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The comeback choir;Arts;Music

A power cut in Glasgow almost wrecked the commercial dreams of the National Youth Choir of Scotland. Christopher Lambton reports on a group that is going places

Disaster struck the National Youth Choir of Scotland when the lights went out during the recording of its inaugural compact disc. It had only seven minutes left to record and plenty of time in which to do it, when a power cut blacked out central Glasgow, including the City Hall where the choir had assembled after a successful public concert the night before.

The Royal Scottish National Orchestra had been booked for the day and the choir had been due to disperse immediately after completing the CD, the proceeds of which were intended to give a much-needed boost to choir funds.

That was last September. But in December the prospects for completing the CD took a turn for the better as the singers were able to come together once again to record the missing music.

On a cold Sunday morning, the choir began with a short piano rehearsal for Kenneth Leighton's Hymn to Matter. It is a dramatic piece for choir and baritone soloist that combines a tough, angular melodic style with complex harmonies and moments of lyrical tenderness. It is certainly no walkover.

"Take it easy," cajoled Christopher Bell, the choir's artistic director. "Let's run through and see what you can remember."

With most choirs in this situation you might expect a degree of fumbling, a slight haziness; not a single member of the choir had had access to the music in the three months since their 1998 season had ended. But they launched into the music with an accuracy and tonal clarity that was astounding.

Reviews of the choir often make allowances for its youth, but this is unnecessary. Were the choir a shade bigger - men, and in particular tenors, are in short supply - the NYCoS would be the equal of any in Scotland. As the music split into eight parts for a pianissimo passage, the chord seemed almost luminous, every interval distinct, every note chiselled neatly into the stave.

That was the rehearsal. After lunch, listening in the control room to an almost flawless first take with the orchestra, there was an exhilarating sense that this premi re recording would not only put NYCoS firmly on the map but also give a new lease of life to a fine piece of music. The recording is the culmination of the choir's first three seasons - it was formed in 1996.

Membership is open to 16 to 24-year-olds, by successful audition only, and costs a maximum of pound;285 (many members receive assistance from their schools or education authorities). The fee covers a residential course held in July at Glenalmond College, Perthshire, including full-board accommodation and intensive vocal coaching. Following the course, the choir then gives a number of public concerts (transport to concert venues and bed and breakfast where required are included in the membership fee), which so far have been in Perth, Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh. The choir has also sung for BBC Radio and hopes to tour abroad.

The choir was formed in an attempt to halt the general decline in choral singing across the country. In his work with the RSNO chorus, Christopher Bell had noticed how choristers were getting older while fewer younger people were joining. Schools, he believes, have shifted their emphasis from singing to instrumental tuition. "There is a new generation of music teachers who don't sing," he says.

The administrator, Bob Tait, believes the loss of singing has deprived pupils of a fundamental training that can be applied to any other musical activity. "If you learn the violin, that skill is not transferable to the piano, but singing is common to both."

The National Youth Choir is intended to be the top of a pyramid that will eventually include a matrix of junior, intermediate and training choirs from all over Scotland, thereby encouraging singing as an integral part of educational life. At the moment the pyramid is top-heavy, but Christopher Bell is confident that as the choir's reputation grows the lower blocks of the pyramid will fall into place.

The choir itself is still not up to strength; there are 90 members out of a total of 100, and only seven tenors. From these forces Christopher Bell has created a fine choir, but he is disappointed that so few people have applied. "There are about 400 secondary schools in Scotland," he says. "Surely in each of these schools there must be one person interested in singing? But while some schools produce several applicants, most send none."

For the 1999 season 10,000 prospectuses have been printed and should by now be in schools, universities and libraries across Scotland. So this time. at least, there should be no excuse for a poor response.

The CD of 'Hymn to Matter' by Kenneth Leighton, 'A Burns Sequence' by John Gardner and 'Six Songs for Female Voices' by John McEwen is available from late February. The closing date for applications to join the NYCoS choir is February 1. Contact Bob Tait, telfax: 01324 711749; e-mail:

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