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Scottish Sirènes win Choir of the Year 2012

1 November 2012

Les Sirènes, a 22-voice female chamber choir from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (RCS), have been crowned as Choir of the Year 2012, following the grand final of the UK’s largest and most prestigious competition for amateur choirs, held at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 28 October.

Out of an original entry of 138 choirs involving more than 5,000 singers, six choirs took part in the final, which was judged by voice coach Mary King, head of the Southbank Centre’s Voicelab; Greg Beardsell, artistic director of the Ulster Youth Choir and National Youth Choir of Ireland and associate musical director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain; and West End singer and actress Ruthie Henshall.

Les Sirènes and Ysgol Glanaethwy Senior Choir from North Wales had both got through on wild cards from the category finals three weeks earlier, and were competing against Children’s Choir of the Year Lindley Junior School, from Huddersfield; Youth Choir of the Year Methodist College Senior Girls Choir, from Belfast; Adult Choir of the Year Surrey Hills Chamber Choir; and Open category winners the Oxford Gargoyles.

This year’s final was remarkable for being so representative of the whole of the UK and for an extraordinarily high standard of performance. The jury based their decision on a strict mark scheme, and although overall placings remain confidential, they did reveal that only five marks separated the winning choir from the one in sixth place.

Les Sirènes had impressed the judges in the adult category final with performances of Poulenc’s Ave Verum Corpus and Elgar’s The Snow, but their 24-year-old conductor Andrew Nunn chose lighter repertoire for the grand final – Robert Latham’s arrangement of the folksong Oh Soldier, Soldier and Michael Neaum’s arrangement of the Billy Joel song And so it goes – feeling it would be more appropriate for the TV and radio broadcasts. Praising the choir for their perfect balance between the warmth of professionally skilled voices, a blended, homogenised sound and ‘the best controlled pianissimo legato I have ever heard’, Mary King made the point that while many conservatoires, especially in London, are advising their vocal students not to sing in choirs, it was good to see this group proving the value of the opposite approach.

Speaking to MT a few days after the competition, Andrew Nunn confirmed that his colleagues at the RCS, particularly head of vocal studies Stephen Robertson, are very supportive of his work with Les Sirènes, which he founded five years ago. ‘I was thrilled with Mary King’s comments,’ he said. ‘She really appreciated how difficult it is to get singers who are training to be soloists to tone down their vibrato and achieve a coherent sound. I do it by choosing very carefully which voices to put on each part, with mainly lighter voices on the top, bigger, weightier voices on second soprano and mezzo and then letting them sing out.’

He added that not all the choir members are vocal students; some are instrumentalists. They meet weekly and new recruits have already been auditioned to join the ensemble for future performances. ‘We can’t wait to get some dates in our diary!’

The Choir of the Year Grand Final 2012 is broadcast on BBC Radio 3's The Choir on 11 November and on BBC Four television on 23 November.

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