Ed Milner: Berlioz Lélio à Paris

Can there be anything more chorally challenging than singing French music in French in France?

Only two weeks after having started as the new Chief Executive of NYCOS, I had the opportunity to hear the flagship choir in action. Having spent the fortnight getting to know everyone (and everything) in the office in Glasgow, it was time to hear some music and there was no better way than to hear the eightystrong choir of 17-25-year-olds performing with a professional orchestra in one of the greatest new halls in the world.

Philharmonie de Paris is stunning. A great, complex silver spacecraft that’s landed just to the north of the city that challenges you to react as soon as you approach it. It’s multi-layered and deep, with corridors and lifts leading seemingly endless rehearsal rooms and halls, and somewhere within is the ground-breaking Grande Salle de Pierre Boulez.

Fresh from performing Berlioz’s extraordinary Lélio  the sequel to Symphonie Fantastique – with Sir John Eliot Gardiner in Carnegie Hall, the National Youth Choir of Scotland was delighted to be performing it again with Les Siècles orchestra and its founder François-Xavier Roth.

The Saturday orchestral rehearsal was thrilling. The choir knew the piece backwards, having been prepared to perfection as ever by founder and Artistic Director Christopher Bell. As soon as they sang, the orchestral players – often not the easiest type to impress – turned with surprise and delight. François-Xavier Roth spent his time with the extreme dynamic and the words, characterisation and mood of the music, drawing the emotion out of our singers. The maestro said two amazing things: it’s beautiful French – you sing the best French and we are so touched as you sing our French music so well. Now that’s praise.

On Sunday morning the choir assembled in the main hall for the full rehearsal, with the narrator, soloists, bells off stage and a harp on a balcony. The Grande Salle is one of the great new halls of the world and a real experience for everyone to sing in. And so to the concert. A packed house of 2,400 people assembled and cheered the first half’s wild Symphonie Fantastique before the National Youth Choir arrived after the interval. The choir stunned the audience from the beginning. Gloomy lighting for the Chorus of Shadows had led to the decision that the choir would sing the movement from memory, giving it extra intensity. The tenors and basses rushed to the front cheering for their Brigand’s Song and the whole chorus was focused and precise for the Fantasy on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.

The National Youth Choir of Scotland did us proud and flew the flag with pride. Professional, attentive and focussed, they impressed everyone, on and off stage, and were brilliant ambassadors for Scotland.

– Ed Milner

The full concert is available to watch on demand.