'We’re sounding better than ever' - SCO Chorus prepares for post-covid comeback

The Covid years haven’t been kind to choirs, but this month the singers of the SCO Chorus are gearing up for live performances in Stirling and St Andrews. It’s been a “highly emotional” journey, chorus director Gregory Batsleer tells David Kettle
The SCO Chorus PIC: Ruben ParisThe SCO Chorus PIC: Ruben Paris
The SCO Chorus PIC: Ruben Paris

“It’s been a lovely cocktail of excitement, anticipation, nervousness and pragmatism, to be honest.” Gregory Batsleer, Chorus Director at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, is talking about the SCO Chorus’s long, gradual, but finally joyful return to singing post-pandemic.

Being an ensemble of vocalists – with all the Covid-related issues that singing involves – the SCO Chorus (like all choirs) has had it worse even than other musicians. Even during the harshest restrictions, however, they still met online, and they’ve been ramping up activity ever since. “We’ve been singing together since September last year pretty much on a weekly basis,” says Batsleer. “It’s felt like we had a bit of pre-season training, then we got back into action with a friendly – we’ve built our way back into the season, and I think we’re sounding as good as we’ve ever been.”

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How has he found the singers’ responses to being back together? “It’s touching how normal it feels, actually. We’re not all coming back together and hugging each other. I think everyone’s been feeling highly emotional, but we’re channelling it through the music.”

And there’s already been plenty of music for the SCO Chorus to bring back to audiences – including a richly imagined Messiah in March/April, and SCO Associate Composer Anna Clyne’s brand new (and itself lockdown-inspired) The Years last month, which offered a gently consoling blanket of vocal warmth for singers and listeners alike.

There’s another new piece by Clyne – The Heart of Night, getting its first ever performances – in the two concerts the SCO Chorus gives as part of the Orchestra’s extensive timetable of summer tours, which stretch from now until September, and from Selkirk to Shetland. That the SCO Chorus – unusually – is featured in the summer concerts is itself an indication of how extensive and ambitious the tours are in 2022, in a celebratory return after two years away. “We have a high-quality ensemble,” says Batsleer of the SCO Chorus, “and at the moment you really only get to hear them in Edinburgh and Glasgow. We wanted to show off the Chorus’s skills a bit further afield – and at the same time, it’s a real boost for the singers too.”

And it’s a particularly interesting, not to mention ambitious, programme that the Chorus takes to its two performances in Stirling Castle and St Andrews, one that jumps between centuries from Byrd to Britten and Clyne, and which mixes themes from Shakespeare (including Vaughan Williams’s rarely heard Three Shakespeare Songs) to air and water, with Stanford’s luminous The Bluebird joining its darker cousin, Judith Bingham’s The Drowned Lovers. “Something I’ve been battling with is: how do we create an emotive or imaginative space for choral music without having to feel compelled to sing religious music?” Batsleer explains. “I wanted a programme that wasn’t completely focused on British music, and something that had magical quality to it. This is a programme for Scottish summer evenings – not exactly a summer concert, but you can definitely smell the fresh grass in it.”

The tours come at a particularly strong moment for the SCO, which has just announced a rich, striking new season of concerts for 2022-23. The world premiere of a new Second Violin Concerto by Sir James MacMillan – written for and unveiled by Nicola Benedetti – launches the season in what promises to be an emotional concert under the mercurial Maxim Emelyanychev, and elsewhere Emelyanychev contrasts Baroque inspirations with Brahms, Schubert and Mendelssohn. Finnish genre-straddler Pekka Kuusisto returns with neo-folk icon Sam Amidon, British tenor of the moment Allan Clayton sings Britten’s Les illuminations, and there’s surely plenty to be excited about in Ayrshire-born Jay Capperauld becoming the SCO’s new Associate Composer.

And there’s plenty for the SCO Chorus to get their teeth into in the new season, too, from Haydn’s Creation to the much-loved Christmas choral concert (now firmly established as a seasonal Edinburgh fixture), and from Handel’s Israel in Egypt to a season-closing Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem. It’s been a slow, steady, necessarily cautious return, but it’s good to see and hear them back.

The SCO Chorus performs as part of the SCO’s summer tours at Stirling Castle, 11 June, and St Andrews, 12 June, see www.sco.org.uk

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