& H Festival Reports
48th CORK INTERNATIONAL CHORAL
FESTIVAL Ireland, 1-5 May 2002 (PGW)
Cork is an ancient Irish city, its river creating a natural port which has been a gateway to the world, its wealth displayed in many grand old houses of 18 & 19 C. Some of the humbler dwellings make up for grandeur with a wealth of flamboyant colours to cheer the heart on the greyest days, from shocking pucy pinks to deep and dank purply blues and orange yellows. Famously rainy, Ireland enjoyed fine weather for this year's events. Now Cork welcomes each year
The festival opened to civic pride, pomp and ceremony, with the band of the Southern Brigade, at the magnificent City Hall where the main events took place, on the bank of the southern of the two channels of the River Lee, which cross Cork's city centre. Handel's four Coronation Anthems received stylish performances by Christ Church Cathedral Choir under Mark Duley, supported by the accomplished period instrument players of Christ Church Baroque. This is Ireland's only professional baroque orchestra, formed a few years ago and active in educating the country's musicians. They supported the Irish opera singer, soprano Majella Cullagh, virtuosic in two Vivaldi motets, veritable 'concertos for voice'. An auspicious start!
Two exemplary seminars during our first full day affected my listening to the choirs in competition and concert. These were two of the best educational sessions intended for a public audience that I have been to for several years, informative and thought provoking.
Jaakko Mäntyjärvi from Finland, an experienced choral conductor and composer with a wide knowledge of contemporary composing idioms, raised for intending composers of choral music some 'taboo' issues and inherent paradoxes, his wisdom tempered by dry wit, viz.
'The best is that choral singers are mostly amateur", bringing a better attitude and extra enthusiasm to music making; a 'grape-vine' effect disseminates good new repertoire widely, and composers can find themselves surprised to receive royalties for performances of which they had been unaware in far away countries.
'The worst is that choral singers are mostly amateur", with extremely variable technical levels of accomplishment and capability.
- - There are very few fully professional choirs in the world, so tailoring music for specific choirs can lead to the common experience of 'farewell premieres'. Not many composers are comfortable with writing for choirs and personal co-operation is highly recommendable for commissions to succeed. Performance targets should be slightly higher than current levels - 'feasible, not unreachable'. There is 'a fine line between challenge and frustration'.
In the technical part of his talk, Mr Mäntyjärvi discussed questions of register, notation and presentation, which are not to be found readily in composing textbooks. But for the outsider, it was Mäntyjärvi's frank and open discussion of ethical and philosophical considerations which coloured one's listening to all the choirs at Cork and, a few days afterwards, those competing in the fledgling competition at Rhodes.
- - Choral music is held low in public estimation and there is often a contextual subtext, such as church or a political movement, which informs how it is listened to and has to be taken into account. This 'assumed ideological base' affects its image; e.g. he quoted a German composer who in the '70s had said that 'it would be professional suicide to compose for a children's choir'! Drawing on the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho's Values and the Composer, Mäntyjärvi emphasised the primacy of 'style and technique' for 'modernist' composers. Often avoided in discussion are matters of 'meaningful content', pertinent 'social/political values', 'occasional music' for specific events and 'entertainment music'. Important to Aho, and to Mäntyjärvi, is a sense of history - 'to deny everything old is to deny history'. A social dimension may be paramount; questions of 'emotionally meaningful content' - why do people listen, for 'solace, strength, drama', or for 'tranquillity and sacrality (the mythical, mysterious and holy)'?
Those thoughts helped me towards a more benign understanding that most of the pieces offered in both competitions have strong tonal roots. They led Mäntyjärvi on to discussing the ideal v. the practical; 'integrity' v. compromise - adaptability as part of professional competence, writing different music to develop 'plurality and flexibility' - 'strategies for dismantling the ivory tower'. The choral conductor has to exercise good control but this depends upon maintenance of motivation - the composer of a newly commissioned work needs to be able to answer the singers' implied question 'why are we doing this piece'?. Music should be a shared goal, 'not a common enemy'!
(The slides that Mr Mäntyjärvi's projected for his lecture are copied in full as an Appendix to this report. His website is well worth exploring!)
In another of the seminars, the Toulouse based French composer Patrick Burgan introduced Cry, his new choral setting of W.B.Yeats, to be premièred the following night by the National Chamber Choir conducted by Celso Antunes. He described how its imagery, following a six month search for a suitable text for this commission, so inspired him that completion of the score was rapid. He analysed for us the meanings (to him) of every phrase and how he found musical equivalents, using two of Messiaen's Modes of Transposition for the basic harmonic framework. There was fruitful discussion, with participation of the choir's conductor and several members, who told how his compositional approach which had seemed, at first acquaintance, dauntingly complex proved to be grateful to learn and made Cry satisfying to sing. Having had the benefit of hearing it three times prior to the official première, we rated it a small masterpiece (around four minutes) and certainly one which left us eager to explore a composer extensively published, performed and recorded, but hitherto unknown to us - a frequent experience in our travels for Seen&Heard.
