Monday, 21 March 2011

Exeter Singers at St Mary Arches, Wednesday 16 March

Exeter Singers - Sopranos and Altos to the fore

Efforts continue to preserve a wonderful historical building in the Heart of Exeter.  Built one thousand years ago, and having narrowly survived the Blitz on Exeter during the Second World War, St Stephens Church now needs extensive work to preserve and restore it for public use.  This is not just for church services, by the way.  Central Exeter Parish has embraced a policy of 'open access' for the wider community since 1973.
So far the roof has been made weather-proof and work is now under way to put right the damage to interior caused by years of rain on leaking tiles.
Consequently fund-raising concerts to raise money for the St Stephens Project cannot take place in the Church itself at the moment.  This is not such a terrible blow, however.  Concerts continue in the nearby church of St Mary Arches (behind British Home Stores, if you were wondering).  St Mary Arches is a truly glorious setting for small concerts.  Compact and cosy, with delightful decor - and those fabulous Norman arches, it also has perfect acoustics.  Any concert held here is almost guaranteed to be at once comforting and uplifting.
Second Tenor and Conductor Tony Yeates

Wednesday's evening concert in support of the St Stephens Project ranged widely from the early sixteenth to the late twentieth century.  Renaissance music was interspersed with comic opera, show songs, poems, and solo performances on the piano and organ by the one instrumentalist at the concert, Matthew Wright.
Tenor Tony Yeates led from the rostrum and opened with five renaissance songs.  Apart from the occasional piano note to get the key these were all sung a cappella (Matthew staying in the background with the tenors).  In French and German, they each had an English translation on the programme sheet, but each told its own story through the music:
Pierre Passereau, 'Il est bel et bon' - a loving husband
Josquin Des Prez, 'Mille regrets' - separation - terribly sad but beautifully harmonised
Hans Leo Hassler, 'Tanzen und Springen' - dancing in the meadows - full of joy
Heinrich Isaac, 'Inssbrudk, ich muss dich lassen' - homesickness - deep bass harmonies
Orlande de Lassus, 'Bonjour mon coeur' - love - more deep harmonies lovingly rendered.

Second Tenor and Organist
Matthew Wright
Step forward Matthew Wright - for Bach's final work, 'The Art of Fugue'.  Matthew played 'Contrapunctus I' which, he explained, has alternate scoring for string quartet, piano or organ, and is equally difficult on each. Matthew chose the organ which, I feel sure, must really be the most taxing option.  The organ at St Mary Arches has a lovely tone - matched by Matthew's sensitive touch.  In the perfect acoustics of the church long and winding fugue of 'Contrapunctus I' was pure pleasure for everyone - including the Singers who were taking a well-earned rest.
The initial melody was slow and stately, but then the second 'contrapunctal' melody intrudes, followed by yet another in the bass so that the building was completely filled with gorgeous sounds.  As a grand finale Matthew pulled out extra stops to release the deep bass rumble under the lingering final trills - ending with the trademark big final chord.

In contrast to the opening renaissance music, the Singers continued with songs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Still very varied and versatile:
Arthur Sullivan, 'The long day closes' - a hypnotic lullaby - sweet soprano and deep bass fading to a whisper
Benjamin Britten, 'The Evening Primrose' - moonbeams represented by silvery tones in the soprano and alto beautifully sustained on the final note
Gerald Finzi, 'My spirit sang all day' - vigorous and spirited, ending with a powerful chord

Another short break from singing, this time for some poetry:
Robert Bridges, 'Shall I let thee go?' - very clear diction - 'I shall not let thee go!'
Shakespeare, Sonnet 116 - soft and gentle
Wendy Cope, a light hearted 'joke' sonnet about a jealous boyfriend from 'Strugnell's Sonnets'

Show songs:
George and Ira Gershwin, 'S'Wonderful' - a lovely piano piece for Matthew with minimal voices
Rodgers and Hart, 'Blue Moon' - lovely unaccompanied 'scat' melody leading into 4-part harmony
Thomas 'Fats' Waller, 'Ain't misbehavin' - Jazz piano opening followed by more harmonious 'scat'

After a very convivial interval the choir sang the renaissance  'Beatus Vir' by Claudio Monteverdi very reverently with organ accompaniment, immediately followed by the ethereal romantic hymn 'Cantique de Jean Racine' by Gabriel Fauré - with piano accompaniment.
Matthew then stayed at the piano for more of Bach's 'Art of Fugue'.  The chorale 'Wenn wir in Höchsten Nöten sein' ('When in the hour of utmost need').  This was Bach's very last composition, dictated from his deathbed.  Starting very simply, the chorale extracts a serene beauty from the simplest harmonies.  The final gentle offering of a master musician.

First Tenor Julian Clutterbuck

The concert ended with modern songs and poems.  Six songs by Peter Knight, Goff Richards, Jonathan Willcocks, John Rutter, John Whitworth - and Billy Joel (arranged for choir by Bob Chilcott - with a solo part for the conductor!)  And, along the way, three poems - Dorothy Parker's 'Nocturne' and 'One perfect rose', and John Masefield's 'Ballad of John Silver' - the last recited by tenor Julian Clutterbuck (see photo).

After Whitworth's 'The Mermaid', with audience participation in the refrain ('Rule Britannia'), and an appreciative final round of applause, the audience were sent away with Bob Chilcott's 'Irish Blessing'.  A very appropriate finish.

Apart from the beauty of the setting and the sound we were reminded of the important purpose of these concerts - to raise money to complete the preservation work on St Mary Arches' sister church, St Stephens. To find out more about the St Stephens Project and ways in which anyone can help preserve this wonderful building visit

To hear how wonderful the acoustics are at St Mary Arches - for orchestra music - there is a lunchtime concert at 1.00pm this Saturday, 26 March, by the University Chamber Orchestra, proceeds going to the Parish of Central Exeter.

Exeter University Chamber Orchestra
St Mary Arches Church Exeter Saturday 26 March 1pm
Lunchtime Concert with tea and coffee
Proceeds to the parish.

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