By Clare Stevens

Taking place in Hereford Shire Hall, ‘Never Failed Me Yet’ was a unique event, very different from the main Three Choirs Festival (TCF) concerts in Hereford Cathedral and other venues, and the culmination of a collaboration between the festival, Herefordshire’s music hub Encore, and this year’s nominated charity SHYPP, which provides 16-25-year-olds across the county with housing, training and employment opportunities.

The focus was a performance of Jesus’ blood never failed me yet by Gavin Bryars, a meditative work dating from 1971, based on a recording of a homeless man singing a long-remembered hymn that has brought him comfort in his nomadic life. Around his song, four choirs and an instrumental ensemble weave a tapestry of sound to haunting effect.

The choir for this performance ranged from highly experienced singers from adult and youth choirs to members of the SHYPP community who had never sung anything at all before rehearsals with vocal coach Jon Weller started, a week before the performance. But because of the way the piece is constructed, with repeated phrases performed at specific times by different groups of singers or players, even the singers who are used to reading complex musical scores were taken out of their comfort zones. The orchestra was the Herefordshire Youth Ensemble, with some adult support.

The context and mood were eloquently established with a screening of the first of two films made by local young people with professional support under the MediaSHYPP banner: Two Kids Lost is a vivid modern retelling of the Hansel & Gretel story, with two girls cast adrift by their father and stepmother in the countryside near Rotherwas Industrial Estate.

Jesus’ blood begins with the recording of the old man singing his hymn, which continues on a loop throughout the duration of the piece. Gradually, different combinations of instruments and voices join in, each creating a different sort of soundworld – gentle strings gradually increase in number and volume, a brass chorale joins in, voices ebb and flow, tubular bells and a xylophone add a shimmering new timbre. Then the different groups drop out and the piece ends with the old man’s voice fading into the distance.

Conductor David Wordsworth kept everything together and maintained a sense of calm intensity throughout the piece, drawing sensitive singing and playing from all the participating musicians.

Another SHYPP film followed: Six Stories of Home, reflections by six young people on their experiences of homelessness, being in care and home life. The challenges they face are very different, but each has its own pain, expressed by the young actors in wonderfully imaginative testimonies.

The Three Choirs Festival and its partners in this project are to be congratulated on producing an event that established valuable connections across the city and had a powerful emotional impact on both audience and performers.