St Andrews Voices Festival

Now in its third year, St Andrews Voices Festival, organised by locally-born Sonia Stevenson and the university’s Music Director Michael Downes, returned to the town in resplendent glory this October. A combination of concerts, workshops and more eclectic entertainments such as the ‘Rufflets Cream Tea With Jazz” were blended together, drawing world-renowned musicians and local performers alike. With many university musicians performing and several university venues being used, the student body was at the very heart of this festival.

The Marian Consort’s Candlelit Angels concert took place on Friday in the striking surroundings of St Leonard’s Chapel. Personally I had never been to the chapel before and entering the gates of the grounds and looking up to the magnificent façade was especially dreamy. The still of the dark night and the silence of the area provided the perfect backdrop for the 10pm concert. Such was the demand for tickets that the ante-chapel had been opened up to accommodate nearly double the people originally expected to attend. Conducted by Rory McCleery, the Marian Consort is a small selective group made up of some of the most highly acclaimed voices in the country. Their theme of the annunciation and angels was perfectly complimented by the holy surroundings of the chapel and the candle chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. Overall the whole effect was breathtakingly beautiful, as was the angelic sound made by the ensemble. While mostly Renaissance music, two pieces were composed by the British composer Jonathan Harvey (1939-2012) which added a timeless effect to the evening. The voices of the consort melted into one and thrilled the entire audience as evidenced by the thunderous applause at the end of each piece.

Saturday night’s Scottish Opera Gala was hosted by the Byre Theatre, which significantly reopened after a major refurbishment only three days previously. An elegant bar with a sense of metropolitan sophistication greeted the audience upon arrival and provided an excellent venue for what was a spellbinding opera concert. The stage was simply set with a beautiful Dusseldorf piano bathed in red light and the voices of the three singers and pianist from Scottish Opera complimented its beauty. Stephanie Corley, Ji-Min Park and Marcus Farnsworth gave flawless performances filled with humour, romanticism, and a wonderful connection with their audience.

Saturday morning had seen the university’s own a cappella groups ‘The Alleycats’ and ‘The Other Guys’ performing in the streets of St Andrews and at the Fife Farmers Market in Kirkcaldy to the obvious delight of many passers-by. Immediately after the opera gala, ‘The Other Guys’ and their alumnae reunited for a special tenth anniversary concert in the Byre Theatre. While not officially part of the festival, the proximity added yet another musical layer to our town this weekend. Other Guy Duncan Bristow said, “Singing on the streets of St Andrews on Saturday morning was great fun! We enjoyed being part of such a successful few days of music, and it was awesome to see people take a break from their busy mornings to listen to some a cappella!”

Sunday morning saw the weekly university church service in St Salvator’s Chapel take on a festival role as Tom Wilkinson, University Organist and Director of Chapel Choirs, led St Salvator’s Chapel Choir and University musicians with members of the Silbermann Ensemble in performing extracts from Bach’s Cantata 29. Every available seat was taken with several students even occupying the choir loft. The festival succeeded in elevating a service which is always impressive to a new level with member of St Salvator’s Chapel Choir, Jamie Park saying, “After the success of our Bach Concert last week it was delightful to have another chance to sing yet more Bach as part of the festival.”

The festival concluded with ‘A Celebration of Brahms with the Scottish Chamber Orchetsra and Chorus’ in the spectacular surroundings of Younger Hall. Both works performed were influenced by the death of the composer’s mother, creating a melancholy and profoundly moving atmosphere. The opening horn trio led by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s award-winning Principal Horn player Alec Frank-Gemmill, had such incredible power that it was difficult to thoroughly comprehend that only three performers were on stage. The second half of the concert featured Brahm’s ‘German Requiem’ which again exhibited incredible strength and a very impressive piano duet.

Overall, it must be said that the festival featured events for everyone no matter what their preference in music. Performers of all ages, from seventeen-year-old choristers to more seasoned Scottish Chamber Chorus singers, contributed in equal measures to create the most spectacular four days of music. As Sonia Stevenson said at the beginning of the finale concert, the weather outside was blustery and depressive but the power of the music succeeded in warming the audience’s hearts. The festival will return from the 22nd-25th October 2015.

Photos courtesy of St Andrews Voices Festival website and Facebook Page.