Det Norske Solistkor
We spoke to Eoin Conway, director of prize-winning ensembles Fingal Youth Choir and Cór Fingal, about his recent professional engagements in Scandinavia.
I’m typing this from the Thon Hotel Munch, Oslo. Rooms are basic, but the breakfasts are excellent and the WiFi is free. This will be my home for the next few days. Outside my window, it has started to snow.
I’m in Oslo because I’ve been invited to sing with Det Norske Solistkor (The Norwegian Soloists Choir) for their Christmas tour. It’s my third project with them, and even though these are working trips, they feel more like holidays for me. Just think: for a whole week I get to be a singer, and only a singer, while other people are in charge of running everything else. In the music business, that’s a rare luxury.
We had our first rehearsal today, and the choir rehearses at a fast, intense pace, so sight-reading skills are essential. In the first read-through, one may hear an occasional wrong note. We’re only human, after all. But these are quickly corrected, and you’ll never hear the same wrong note a second time. We’ll have sixteen hours of rehearsal for this project, and on previous projects I’ve never heard an instruction from the conductor that needed to be given more than once.
[I]t’s been a revelation to me about how little a conductor needs to say to communicate their ideas to a choir.
It’s a reminder to me that this is why we want to instil good choral discipline in our choirs, and insist on sight-reading fluency. It’s not just discipline for its own sake, but it’s what makes great results possible in a short time.
A lot of their music is sung in Norwegian. I can’t speak this language with any degree of fluency, though I’ve learned how to pronounce it reasonably well. Interestingly, there are some small similarities with Irish. Not so much in the vocabulary (you’ll find more of that in the Scots dialect, words like “bairn” or “ken”), but occasionally a little detail of pronunciation will peep through, enough to suggest the distant influence of Viking settlers.
My phonetics teacher believed that accents take on the characteristics of the landscape around them: people from flatland areas will speak in a more monotone voice, while people from hilly areas will speak with more variation in pitch. I don’t know if this is a universal rule, but it certainly holds true in the mountains and fjords of Norway. We’ll be singing in Norwegian, Swedish, German and English on this tour, with native speakers of each language in the choir to ensure that everyone’s pronunciation is exactly correct. Knowing phonetics is a big help in this regard, and that’s also something I want to pass on to my own choirs.
Rehearsals are held in Norwegian too, which might seem like a barrier, but instead it’s been a revelation to me about how little a conductor needs to say to communicate their ideas to a choir. Gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice are enough to tell the whole story, if you’re watching closely enough. The only words that one really needs to understand are “takt” (bar), the number words, and the sections of the choir (“sopran”, “alt”, etc).
I’ve brought some repertoire from this choir to my own choirs before, and have found another one on this trip, which I’ll be using next Christmas. Meanwhile, one of the pieces we’re working on out here is the Irish hymn tune “Be thou my vision”, translated into Norwegian as Det å få skode. And so the cultural exchange continues.
You can spot Eoin singing in this fantastic musical performance, filmed in November 2018.