These rich and interesting settings followed very much in the tradition of English 20th century part-song writing, particularly the smoothly flowing “So sweet a kiss”. The final song, “When love speaks”, was warm and loving and the whole set really showcased both the individual voices and their developing abilities as an ensemble.

Occasionally there were little slips that showed that the group haven’t been together for very long, and in the first half, when they were singing in smaller groups, and quite understandbly they didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the rather dry acoustic in Ushaw’s Exhibition Hall – it’s a great venue for instruments, but apart from the fact that the seats are more comfortable, I would suggest that all choirs visiting Ushaw should stick to the chapel.  Of course all of the participants on this highly selective programme are extremely talented singers, and I hesitate to single out any individual, but throughout the evening I was drawn again and again to Helena Cooke’s vibrant contralto (perhaps because the sound she makes is pretty much what I aspire to when I’m singing!) – her opening to Purcell’s Hear my prayer was a real treat.

After what had been quite a serious programme, a Swingle arrangement of It was a lover and his lass was the turning point to a few lighter pieces to finish with. The singers caught the Swingle mood excellently, with crisp light singing, that sounded completely relaxed, and a very jazzy and hugely enjoyable arrangement of the Spiderman theme showed off Jamie Wright’s talents as a human beatbox. And I seemed to have something in my eye during the lovely little encore, an arrangement of Billy Joel’s Goodnight my angel.

For more information about the NYCGB Fellowship programme: https://www.nycgb.org.uk/fellowship-1