I am not a huge fan of competitions for choral music. You might think that that is a rather hypocritical statement considering I have adjudicated at the Tolosa (The Basque), Cork and Tampere (Finland) Choral Festivals (and will be in Tampere again this summer!). But I have to be blunt and say that while it can bring out the best in people it also brings out the worst.
Nevertheless it can push a choir to improve, experience new repertoire and enable people with an interest in the art to discuss and explore the huge panorama that is this wonderful form of music. In a healthy choral environment competition can be a very positive thing.
I’ve never thought that the choral environment was particularly healthy here in Ireland and I’ve always been wary of attending, adjudicating or performing at competitions as a consequence. The lack of an integrated choral infrastructure combined with non-proactive funding choices by the Arts Council of Ireland continue to disappoint. And no doubt will continue to do so until I am under the sod. But that story is for later on.
This story is about Anúna’s one and only competition.
The Cork International Choral Festival is the main competition for choirs in Ireland and in 1990 I decided to enter our choir, then called An Uaithne, for the main category. Much to all of our surprise we were chosen to compete and I selected diverse material thanks to very good advice from the Artistic Director of the Festival Geoff Spratt to read the application carefully before submitting my repertoire list. In the end I chose an eclectic mix – “Moro Lasso” by Carlo Gesualdo, Debussy’s “Dieu, Qu’il la Fait”, also repertoire by Robert White and my own “Tenebrae I”.
We faced off against a tough field of international ensembles, being the only Irish choir chosen to take part. We were at a disadvantage from the start. We were too small numerically to take part so we added in a few singers for the competition who hadn’t sung with us before. And I couldn’t conduct. And we didn’t really know the repertoire very well, but we managed to sing most of the notes but not always in the right places. And we were grand. No one died which was a bonus.
My own piece “Tenebrae I”, very flatteringly got the highest mark of our performance and pushed us into second place behind the highly acclaimed Lithuanian ensemble Jauna Muzika. So this was a great result for our fledgeling group and I was very pleased.
I also won the Seán Ó Riada Trophy for my composition “Dirigh Bhar Sleagha Sealga” that year and the great English composer John Tavener, who adjudicated it, when asked to describe our performance thought about it for a while. Then said “Primordial”… you can’t get much better than that. That night I spotted him wearing a long robe dancing at the the disco with a couple of young wans from one of the Dublin choirs. Different days I suppose.
Back to the story – at the gala performance that night something special happened. We sang three songs from Ireland that I had arranged – “Deus Meus”, “Gol na dTrí Muire” and “A Stór mo Chroí”. Despite the presence of so many Irish ensembles we were the only choir who sang in our own language. At the last gala performance I attended at the Cork Choral Festival many years later the only Irish piece was performed by a Canadian choir singing an arrangement by a Finnish composer.
I remember the atmosphere at the end of “A Stór” – a profound silence and intake of breath, something I had never experienced as we had never performed before such a large audience before. So it was here on the stage of City Hall in Cork, at that moment, that I knew that An Uaithne were doing something very different, very new, something profound that related strongly to our own beautiful song tradition. It was a mystical moment. Some of the international choral singers came up to me after and told me that they had never heard or seen anything like what we had done.
And thus Anúna was born from An Uaithne.