One of the aims of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain has always been to have a positive international influence on choral music – we want to inspire young singers all around the world.
But something left me slightly uncomfortable with that idea. I wondered whether I was thinking in a typically British way: “aren’t we great that we export our lovely British choral tradition worldwide.”
I decided to investigate how we actually might not actually be at the forefront of choral music as it stands in 2017.
A lot of our choral music is church-based or performed in a semi-circle. We sing pristine choral music very well but what sort of social mission do we have? What can we be proud of in terms of what choral music achieves for people outside of that classical realm?
I realised that we needed to reverse our thinking. Rather than thinking of all the arrows emanating from the UK, like some great network around the globe, we should actually be thinking about how we can take inspiration from different parts of the world. How can we learn about different choral techniques, different sounds, different languages, different ways of making music and the different social missions of choirs across the world?
I started to research what was out there and I eventually made a list of seven choirs which I thought had something really special to offer. When I got in touch with them to see if they’d be interested in coming together in London, all seven said yes. All of them bring something different – they’re representing their nation, or their mission, or even just their style of singing. Eight choirs from four different continents.
The festival is made up of two main concerts. The first – in the Royal Albert Hall – is essentially an individual showcase where the choirs can show off their best stuff. But this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the listener as well as the choirs – we wanted to hear what it would sound like when all these different styles of singing come together.
So, on 17 April, we’re going to form a huge ‘super choir’ to perform Jonathan Dove’s There Was a Child. It’s a work that celebrates young people, expression, and the tragedy of a young life cut short – which is why Dove wrote it originally. It’s universal in the sense that it draws on secular texts from all over the world – the perfect work for us.
Of course, for some of the choirs its very different from anything they’ve sung before – which is an opportunity in itself.
It’s not just the choirs who are the young stars of the festival. The brilliant conductor Ben Gernon will be leading the performance, Louise Alder – who is representing England at this year’s Cardiff Singer of the World – and Rob Murray will be singing the solos.
The final element of the festival is an all-day conference for choral leaders from the UK which is taking place on 15 April. This is a fantastic opportunity for us to get all of the leaders of the international choirs to talk about what they do, to inspire anyone who comes along. For example, there are workshops about how to present choral music on stage – how to create an amazing performance. That will be a very valuable workshop for our choral leaders attending – in the UK we tend to be quite conventional, but this will help push the boundaries and think of new ways to perform.
Interview by Elinor Cooper. Greg Beardsall directs the inaugural International Youth Choir Festival in London from 15 to 17 of April. For more information, click here, or pick up a copy of the April issue of BBC Music Magazine.