New Dublin Voices Win Ticket to European Grand Prix
The chamber choir New Dublin Voices, conducted by Bernie Sherlock, became the first Irish choir to win the first prize at the Concorso Polifonico in Arezzo, Italy, last week. Winning the competition — one of six elite competitions of its kind — means that the choir will now compete for the European Grand Prix in Debrecen, Hungary, next March.
A seven-member jury gave the highest number of votes to the choir, which was founded by Sherlock in 2005. The programme consisted of music by the Irish composers Michael Holohan and Charles Villiers Stanford, as well as the Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály.
New Dublin Voices’ representation at the European Grand Prix will also be the first time an Irish choir has competed in that competition.
The Journal of Music asked Bernie Sherlock what the prize means for the choir and choral music in Ireland, and what role choral competitions play for non-professional choirs.
What does it mean that an Irish choir has won the Grand Prix at the Concorso Polifonico?
It’s the first time that an Irish choir has won one of the six designated European competitions, and therefore the first time that an Irish choir has earned a place into the annual European Grand Prix final against the other winners. We knew we had performed well but we were not at all expecting to win. So we were stunned when we were announced as winners and we’re still over the moon. The Grand Prix final takes place next March in Hungary and it will be a huge honour for New Dublin Voices to go there representing Ireland.
What were your intentions when founding NDV?
To be honest, nothing more than to form a choir that would strive for excellence in performing mostly a capella repertoire. Having been choral director in a conservatory for ten years, which naturally came with various practical constraints, it was exciting to be in a position to choose all the music, choose my singers, plan all the concert programmes, re-invest prize money in the choir, and broaden my own horizons.
Do you think that competitions are useful environments for choirs? Do they affect the way the choir sings or prepares?
I think anything that encourages a choir to be the very best it can be is good. At competitions and festivals, choir members are exposed to the opinions of other choral experts and they have an opportunity to listen to performances by other choirs in both a critical and appreciative way. There can be a danger, on the other hand, that competitions become the raison d’etre for a choir. So I do my best to ensure that we put our concert performances first and to make our competitions fit in around that. I think competitions are a great incentive for a choir to up its game, and as a result they affect preparation in a positive way. New Dublin Voices prepares for performance in competition the same way it prepares for performance in concert or when recording or broadcasting, because in all environments the end goal is to share great music with an audience.
Having adjudicated at choral competitions yourself, can you give an insight into some of the things a judge will look for?
You have to be very aware of the basics, in other words for technical aspects such as accuracy of notes and rhythms, intonation, articulation, and pronunciation. You also have to measure more artistic aspects such as the quality of the choral sound, the range of dynamics and colours; expressiveness and stylistic accuracy; and above all the ability of the choir to communicate the text or get to the essence of a piece. I always look for a balanced, well-chosen programme that both shows the strengths of the choir and provides everyone with a rich listening experience.
What would have to happen in Ireland to bring about more choirs of a similar standard to New Dublin Voices?
In my opinion, our best conductors here in Ireland have got where they are in spite of and not because of what’s available in this country in terms of training. Conducting training does exist, but it’s on a small scale, like a taster — just enough to make you aware of the need to leave Ireland and do really thorough training somewhere else. It would be wonderful to see full-time specialist choral conducting programmes here so that our many aspiring conductors could study in their own country. I would also love to see a more substantial commitment to the teaching of conducting to primary teachers and post-primary music teachers when they are in college. Ireland is full of singers and choirs and people willing to conduct them. And the more access those willing conductors have to comprehensive training, or to continuing development such as weekly classes, the more they’ll be able to fulfil their own potential and that of their choirs.