We can’t say for certain yet, but who would bet against the latest National Youth Choirs of Scotland (NYCOS) initiative being anything less than pitch perfect? A new NYCOS Chamber Choir will officially launch on 11 September as part of this year’s Lammermuir Festival.
This is, says straight-talking NYCOS founder and artistic director Christopher Bell, the best of the best. “The idea was that I select 24 singers who have been within our existing system and are now pretty much at the top of their game. Every single one of them could step forward and do a solo. They’ll have been in NYCOS for two or three years, either in the Girls or Boys Choirs, then the current flagship National Choir. I’m confident there’s capacity for this new choir to do some really hard music, to make recordings of some very different and challenging repertoire.”
Its debut at Lammermuir, in Loretto School Chapel with organist Michael Bawtree in support, will include music by Jonathan Dove, Benjamin Britten, Caroline Shaw and James MacMillan. Bell, well-known for his uncompromising pursuit of excellence, is in no doubt his new choir can hold its own against the formidable panoply of artists featuring elsewhere during the 12-day East Lothian festival, like pianists Jeremy Denk, Till Fellner and Danny Driver, chamber ensembles Quatuor Mosaïques and Quatuor Agate, the SCO and RSNO, even Scottish Opera in Massenet’s rarely performed Thérèse, to name but a few.
This newest NYCOS initiative couldn’t have come at a better time. Covid restrictions posed a serious threat to Bell’s long-standing mission to get young people singing at the highest possible level. Pre-pandemic, it wasn’t unusual to see the National Choir singing at the BBC Proms, the Edinburgh International Festival or touring the USA.
“Imagine a youth choir knocking the bejesus out of the Mozart Requiem in the Royal Albert Hall,” chirps the charismatic Irishman, misquoting an actual review. “That’s the position I need to get back to, where someone like John Eliot Gardiner comes to me and says ‘I want you back again to do Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, and I can say, hand on heart, “you’re on’.”
Recent weeks have witnessed NYCOS’s resilience as it regroups. The National Girls Choir did a sterling job in a Carmina Burana with Donald Runnicles that opened the Edinburgh Festival; and the full National Choir, following a successful Scottish Tour of the Durufle Requiem, featured as the semi-chorus in the closing concert, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius. Bell even sneaked in a “soft launch” in St Andrews for the new Chamber Choir. “We didn’t tell anyone, but 200 people still turned up,” he reveals.
That’s all brought a smile to his face, despite the fears the pandemic might have seriously stalled NYCOS’s meteoric momentum. Over the first year of Covid the numbers across all 14 regional choirs and senior choirs dropped from 1,450 to 1,000 singers. By the end of the second year that fell further to 650. The key reason, says Bell, was the natural departure of older year groups not being offset by new blood in the youngest year groups.
Even now, as school’s allow Bell and his colleagues access – though some local authorities are still nervous about letting visitors in – the consequences of Covid are all too clear. In one primary school, the class teacher delivered a shocking reality. “I was really struggling to get the kids to respond, it was ghastly, shocking,” he recalls. “The teacher smiled and said keep going, adding ‘you realise this is the first singing they’ve had in two years, and for the primary 3s it’s their first singing in school ever’.”
Undaunted, numbers are already back up to 1,400, and Bell’s super league Chamber Choir is set to materialise as the prized pinnacle for Scotland’s singing youth. Beyond Lammermuir a Scottish Tour is planned, as are a BBC and other recordings, and “a nice bit of money” from the Leverhulme Trust to underwrite the first three years.
The NYCOS Chamber Choir performs at Loretto School Chapel, Musselburgh on 11 September as part of the Lammermuir Festival, which runs throughout East Lothian 8-19 Sept. Full information at www.lammermuirfestival.co.uk