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Massed voices ride with Burns

Under the aegis of the Strathclyde Opera Theatre Trust, three separate choral groups - Ayrshire Youth Singers, Ayrshire Junior Voices and Ayrshire Primary Voices - joined forces recently for three performances of a new work by Michael Norris. To celebrate the Burns Bicentenary what better local subject is there than Tam O'Shanter?

Although described as an opera, this was more a dramatised musical setting with tableaux vivants, as the programme stated "an interpretation rather than a word-for-word rendition".

More than 100 youngsters crammed on the small stage of the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr, severely limiting the scope for action. Nevertheless, miracles of chorus manipulation were enacted, each member of the tight group knowing exactly when and where to move.

Michael Norris's music is just what was required for the occasion. The voices were mostly in unison with simple catchy tunes, at times effectively used in canon or answering ensembles. At times he deliberately adopts Scottish idioms but much of the invention is definitely his own, set to colourful, lively and well varied accompaniments, played with great elan by a small orchestra under the direction of Raymond Bramwell.

Changes in pace in the poem were neatly reflected in the music with an imaginative representation of the ride itself, although neither the staging nor the singing quite reached the headlong dash of Tam's escape. The chorus was constantly alert and solo roles were handled with confidence.

Tam (unexpectedly allotted to a female) was sung with clarity and force by Pauline Graham, and the sultry voiced Lorna Davidson made Cutty Sark so alluring that it is little wonder that our hero blew his cover after her song and dance.

Credit for the production and design and indeed the whole enterprise must go to Marilyn de Blieck who since 1986 has been stirring up Ayrshire to promote music theatre and opera of a remarkable standard. Michael Norris's Tam O'Shanter is well within the capability of any school, however limited the resources - the results will be well worth the effort, providing a memorable experience for all who take part.

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