World beating choirs - our great unsung heroes
A four-day choral jamboree at the Roundhouse in London will be an exciting showcase for the UK's talents in choral singing.Stephen Layton is ready to stick his neck out. “I think I’m going to stand up and claim that, when it comes to choral singing, we are the best in the world, with a tradition stretching back to the Reformation but now richly diversified. The scene had never been healthier. I just wish it was something that we celebrated more loudly.” Layton knows what he’s talking about. Two of the English choirs he directs – Polyphony and Trinity College, Cambridge – were recently rated by The Gramophone among the world’s top five, and he also has a busy international career conducting foreign ensembles.
This month, he brings all his experience to bear as one of the organisers of Voices Now, a four-day choral jamboree starting next Thursday at the Roundhouse in north London (0844 482 8008), which ecumenically embraces everything from primary school choirs and Gareth Malone’s South Oxhey Community Choir to venerable crack chamber choirs, such as the Latvian Radio Choir and BBC Singers, singing everything from Tallis’s Spem in Alium to songs from South African townships.
“What one notices, compared with mainland Europe,” says Layton, “is how much of our first-rate choral activity is unpaid: just think of the great orchestra choruses, or the northern choral societies. You can’t imagine amateur orchestras playing alongside professional ones, but our amateur choirs are often every bit as good as the professional ones.
Very interesting . . . it will be interesting to see what the result is. Certainly the Latvian Radio Choir is stunningly good. With Pro Coro Canada I participated in a festival with them in Toronto and their work is superb.“Singing is a great leveller. You don’t need to master or buy an instrument; you just need to open your mouth. And I feel that, in these dark times, more and more people are turning to the emotional connection with great music that singing in a choir involves.”Voices Now offers an exciting showcase for these riches, but Layton’s dreams don’t stop at the Roundhouse. “Something that we could do without any sweat would be to fill a stadium with singing voices,” he says. What a wonderful way that would be to launch or close next year’s Olympics, and Layton is ready to put himself up for the job of conducting it.