I don’t recall dishing out so many 5-star reviews at an Edinburgh Festival as this year. Either it’s been a bumper one for classical music, or I’ve been lucky in what I chose to attend. A bit of both, I think, for this has been Jonathan Mills’s most consistently good musical programming since he started as Festival director.
Thinking back over the highlights, from the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra’s euphoric Mahler 2 to Nikolai Lugansky’s probing Queen’s Hall recital, something more ought to be said about a specific aspect of the musical programming that is flying higher than ever, yet is too often taken for granted.
I’m referring to the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and its director Christopher Bell. I caught up with him last weekend in St Giles’ Cathedral, where he was rehearsing another of his many choirs – the National Youth Choir of Scotland Girls Choir – for a full-scale performance that evening.
“How do you really think we’re doing?” quizzed the likeable Irishman who’s never been backward in coming forward, and who feels a little frustrated when the Festival Chorus fails to get much more than an adjective or two in a review.
With the choir revving up for tonight’s Festival closing performance of Verdi’s Requiem with Donald Runnicles and the BBC SSO, it’s time to reflect on Bell’s achievements in his six years as chorus director.
This has been a watershed Festival for what is now Scotland’s foremost amateur chorus. When Bell took over, it sounded worn-out and “amateur” in the pejorative sense. In recent years, a noticeable improvement has resulted from his uncompromising standards, unshakeable vision and technical competence. More than anything, young blood has been recruited, with many singers drawn from Bell’s NYCoS choirs.
But never has it sounded more confident, more consistent in tone, more explosive in impact and attack than its appearances early this Festival in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, and Scriabin’s Symphony No 1.
Even the world’s top conductors noticed it. “It was so refreshing to hear Valery Gergiev tell the RSNO to ‘listen to the choir and follow what they do’ when rehearsing the Prokofiev,” Bell recalls. “And then for Mariss Jansons to tell me he was pleased we had memorised Mahler 2 because his own professional chorus wouldn’t have done that.”
“I don’t expect anything less than complete choral discipline from any choir, whether youngsters or adults, amateurs of professionals,” says Bell. He reckons it takes five years to turn a choir round to his way of thinking. That’s exactly what he’s achieved with the Festival Chorus. New heights have been reached, as I’m sure tonight’s Verdi Requiem will, once again, prove.