by John Lau
The BBC Choir of the Year Competition 2012 Final on Sunday 28 October will have some collegiate a cappella presence after The Oxford Gargoyles won the Open Category at the sumptuous Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, seeing off their friends from St Andrews, The Alleycats as well as the Ysgol Glanaethwy Senior Choir from North Wales and The Voice Squad from Bury St Edmunds.
16 groups were spread across 4 categories (Children’s, Youth, Adult and the Open categories) but the spotlight as far as we were concerned was in the Open Category, where two stalwart groups from the UK collegiate a cappella scene, as well as the Senior Choir of Ysgol Glanaethwy in North Wales were going head to head in a real ‘Battle of Britain’ scenario for a solitary guaranteed place in the Grand Final on the last Sunday of October 2012.
The Oxford Gargoyles qualified from the Basingstoke heat and The Alleycats of St Andrews qualified from a regional heat in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, both in February 2012, in order to reacquaint themselves in this stage. While the Alleycats have experienced a BBC appearance in the “Last Choir Standing” programme in the recent past, this was a brand new ball game for the Oxford Gargoyles and with the other two groups from North Wales and Bury St Edmunds having experienced similar televisual coverage in the UK, the Gargoyles had their work cut out to deliver a category-winning performance in front of the assembled public in the Bridgewater Hall.
The judges were introduced to the public prior to the start of the Children’s competition and the panel was formed of Mr Stuart Barr, a conductor and singing coach based in London’s West End, Mrs Shirley Court and Mr Paul Mealor, who has gained notoriety through both his arrangement of Ubi Caritas, first played at the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011, and Wherever You Are, the Christmas Number 1 in 2011, sung by the Military Wives Choir. After the judges were introduced, the audience led by our host Mr Greg Beardsell, were taken through some physical exercises designed to optimise our own singing capabilities.
Led by their MD, Mr Cefin Roberts, the Ysgol Glanaethwy Senior Choir took to the stage first with their three-piece set, with classical items such as Chorus Number 26 from Child of our Time, Biodeuwedd arranged by Mr Roberts himself and Adiemus by Karl Jenkins. Some of the features that stood out were the tribal-warrior-like chant that featured in their rendition of Adiemus, which could have transported me to New Zealand, such was the similarity to the All Blacks’ Haka that they perform. The judges lauded the performance with the keyword fittingly being ‘energy’. Paul Mealor, who is a Professor at Aberdeen University commented that this was an ‘energetic set which drew in the audience present.’ So all in all, this was a positive start to the Open Category.
Second on the stage and with another Scottish Connection was the solitary group from Scotland, The Alleycats of St Andrews, providing us with one last performance from the litter of the 2011-12 Academic Session, whose two-piece set featured their renditions of Ray Lamontagne’s You Are The Best Thing and David Guetta’s Titanium, both rearranged for their dulcet tones by their MD Brendan MacDonald.
Although I am well familiarised with the vocal magic that this group of Alleycats have provided us with over the last 18 months, culminating in their current album We’re Not Kitten being put on repeat play on the iPod of late, I did feel that on this occasion the sound generated by this piece did not quite fill the hall in terms of volume as this rendition has in previous performances such as at Younger Hall or the Casa A Cappella in Edinburgh. Maybe this is because the Bridgewater Hall would have been the largest space in which the Alleycats have performed recently. Apart from this observation, though, this was a typically mesmerising vocal performance from the group and this was picked up on by the one of the judges who commended the soloist Garrett Turner at the end of their set.
Their second piece was my personalfavourite on the album, the rendition of David Guetta’s Titanium featuring Sia. Knowing that this was the last time I would get to see this particular group of Alleycats providing their vocal exploits, it did feel in my own conscience that this was ‘the end of an era’ and this observation may have preyed on the minds of the departing Alleycats, I don’t know, but listening through this rendition of Titanium, the soloist Heather Robertson’s vocal performance did sound positively different from the previous occasions; there was definitely an extra dimension to this particular rendition which was hitherto absent. Heather was deservedly commended by Paul Mealor at the end of the set.
Third on the stage was The Voice Squad from Bury St Edmunds, a mixed group and easily the largest group competing in this category with approximately 60 youngsters, led by their Musical Director Birgitta Kenyon, with a very varied three-piece set list featuring Ov’e lass’, Il bel viso? a classical piece composed by Morten Lauridsen, a rendition of Billy Joel’s Lullaby and the theme tune to the BBC comedy series ‘Blackadder’. For the first time that I had heard them, I could not help but to be impressed by this group on so many levels, to the extent that I thought I was looking at potential finalists. Their first piece, Ov’e Lass’, Il Bel Viso? I thought was very well pronounced in terms of the Latin lyrics. Their second piece stood out in my head for the relatively soft quiet start to the song compared to the original, which enhanced my first impressions of this rendition, and also the soloists were something else to behold, even if they did not quite get individual commendations in the same manner that Heather and Garrett did for The Alleycats set and there was also a chamber choir-like sound eminent in this piece, which made the piece more appealing in my eyes.
They went almost from the sublime to the ridiculous with their closing number, a rendition of the Theme Tune to the Blackadder comedy series from back in the day, a piece which was made memorable for me through the females taking the lead and even the invisible swords that they fabricated as part of the choreography for this piece, all of which added to the comedic value of this piece. The judges made largely positive comments, such as the set indicating the versatility of what this group can do, the range of vocal tones, particularly prominent in the Billy Joel rendition, and the excellent standard of choreography in the first piece in particular.
And so the last choir remaining was The Oxford Gargoyles, and in a change to the published programme, the Musical Director Euan Campbell decided to change the second part of the two-piece set from Dancing in the Moonlight to their cover of Sting’s Fields of Gold. The jazz group dived right in with their rendition of the Duke Ellington standard It Don’t Mean A Thing. On this occasion I was impressed even more so than usual by the way that the group successfully changed tempo at the appropriate parts of this piece.
Then came the late replacement of the second part of the set, which in hindsight could be seen as the masterstroke which propelled the group to the London Final, as it provided us with memorable solo performances from Rebecca Sharp, who graced the audience with a strong and confident performance, and also Sasha Ockenden, whose vocals complemented those of Miss Sharp to the utmost degree. Although this was a mellower piece from their album Up The Scale, they somehow managed to fill the hall with a magnified chamber-choir-like sound, which was a positive factor picked up on by Paul Mealor the judge. In closing the judges remarks, Stuart commented that the Gargoyles exuded a high level of sophistication, which is something they have done for the last 14 years.
It was later confirmed that The Oxford Gargoyles were the winners of the “Open” Category, which made my day. As the Gargoyles President John Linnett commented, “We do not get to retire from the group yet.” The last day for this group of ground-breaking Oxford Gargoyles will be Sunday 28th October at London’s South Bank Centre, which will be a reunion of sorts with a Gargoyle Alumni in the form of Mr Edward Randell, who is now part of the “Swingle Singers” who will also be singing at the Final. The full line-up of the Finalists is listed below:
Children’s Choir of the Year:
Lindley Junior School Choir from Huddersfield
Youth Choir of the Year:
Methodist College Girls’ Choir from Belfast
Adult Choir of the Year:
Surrey Hills Chamber Choir
Open Choir of the Year:
The Oxford Gargoyles
Les Sirenes from Glasgow
Ysgol Glanaethwy Senior Choir, Bangor
The Final will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 on the afternoon of Sunday 28 October commencing at 15:00 and the first ever UK Television appearance of The Oxford Gargoyles will be on BBC Four on Tuesday 13 November.