This Spring, amateur choirs from up and down the UK have been heading towards some of the country's best known concert venues to audition for the prestigious National Choir of the Year Competition 2016. This stage of the competition began at Leeds Town Hall in March, and will end at The Alban Arena next month, taking in the likes of The Anvil in Basingstoke, The Sage Gateshead and Glasgow City Halls in between.
On Saturday (7 May), I headed to the auditions St David's Hall in Cardiff where, over two sessions – one in the morning, one in the afternoon – choirs from Wales and across the south of England were strutting their stuff. I was, I will admit, a not entirely disinterested observer, as my eight-year-old son, James, was singing with the Cheltenham Youth Choir Juniors (CYCJ) in the children's category. Go Jimbo!
On the face of it, sitting through an afternoon of choir auditions – the hottest, sunniest afternoon of the year, what’s more – might not seem the most enticing prospect. If images of ropey choruses hacking and warbling their way through endless arrangements of Amazing Grace and the Skye Boat Song are filling your head at this point, I can totally understand. But bear with me, and have a rethink. On the evidence of my visit, the standard at National Choir of the Year, even at the audition stage, is mightily impressive.
The Saturday afternoon session, in which CYCJ were taking part, featured seven choirs in all, ranging from enthusiastic types who meet up once a week to tightly drilled, regularly rehearsed outfits with an impressive array of previous engagements already on their CVs. The age range is similarly broad (from five to about 65, by my reckoning), as the competition features four categories in all – Children’s, Youth, Adult and Open – and, importantly, each audition session has a mix of them.
Importantly, that is, because at this stage the choirs are not so much competing against each other as simply trying to rack up enough marks from the two judges (choral experts Stuart Barr and Ralph Allwood in this instance) to carry them through to the next stage. In theory, all seven choirs could have made it through or, of course, none at all. In fact, three did.
As it turned out, the chosen three – The Holles Singers, Wells Cathedral School Choralia and St Hilda’s Church of England School Chamber Choir – were all taking part in the Youth category, but there could be no complaints about their elevation to the next round. All three combined exceptional levels of control and musicality with winning flair and enthusiasm and, for me, St Hilda’s Choir's beautifully balanced rendition of Britten’s ‘This Little Babe’ – a devilishly tricky piece – was the highlight of the afternoon.
There are more ways than one to impress a judge, of course, and while Wells Choralia and St Hilda’s played it relatively straight by setting their sights on singing beautifully, The Holles Singers opted for an all-guns-blazing choral assault that came complete with shifting up and down the stage, all manner of vocal effects and even a solo dance routine to accompany their high-octane 1970s pop mash-up. Cripes. Too much. Mercifully, Choir of the Year audition slots are strictly limited to eight minutes, and whoever placed the Holles Singers next to the drinks interval in the running order clearly knew what they were doing…
For the Holles Singers (with or without their wacky routine), Wells Choralia and St Hilda’s, the chance to appear in the category finals at Birmingham Symphony Hall in October awaits and, possibly, even the grand final at the Wales Millennium Centre in December, at which point the BBC TV cameras will also be present. For the others, the disappointment at not making it to the next stage was lightened by the pleasure in taking part an event that, compered with aplomb by Greg Beardsell, was marked by well-considered and encouraging comment from the judges and, even better, a wonderfully supportive atmosphere between the choirs themselves. All seven of the choirs should congratulate themselves on a job well done – not least (he says with just a little glow of pride) the Cheltenham Youth Choir Juniors, who were given a special commendation certificate by the judges.
Two thoughts to finish off, though. Firstly, aside from St Hilda’s Choir's terrific Britten, there was not one piece of what I would call ‘traditional’ choral repertoire sung all afternoon. Much as though I’m as much a fan of an Abba medley as the next person, with over 500 years to choose from, would it be too much to ask that at least a smidgen of choral music history is represented here and there? Much of it is really rather good, after all.
And secondly, of the 150-plus singers on stage during Saturday afternoon, just six of them had male broken voices. A big high-five to those six doughty teenagers, who did sterling service in the lower reaches of Cheltenham Youth Choir Seniors, but the unavoidable conclusion has to be reached – while competitions such as National Choir of the Year rightly celebrate and showcase the excellence in Britain’s amateur choral scene, it also exposes the perennial problem that choir conductors face in filling the tenor and bass stalls. Food for thought?
For full National Choir of the Year Competition 2016 details, click here.
Jeremy Pound is the deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine