PUBLISHED Monday June 5th 2006

A way to find different voices in this multi-ethnic age

Choral Music is of huge benefit to all involved, young and old, but it needs support if it is to thrive, writes Anúna's Michael McGlynn

Multitudes of beautiful voices filled the City Hall at the Cork Choral festival earlier this month [ed: May 5th], one moment suffused with energy singing a tongue-twisting Irish text at great speed, the next performing a five hundred year old hymn to the Virgin in Latin. The songs they sang explored every human emotion and condition and the standard of singing was wonderful. As one of the international adjudicators at Ireland’s premiere choral Festival, I had sat through the performances of choirs from all over the world throughout the week, but this competition was the one that I had been looking forward to most of all.

A hush fell over the audience as a group of smartly dressed choral singers walked confidently on stage. They launched into a convoluted and difficult song in German by Bach. The applause was deafening at the finish of the piece because we all knew we had heard something very special. My own enthusiasm compelled me to break with adjudicator protocol after the competition and I went to find the singers to congratulate them. They were quite easy to see among the crowd because they wore bright orange shirts. They were also very small. You see, this wonderful performance was given by the Galway Choral Association Youth Choir, a choir of boys and girls aged between eight and fourteen.

This was just an ordinary bunch of Irish kids, yet through the dedication of their director Mark Keane and their own diligence in the face of increasingly vacuous and hollow alternatives offered to children today, they had pressed the magic button that professional musicians pursue for their entire working lives. Similar accolades can be heaped on many of the other performing groups in the schools competitions such as the brilliant performance of Presentation Secondary School Choir from Kilkenny under the baton of Veronica McCarron who also won their competition.

I have to admit it – I am obsessed with choral singing and choirs. I came very late to choral music, singing in my first choir only at the age of nineteen when I went to study music in College. The first rehearsal I attended hooked me for life. Today I direct and manage Anúna, the most successful and internationally recognised choral group that Ireland has ever produced. I am also a professional composer of choral music, which has allowed me to write for some of the finest choirs in the world.

Anúna itself is an anomaly in Irish musical life. At an early stage I recognised that it was futile for me to try and emulate choral groups from other countries, so I decided to create a vocal ensemble that worked within the limitations of Irish classical music. I began writing songs that relied on musical rather than technical brilliance. My twin brother John and I have spent twenty years developing our haunting and natural vocal sound, taking it last year alone to the USA, the UK, Japan, Germany and Portugal for extensive tours. Despite receiving no state support from the institutions designated to cultivate and develop unique cultural entities at home and abroad, Anúna continues to thrive and develop.

On the surface choral music in Ireland appears to be healthy but the reality is very different. I dread auditioning new singers for Anúna. Virtually none of them can read music adequately, or have more than basic musical skills or even general knowledge. Even those that do have vocal training have come through music schools and colleges that appear to believe that there is only one form of classical singing, and that is opera. With a few exceptions they consider choral music to be of minimal importance in the healthy education of a professional musician. Many secondary schools have pushed choirs to the peripheries of the timetable, prioritising subjects and activities that offer minimal long-term value to the quality of life of their students.

Choral music transmits the poetry and language of a nation through song in a unique manner, something that should be of particular interest and importance to a country that prides itself in its literary heroes. It is for this reason that the writing and performance of new music for choirs by living Irish composers is vital.

Recently I adjudicated at the Tampere Choral Festival in Finland, and I was amazed to hear choirs from sparsely populated areas of that country singing songs by contemporary Finnish composers to a very high standard in their own language. It was hugely exhilarating to hear well-written contemporary choral music performed with passion and communication. At any Irish choral festival you will hear very little contemporary Irish music performed. I spoke to many of the conductors in Cork this year as to why this was. Their answer is very simple – there isn’t that much that is either written well enough or written for the standards of the groups that attempt to perform it.

Collections of performable and properly graded music for choirs of all levels are of urgent need in Ireland, and while it is laudable for composers to write difficult music for professional choirs, there is only one in this country.

When I attended the Cork Choral Festival in the 1980s it was a great time to be a writer of contemporary choral music. There was a composers competition called the Seán O Riada Prize, and most significantly there was the world-renowned Seminar on Contemporary Choral Music run in conjunction with UCC.

This year both of these crucial elements of the Festival are gone. In the national and international adult competitions there isn’t even a requirement to perform an Irish piece. One of the main reasons that Aloys Fleishmann set up the Festival in 1954 was to propagate the development and growth of contemporary Irish music, and the Festival need to look very seriously at their responsibilities in this area. It was ironic that the only Irish piece that was sung in the final gala performance was arranged by a Finnish composer and sung by a Canadian choir.

The Arts Council, while they do fund three entities with choral connections - the Association of Irish Choirs [Cumann Náisiunta na gCór], the Cork Choral Festival and the seventeen-voice National Chamber Choir [the only choir that the Council directly fund] - have admitted that they have no integrated policy on choral music. It is time that the Council put some structured thinking into the way they allocate their funds to these bodies, and more importantly, how these bodies relate to the true picture of choral music in Ireland and to those choirs who struggle to survive in it. Individual groups of excellence, such as Anúna, Cois Cladaigh, The Galway Baroque, Madrigal 75, The Park Singers, New Dublin Voices, The Mornington Singers – the list goes on and on – should have access to some form of funding specifically adapted for the special requirements of Irish choral music.

Choral music is the cheapest and most inclusive form of classical music that exists. It binds communities together, and gives ordinary people access to the performance of some of the greatest music ever written for a fraction of the cost of any other classical music form. In this multi-ethnic age choral music can be of enormous help in the integration of disparate cultures. It develops the mental, and therefore physical health of the participating individuals. But it needs proper nurturing and a clear and precise integrated policy that is based on the needs of choirs and directors as they currently exist in Ireland.