Held annually since 1962, the Florilège forms part of a network of choral competitions in Italy, Hungary and Bulgaria. This year’s competition involved seventeen choirs selected from around the world, including seven from France.
To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Francis Poulenc, the Académie Francis Poulenc, based in Tours, initiated a special prize which was awarded to Pegasus for their performance of two works by the composer.
Twenty-three members of the choir spent more than three months preparing for the competition, polishing old repertoire and learning new pieces by heart.
“The rehearsal period was very intense compared to other projects, and memorising the music was very challenging. But everyone was extremely hardworking and focused,” said Kirstin Gillon, a member of the alto section.
The choir had to prepare two 15-minute programmes for the first two rounds of the competition, plus the two works by Poulenc to compete for the special prize named for the composer. The repertoire included Purcell, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Rautavaara, Pascanu and Gabriel Jackson, as well as Francis Grier’s A Baby Asleep after Pain, which Pegasus commissioned and premiered in 2012.
“The extra rehearsals gave us time to prepare the music to the highest standard. It was great to have time not only to memorize but to bed it down, so that we could be both relaxed and focused on the music and the performance,” said alto Natasha Woodward.
The choir travelled by Eurostar to Tours, where the singers found the town alive with anticipation for the event. Some of the countries represented in the competition included Italy, Norway, the Philippines, Sweden, and the United States.
Mezzo-Soprano Leonora Dawson-Bowling recalls her elation upon learning that, having sung in the first two rounds of the competition, Pegasus had made it through to the Grand Prix round.
“A couple of us were waiting on tenterhooks in the theatre foyer,” she said. “I thought I’d seen our name on the tiny scrap of paper being handed over but still doubted myself until they publicly announced the finalists. And there we were!”
The news definitely gave an extra zing to the choir’s competition performance of the two Poulenc works — Tristis est anima mea and Bois meurtri — later that evening, Kirstin said. Samir Savant, a tenor and the choir’s manager, felt that it was very apposite that the choir was singing Bois meurtri, which sets a poem written by Paul Eluard during the second world war as a coded act of resistance. As the Nazis occupied Paris , the resistance government had fled and temporarily set up office in Tours itself. Leonora describes both pieces – one religious, one secular – as “fabulously challenging and emotional”. Kirstin adds, “The sparkling wine afterwards, in the bar over the road from the theatre, was well deserved!”
Pegasus had prepared three additional pieces for the Grand Prix programme on Sunday afternoon, including Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, Vaughan Williams’s The Cloud-capp’d Towers and the Kyrie from Josef Rheinberger’s Cantus Missae for double choir. These works joined Purcell’s Hear my prayer and the Grier commission, with Pascanu’s exuberant Sarba Dance on a Chair as a foot-stomping finale.
“The atmosphere in the theatre before the prizes were announced was wonderfully electric,” said Leonora. “Choirs from all over the world joined together singing spontaneously – admittedly mainly cheesy pop classics!”
According to the local newspaper, standards at this competition were even higher than in previous years. Although thrilled to win in the chamber choir category, conductor Matthew Altham said he felt it was the Poulenc prize that was the greatest achievement.
“The whole choir shot up in their seats,” when the award was announced, said Leonora. “I was really thrilled, especially when we then learnt we’d come first in four out of five of the categories they judged it on. And against eight or nine other choirs, including two French ones.”
Apart from the competition, the choir members enjoyed sampling the local cuisine and wine, while taking care to conserve their voices, of course! There was also opportunity to see some of the other choirs in performance and hear new repertoire.
“I got chatting with the choir from Madison (Wisconsin), who were lovely and great fun,” Leonora said. “They had put in so much work, not to mention raising the finances to come all the way from the States.”
Everyone brought home good memories of the event. For Natasha, as for a number of others, it was the experience of performing to the highest standard the choir was capable of that made the trip to Tours special.
“The freedom of singing without music gave us a closer connection with other singers and with the conductor, composer and audience,” she said.