Choir of the World

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On Saturday I had the pleasure and privilege to be among the adjudicators for the Pavarotti Choir of the World competition at the Llangollen International Eisteddfod. The competition forms the second half of that evening’s concerts, and features the winners of the five major adult choir classes from earlier in the Eisteddfod: mixed choirs, chamber choirs, male and female choirs and barbershop choruses. This was the third time I had been on the panel, and it was the best competition I have yet seen.

The winners were the Westminster Chorus, from California, winners of the barbershop class. The repertoire they brought to the grand final, however, included Eric Whitacre’s Lux Arumque and two pieces which, while arranged by barbershop arrangrs (Rick Spencer and Aaron Dale), were clearly in the category of non-barbershop music arranged for barbershoppers. Interestingly, the only previous barbershop chorus to win this trophy (Cambridge Chord Company, in 2004) also presented a non-traditional programme in the final – in their case, they audaciously presented their hilarious parody of Under Milk Wood.

I don’t think it’s the case that you can’t win Choir of the World with barbershop music - that would be a pity. But I do suspect that if the only music you are able to perform convincingly is barbershop music, then you aren’t in the league to win. And I guess it’s not surprising that groups who do have the musicianship to perform a breadth of repertoire should choose to do so when they enter a competition that doesn’t have the restrictions of traditional barbershop contests.

Two other things struck me about this contest. The first was the youth of all the groups. The chamber and mixed choirs were both from American universities, and the female choir was a group of Estonian girls aged between 15 and 18. (And anyone who thinks that young female voices don’t have depth and colour should listen to this choir and revise their opinion.) Westminster’s singers are mostly in their twenties, and the male voice choir was a group from Wales that had many voices still in their teens, and even among the older singers there was not a grey hair in sight. There was a time not so many years ago when you heard a lot of dystopian grumbling about how choirs were ageing and how you couldn’t find younger singers. That is clearly no longer something to worry about – the future of choral music is clearly in very good hands.

The second was how much new music was being performed. In some classes – e.g. the male and female voice classes – there were repertoire specifications that required ensembles to present music by 20th- and 21st-century composers. But many classes, including the Choir of the World, had no such requirements, and nearly all choirs still chose to present plenty of material by living composers. Indeed, in the Choir of the World, some programmes consisted entirely of new music. Again, one hears a lot of belly-aching about how classical music is a sclerotic museum culture with neither performers nor audiences willing to open their ears and minds to innovation. It’s possible that choirs bring music to festivals that they don’t think they can sell tickets for at their concerts, but my impression is that the Llangollen audience – a group of devoted but somewhat traditional music-lovers if ever there was one – are perfectly happy listening to pieces recently composed.

Llangollen is a place well-suited to foster optimism. It certainly lived up to form this year.

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