Contemporary Choral Classics
Lynda Chang

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What a treat to be presented with not one, but four, contemporary choral classics in a single concert! Whilst ostensibly a gamble, the 250-strong audience was amply rewarded with wonderfully studied performances that made the journey there and back through wild winds and biblical floods entirely worthwhile.

The concert opened with the main work of the evening – Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, conceived for an all male choir and first performed as such in Chichester in 1965. Set throughout in Hebrew (and the first of this evening’s linguistic challenges for the choir), the setting of Old Testament texts in three movements embodies Bernstein’s affirmation of faith, encompassing joy, humility and prayer.

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So we began with a resounding "joyful noise unto the Lord", an exhilarating (and frightening for the singers) introduction where no quarter was given, least of all to the stalwart tenors having to launch straight into a series of parallel sevenths. Bravo – it was not for the faint hearted. Those persistent and discordant intervals, together with the movement’s 7/4 metre, perhaps reflected the numerical significance of the number seven within the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Alexander Gillan, chorister from Guildford Cathedral, was our treble soloist for the second movement producing exactly the innocence of tone envisaged by Bernstein in this simple, tender and haunting song of the young shepherd David. The juxtaposition of tranquil solos at the beginning and end of the movement with a brief moment of ferocious tenors and basses in between is possibly a reminder of mankind’s eternal struggle between conflict and faith.

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Peter Jaekel gave an impassioned organ interlude to open the third movement. There was much luminous unison singing of the main motif – a fervent devotional offering that came across with utter conviction from the choir. The work ended with the singers on a unison note – Bernstein’s prayer for the unity of mankind, perchance. It was an inspiring start to the evening’s programme.

Keziah Thomas’s harp solos were a perfect sorbet, dividing the choral items in each half of the programme. Having provided an integral accompaniment to the Bernstein, she turned out to be also an excellent verbal communicator, explaining the back-story to each work with fluency and charm, and amply demonstrating the under-estimated versatility of her instrument.

Crossing Waves celebrated the astounding achievements of Ros Savage – the first and only woman (to date) to row solo across the Big Three oceans: Atlantic, Pacific and Indian. Andy Scott, the composer, was lucky to have such an accomplished exponent in Kezia who drew an astonishing range of colours and effects for this three-movement work in charting those intrepid journeys.

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In the second half, Kezia chose music by two contemporary female composers – Allie Robertson and Deborah Henson Conant. The former’s Grey demonstrated one technique over many chords – an example of Scottish minimalism à la Phillip Glass! Conant’s Baroque Flamenco was indeed, in Kezia’s words, a show stopper – encompassing strumming, drumming and a plethora of effects. It is a great pity that many harpists never seem to venture beyond the "prettiness" of the instrument. What we saw and heard from Kezia was a consummate and virtuosic professional at work.

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James Bower – percussionist extraordinaire – dazzled us throughout the evening with his mastery of a multiplicity of percussion instruments, whether it was bells, drums of various sizes, cymbals, gong or wind chimes – all of which added colour to the evening’s spectrum of sound.

So back to the choir. Before the interval, we heard Morten Lauridsen’s Nocturnes, a cycle of four songs all on the theme of night, providing ECS with linguistic displays of French and Spanish – a walk in the park, perhaps, after the Hebrew.

The American Lauridsen specialises in choral writing that evokes atmospheric or mystical effects. The settings of Rilke for the bookend songs are just that - deep and emotional, and the choir produced radiant singing that was beautiful and heart-felt. The French pronunciation was admirable.

The unaccompanied Pablo Neruda achieved a spiritual quality with its hints of Gregorian and medieval overtones – the whole being dressed unmistakably in a lyrical contemporary idiom. The 80-plus-strong choir produced a beautifully well-balanced and nuanced sound.

It was brave of Lauridsen to follow in the footsteps of Barber’s phenomenally successful setting (in 1940) of the same poem by James Agee, Sure on this Shining Night. Perhaps inspired by the words, both versions are characterised by an eloquent simplicity. Again, diction was admirable and there was a moving quality particularly from the tenors and basses with the whole choir producing a beautiful soundscape with wonderful control of dynamic changes. Marion Lea, long-standing accompanist for ECS, made a significant contribution in helping to set the mood of this song with her superbly sensitive playing.

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Our second half began with Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst, written when the composer was in his early twenties. As a youngster with a short but chequered past, Whitacre produced a work of youthful exuberance and invention that was nevertheless solidly based on the classical tradition. The title Cloudburst is symbolic of a spiritual respect for the power of water and supposedly the joyous profundity of rebirth – all good New Age thinking. And along the way, he threw in all manner of percussive effects including chimes, bells, cymbals – really, everything but the kitchen sink.

ECS met the challenges of verbal effects, physical movements, jagged intervals, dissonant clusters, general tonal mish-mash and massive choral sonorities head on. It was fun. The build-up of the storm from a quiet beginning in minor key to the climactic outburst of sopranos in the major key – not the most subtle convention - was unerringly handled by choir and conductor. There are shades of Tavener here and wisps of a Buddhist mysticism that continues to infect some composers today. Not content with showing off their language skills, ECS hereby offered highly effective finger clicking to portray the first drops of rain through a tropical storm to the eventual clearing of the spirit and the sky.

And finally, Chilcott’s Songs and Cries of London Town – a happy, light hearted setting of five texts, evoking a variety of impressions of London from across the past 500 years. As ever, the choir took Chilcott’s trademark tricky rhythms and unexpected modulations in its stride. The whole set made for attractive music of variety, with lively cross rhythms in fast movements and delicate lyricism in the slow ones. The performance was in turn exciting, contemplative and happy.

The third movement is a vibrant take on that 18th century rhyme Oranges and Lemons. Not surprisingly, it became so popular that it is published separately under the title London Bells. Marion Lea and Peter Jaekel joined forces enthusiastically at the piano to give a highly enjoyable performance.

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The third movement is a vibrant take on that 18th century rhyme Oranges and Lemons. Not surprisingly, it became so popular that it is published separately under the title London Bells. Marion Lea and Peter Jaekel joined forces enthusiastically at the piano to give a highly enjoyable performance.

Bravo and thank you, ECS, once again.

Our guest reviewer Lynda Chang is a local pianist with special interest in opera and chamber music. Photographs by Clive Richardson. Thank you Clive

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