Regional guest blog – Cork International Choral Festival

If you are not a choral bird, so to speak, you won’t normally find yourself migrating south on the May bank holiday weekend for the Cork International Choral Festival. Choirs from all over Ireland and the western world perform, dazzle and entertain a mixture of interested locals, dedicated listeners and random competition participants across a range of concerts, competitions and workshops.

Since taking over as director Paul Hillier has been presenting some wonderful themed programmes with the National Chamber Choir (a memorable ‘Singing Stories & Telling Songs’ with John Cage and Ligeti in Belmullet was my own favourite) so I was happy to see another adventurously balanced programme for the Friday night concert. Leaning towards the new (Andrew Hamilton and Ezequiel Viñao) and the not so new but not so old (George Macfarren’s romantic Shakespeare settings) a healthy audience consisting mostly of locals, festival participants, and a few contemporary music enthusiasts filled the glorious St. Fin Barre’s Cathedral. Macfarren’s and Skempton’s romantic settings framed the programme, both offering well crafted romantic choral pieces.

Setting the sublime aside the first commission Andrew Hamilton’s Everything is Ridiculous was concise and immediate. The text, ‘Everything is ridiculous when one thinks of death’, from a quote by Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, was broken down into syllables, re-assembled and augmented bit by bit within the context of a estranged choral progression. Lasting just over three minutes the piece illuminates a moment of brief contemplation, both profound and absurd. It is bold, brief, and ambiguously ridiculous. It was brilliant. The other new commission was by the Argentine-American composer Ezequiel Vinao who set a scene from Beowulf. Scored for choir and 4 percussionists the piece remoldes the old in the context of the new, like peering through an ancient 13th century telescope with a modern eye. Set over five scenes and lasting close to twenty minutes the music was linear, sprawling, epic. Vocal lines weave round each other while the extensive percussion helped to ritualise the pastoral, darkish hue (anvils, bodhrans, two triangles). As with the Hamilton the choir were on top form although with two singers acting as percussionists could be forgiven for smudging some of the attacks. I thought it was a little long but as the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen says ‘If you say a piece is too long, you just don’t like it’. However my appreciation of the piece changed after hearing the work again on Saturday.

I spent the first half of Saturday attending the 41st Seminar on New Choral Music in the beautifully sleek Cork School of Music. For me, this was the highlight of the festival. Featuring both composers, the chamber choir and Paul Hillier each commission was positioned within the context of who, what, how and why. The exchanges with the audiences were light, informal but rich with detail, offering the perfect introduction to both composers and these new choral works. Chaired by Rhona Clarke each piece was examined with clarity, depth and conviction from the perspective of both the composer and the conductor. Paul Hillier explained the wider context of each piece, be it the primarily rhythmic challenge of Hamilton’s score, or the use of 13th Century techniques (ala Perotin) in Vinao’s. Given the quality of the presentation it was unfortunately that the thirty or so participants seemed to be there almost by accident, not design. With fewer numbers attending the afternoon session a real opportunity was overlooked to promote a greater understanding of the field of new choral music. Programmed simultaneously with the Fleishmann Trophy or the Premier National Competitions though who can blame festival participants for missing something they might not even be aware of. Perhaps next year hosting the Seminar on the day of the concert would make the most of what was an enlightening and engaging three hours. The choir sounded great by the way so do try and hear them whenever possible.

In between seminars I went to Cafe Paradiso to have lunch. It was, without doubt, the best meal I have ever had. Seriously. I won’t even begin to describe the salad dressing, or how it somehow managed to change subtely from lemon to orange as the leaves dissappeared. Highly recommended.

After leaving the afternoon seminar I wandered around, rehearsed with my own choir – Cór Mhaigh Eo, the reason for my third Festival visit – and then prepared myself to attend the 2nd half of the Fleishmann International Competition in City Hall. I say prepare because the rules of the competition, though broad, can offer up a bizarre concert experience to the audience member. Having to present a twelve minute selection with one work from pre 1750, another post 1950 and another from a composer of the country of the choirs origin, retaining some sort of choir individuality is a hard task to pull off. Finding that balance of repertoire is half the challenge of winning a choral competition and I am amazed at how many choral directors across numerous competitions misjudge the balance between musics. If you present a show stopper to close (usually involving clapping, choreography or sometimes a bizarre combination of both) you risk making that Monteverdi madrigal you sang as an opener seem ridiculous. Sliding to extremes usually hinders the case and of course the younger the choir, the smaller the extremes. No matter how good the technical delivery how can a youth choir possibly sing Edenroth’s Chili Con Carne after Monteverdi’s Ah Dolente Partita? One simply cancels out the other. But then I was attending the festival to be judged, not to judge, so perhaps each to their own. [Judgement by the way is what counts, as the marking scheme now breaks down to two decimal places: you could loose out by on 1st place by .01%]. With every announcement though comes some overall comments from two of the judging panel. These comments are themselves very helpful but can often get lost by participants eager to hear their position and final mark. I missed out on both (i was choired out by this stage) but my choir won the National Open Competition so those months of work found a 90% balance of what the judges were looking for. Well done Cór Mhaigh Eo!

Overall, I feel the Cork choral experience is designed to be participated in from the inside, not to be sampled from the outside. Which is fine if you sing in a choir who wants to be judged, but if you are not then the wealth of weekend choral competition snippets has to be balanced with the full concert programmes earlier in the week to offer any real reward to the festival goer. Yes there is something for everyone, but the same could say be said about a trip to the supermarket. From what music I did hear I was impressed by lots but moved by little. The most thrilling piece I heard was Hamilton’s new commission which will hopefully in years to come appear in more choirs selections, offering the ridiculous a chance to stand up and be counted!

As a postscript I have to mention the festival club which I went to on Saturday night. It was surreal – think pink feather boas, Heidy Heidy Heidy Ho cabaret and multiple european youth choirs trying to be dedicated, semi intoxicated and ironic while on the dance floor receiving ceili instructions. It was a cross between heaving teenage disco and an afternoon retirement lounge. I don’t think that David Lynch-style scene was what the organisers had in mind but these things happen only once a year. From the sublime to the Ridiculous indeed.

Donal Sarsfield

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