WHEN it comes to getting young people to sing, Christopher Bell has the golden touch.
He’s been proving that for 17 years, which is the age now of the National Youth Choir of Scotland (NYCoS) he helped found back in 1996, and which today, along with its various offspring – the National Boys Choir, National Girls Choir and numerous regional training choirs – knocks completely on the head the generally misinformed notion that kids simply don’t want to sing choral music these days.
The latest proof is a sparkling new disc – Letters to Lindbergh – by the six-year-old NYCoS Girls Choir, featuring music by the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, which is every bit as classy and entertaining as the choir’s five-star debut recording a few years ago of Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols.
Aside from the supreme quality of the singing itself – lustrous, exuberant, but expertly contained within the confines of homogenous purity and sophistication – Bell’s choice of repertoire is anything but run-of-the-mill. He has found, in this charming assortment of songs with piano duet accompaniment, the perfect vehicle for presenting the young female voices at their best. In truth, though, he simply chanced upon them. “It’s often the case that you’re in a music shop browsing through the shelves and you chance upon something that grabs your attention,” says Bell. “That’s what happened about six years ago, when I was looking for things the new Girls Choir could sing and discovered the Letters to Lindbergh.”
At the same time, a good friend of Bell’s, Scots soprano Sasha Adams, had drawn his attention to the Dream Songs, which Bennett had written for her as a solo work, but which the composer had also intended to be sung by a choir.
Before long, the idea of a disc completely dedicated to Bennett’s music was formulating and expanding fast in his mind, so when Signum Records expressed its interest in recording more from the choir, Bell had a ready-made plan. “I said to them, here’s a pile of Richard Rodney Bennett songs, some recorded, some not. I said we had to do them with top-notch pianists. Philip Moore and Andrew West were recommended and I was delighted when they said they’d do it.”
The result is phenomenal, and not just because the performances are unquestionably good. For these are truly delightful pieces – the quirky Letters to Lindbergh, which include one from Mickey Mouse’s dog Pluto among poet Martin Hall’s imagined letters sent to solo Atlantic aviator Charles Lindbergh by various celebrity correspondents; the blues-infused Four American Carols, typical of Bennett’s own jazz leanings; and the golden lyricism of The Aviary. Moore and West also feature independently in the innocent humour of Over the Hills and Far Away, a suite for piano duet based on well-known nursery rhymes.
At the start of the project, Bell could never have anticipated the timeliness of the release, coming as it does only three months after Bennett’s death. As a result, it stands now as a golden testimony to a composer whose music ranged from serious concert pieces to such legendary film scores as Murder on the Orient Express, and whose activities as a performer varied between concert pianist and jazz crooner.
It also coincides with further exciting news from Bell’s burgeoning choral empire, the flagship unit of which – NYCoS – has been wowing audiences from Perth to Paisley in recent knock-out performances of Fauré’s Requiem, which we will hear again with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.
Also now in the public domain is news of the choir’s September appearance at the start of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s new season performing Robert Levin’s convincing new version of Mozart’s unfinished Requiem under the baton of Donald Runnicles. Bell is keeping quiet about another appearance in September at the Lammermuir Festival, as the festival programme hasn’t been announced yet, but he’s happy to confirm that the programme will be built around a new commission.
Before that, NYCoS will be touring major concert venues in Eastern Europe with the Mozart and Fauré Requiems and Paul Mealor’s Crucifixus, a work that featured in last Saturday’s NYCoS concert in Paisley Abbey. The summer tour (9-12 July) will include performances in St Stephen’s Cathedral Vienna, the Smetana Hall in Prague, as well as appearances in Moravia and Bratislava.
“This is part of plans we have for an ongoing three-year touring cycle,” says Bell, adding that these plans include starting an additional NYCoS choir that will remain in Scotland for the usual residential summer course, while the other one heads overseas.
The long and the short of it is that NYCoS can now claim to be encouraging more young people than ever to join the ranks of its growing empire. “If you take all the regional training choirs together with the National Boys Choir, the National Girls Choir and NYCoS itself, the global number of youngsters involved is currently about 800,” says Bell.
And there’s more. With funding from the Leverhulme Trust, NYCoS is in the process of creating several new “Singing Academies” which will enable the organisation, says Bell, “to expand its existing provision of singing teachers in Scotland”. The first of these will be established in Dundee, Edinburgh and Dumfries. “For the moment we’re keeping it low key, but we’re in the process of formulating details of our recruitment programme,” he explains. Watch this space.
More activity inevitably calls for additional coaching support, and in a separate initiative, Bell is delighted to announce that a new conducting fellowship has been created through funding from the BBC Performing Arts Fund. The first recipient is Andrew Nunn, conductor of the award-winning women’s choir Les Sirènes and postgraduate conducting student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.
“For Andrew this is a huge opportunity to work, not just with our coaches, but with the singing teachers who support them,” says Bell. “These are the people I turn to myself for solutions to certain problems. He will benefit hugely from the experience.”
Plenty to sing about, it seems.
• The NYCoS Girls Choir of Scotland’s latest CD, Letters to Lindbergh, is released this month on the Signum label, see www.nycos.co.uk