The session for the prestigious Fleischmann International Trophy, awarded to Cantus from Norway, highlighted the recurrent problem of comparing unlikes. From my 'generalist' perspective one sympathised with adjudicators who would have to consider (or ignore) such variables as selection of extreme repertoire, stage choreography and movement, dress (stylish concert uniforms and gaudy national costume). This was epitomised by the daring Academic Choir Collegium Musicum from Belgrade, which offered, uniquely, one substantial item which consisted mainly of choral speech, with swirling movements and a mock attack unleashed upon their elegant conductor, Darinka Matic-Marovic, whose exceptional musicianship and theatrical flair was in evidence at the several contrasting appearances of these beautiful young Yugoslavian women. Would their response to the originality of Jokes from Bachka by Dusan Kostic be celebrated or lead to disqualification in a competition in which aspects such as smooth tone quality and impeccable intonation normally figure centrally? In the event, after prolonged discussion into the night, it earned them a trophy for 'the choir that, in the opinion of Festival audiences, gives the most enjoyable performance of the Festival'; many professionally involved voiced the hope that they might emerge as overall winners. The amusing staging of the familiar Oh, no John song by a choir from Canada earned its conductor (in full Highland tartan rig) a special prize for his 'imaginative and artistic programme'. (The audience was not privy to the criteria and marking protocols upon which adjudication would be based; these are generally confidential, so I was assured.) There were many special prizes and trophies, shared out in recognition of the prevailing excellence; the full results are at http://www.corkchoral.ie/results.htm and the International Results are appended as an Appendix below.
There was however no cause for dissatisfaction; the overall standard of the invited choirs, and the best of the Irish ones in the various categories, had been so high that with many worthy potential winners, subjective preferences were bound to have figured. The CDs from the previous 46th & 47th Cork International Choral Festivals gives an insight into the distinguished influx to the city every Spring and are recommended for assured pleasure, even for people who do not take a regular interest in choral music, a byway from mainstream concert fare (available for €12.70 each from firstname.lastname@example.org).
Unique in Seen&Heard's experience of music performance competitions was the inspired and easy, unobtrusive integration of entertainment into a prestigious international competition. Each jury-judged session had a few non-competitive performances interposed without fuss, two non-competing groups, the Sirin Vocal Ensemble of Russia presenting ancient traditional styles at the Cathedral of St. Mary & St. Anne at 10.30 one night, and Takku, three young Finnish women who popped up everywhere with old folk music from the Viking Age & early Middle Ages with replica instruments made by the members of the group. Each competing choir, and other invited musicians and dancers, had numerous additional opportunities to give, or take part in, fringe concerts and appearances in venues ranging from the central shopping centre to the library and farther afield. My illustration from the programme book shows the activities in and around Cork planned in advance for the choir that won the chief international award (formerly Choir of the World at Llangollen Eisteddford, Wales).
The final day was hectic indeed, with the national open Competition on Sunday morning for early risers (after maybe a Saturday night of country dancing in the Festival Club) and overlapping and concurrent opportunities in the afternoon to enjoy competition sessions in City Hall of National Competitions for Light, Jazz & Popular Music, and forYouth Choirs, the Competition for Church Music at St. Fin Barre's Cathedral, as well as a concert in Celebration of Church Music given by the invited International Choirs at St. Mary's Church on the North Channel of the river. The streets were full of colourful groups of costumed singers, criss-crossing the city between one date and another for these appearances. My determination to explore the various festival venues confirmed the City of Cork's good fortune; all are architectural gems, brightly restored and with excellent acoustics. To even try to sample everything on offer demanded nifty footwork and, more's the pity, I did not make the enticing light music session which featured Note Perfect in Mac the Knife, Champagne Cork dispensing Jeepers Creepers or Vocal Ease telling us Let's Do It. Next year perhaps?
The practicalities of this massive annual enterprise are under supervision by but two paid administrative staff; they work wonders to co-ordinate everything, warranting a special section. The Director, John Fitzpatrick, himself an unpaid volunteer, is a marvellous communicator; he knows what is happening in the international choir world, and his good judgement ensures a high standard. He receives CDs from choirs that apply to attend, and will have heard most of them live. All the choirs, musicians and dancers invited to participate, whether competing or entertaining, are accommodated generously in Cork free of charge, as are a number of official Guests.
John Fitzpatrick demonstrated rare organising genius in controlling detail and in his overall belief in involving, valuing and supporting all the people involved. He has devoted himself to this Festival over his regular work commitments. John and his colleagues must be congratulated on creating, motivating and supporting an army of some 150 volunteers who are omnipresent and make everything go like clockwork, deployed to collect the singers at the airport and take them to and from their hotels and on and off stage (with never those prolonged breaks so familiar at contemporary music concerts!) and for excluding extraneous disturbance outside the auditorium during performances. The Cork programme book is a model of comprehensive information and of its presentation. Numerous individuals and organisations have come forward as sponsors to help defray the substantial expenses and to make the Festival one which is the pride of the City; its ripples spreading far and wide through the planet
The organisers must also be congratulated on their enlightened educational and outreach policy, which involves Irish schoolchildren as competitors. The great number of those participants over two days is proof of its success. Their standard of performance was generally high indeed and speaks of a wonderfully alive musical culture in Ireland. We were given to understand that many of the conductors from Ireland were ordinary teachers, not specially trained musicians. Those youngsters will not only imbibe a love of music and a striving for excellence through their choral singing, but they will also be helping to build an audience and pool of performers to guarantee a healthy future for Cork's choral festival.
The Results of the 48th Cork International Choral Competition are on line at http://www.corkchoral.ie/results.htm.
The 49th Cork International Choral Festival will take place 1-4 May 2003; the participating choirs are listed below:
E V E N T H I G H L I G H TS
Participating Choirs & Guest Groups
Non Competitive Choirs