Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Counterpoint Choir: "The Life and Times of Queen Mary I" David Acres conducts at Buckfast Abbey Saturday 9 February 2013

A Heavenly Choir
Lizzie Lashbrooke, Susie Howells, Catherine Luke

Did anyone not know what was happening at Buckfast Abbey this Saturday?

Following a couple of months of press releases by Counterpoint Choir's Director of Music, David Acres - and a live interview with Counterpoint soprano, Mary O'Shea - the Counterpoint Choir were at the Abbey for a celebration of 'The Life and Times of Queen Mary I', illustrated by music she would have known.

Some may recall the brief synopsis of Mary's life which appeared on this site on Monday 28 January. While Saturday's audience waited for the concert to begin, they were able to read in their programmes a much more detailed analysis by David Acres himself - plus details of all the composers and the circumstances in which each piece of music was written.

Armed with that information, the listener was then able to become fully immersed in the culture and sounds of Mary's life (1516-58). An extraordinary period of history, coloured by the magnificent music of the time.

Opening soloists - "Ah Robyn, gentle Robyn"
Frazier McDiarmid, Peter Oakley
The concert opened with just a few voices - ringing out from the Chancel of the Abbey. First there as an 'Ave Maria' by William Cornysh (already in circulation when Mary was born) for male voices only. Then Counterpoint countertenor, Frazier McDiarmid, was joined by countertenor Peter Oakley, a lay vicar from King's College Chapel, Cambridge, for Cornysh's lament 'Ah Robyn, Gentle Robyn'. Peter is familiar with the choir, being a former member of Counterpoint and the Exeter Cathedral Choir, but showed incredible ability by taking on the second countertenor rôle with only a day's notice.

Director of  Music: David Acres
. . . conducts with passion . . .
. . . and love!
For most of the concert the whole choir were at the front of the nave. singing directly to the audience. The combination of sounds was glorious as always. Unlike many choirs Counterpoint has plenty of men. Five of the eight altos were countertenors. There were eight basses, including Julian Rippon and Michael Vian Clark. (Charles Hughes, who has two parts in this week's 'Pirates of Penzance' at the Northcott, and joined the classical journey by phone this Tuesday, was also in that line-up.)

There were only six tenors, but an impressive set of voices - including Jason Bomford, Michael Graham, and Edward Woodhouse (who joined Janet Macdonald's 'Opera Gala' at Sidholme last Sunday.)

There were an incredible fourteen sopranos - even though Ann Draisey couldn't make it. Josie Walledge was prominent at the left hand end of the stage and, at the far right, regular alto Rachel Mitchell had also joined the sopranos.

Heavenly voices
- under a celestial canopy
Mary Carpenter, Jason Bomford,
Nicky Hobbs, Sally Leger, Mary O'Shea
The combination of sounds is astounding, and David Acres leads everything beautifully. It is hard to keep track of all the wonderful musical sounds that are being combined and interwoven, and almost overwhelming for the uninitiated. But then, that's the idea isn't it?

Occasionally a single voice would lead into a song. (Excellent tenor openings by Ed Woodhouse and Michael Graham - very brave and stunningly competent.)

Occasionally David reduced the choir to less than half its full size - making the individual voices shine out, but by no means reducing the quality of the sound.

Many of the songs were in Latin, evoking the church atmosphere of the reign of Henry VIII (and later Mary herself). David had provided very handy parallel translations in the programme notes, for those who like to know what the words mean. For others it was enough to understand the gist and let the music do the rest.

That special connection:
soprano Josie Walledge focuses on David Acres
soprano and countertenor
Elle Williams and Frazier McDiarmid
Just a reminder of that full programme:

("Ego Flos Campi" was 'à sept' - for seven voices only - very sweet)

William Cornysh 1465-1523
1505: “Ave Maria, Mater dei” The Eton Choirbook

1518: “Ah Robyn, gentle Robyn” Henry VIII’s Songbook

Heinrich Isaac 1445-c.1517
Virgo prudentissima For Emperor Maximilian I 

Christobal de Morales 1500-1553 1539: “Peccantem me quotidie” (I sin every day)
Officium Defunctorum for Empress Isabella of Portugal and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V
(parents of Philip II of Spain)

Jacobus Clemens non Papa 1510-1555
1550: “Ego flos campi” (I am the flower of the field) for the Marian Brotherhood at 's-Hertogenbosch

Hernando Franco 1532-1585 Christus factus est (Christ is born)

Thomas Tallis c.1505-1585 Loquebantur variis linguis" (They spoke in many tongues)


Nicholas Gombert 1495-1556 Lugebat David Absalon (David Mourned for Absalon)

Robert Parsons 1530-1571 Ave Maria" (Hail Mary)

Robert Whyte 1538-1574 Regina coeli  (Queen of Heaven)

John Taverner 1490-1545 O Jesu Christe, pastor bone" (O Jesus Christ, Good Shepherd - Votive Antiphon)

Thomas Tallis c.1505-1585 O sacrum convivium (O sacred banquet)

Francisco Guerrero 1528-1599 O Domine Jesu Christe (Lord Jesus Christ)

John Sheppard c.1515-1558 In pace, in idipsum (together, in peace)

Josie . . .
. . . and friends!
The most beautiful of all? - "Lugebat David Absalon", by Nicholas Gombert, which was reminiscent of Counterpoint's 'In Memoriam' concert on 11th February last year which reproduced the programme of the funeral of Prince Henry, son of James I.

On that occasion there were two songs recounting King David's grief at the death of his son Absalom - composed by Robert Ramsay and Thomas Weelkes, nearly half a century after Mary died.

This Saturday's earlier version was, if anything, even more beautiful and moving. The latin text was very clear, especially with the help of David Acres' translation in the programme notes.

The whole choir
Far right - joining the sopranos -
Rachel Mitchell

The evening of aural enchantment and fascinating historical insights ended with one unscheduled song to return the Abbey to its sacred function. Once more the music was something that would have been familiar to the young Mary Tudor - 'O Nata Lux' by Thomas Tallis.

A very satisfying evening all round - everyone left uplifted, and supremely grateful to David Acres and his rightly celebrated 'Counterpoint Choir'.

For anyone wanting to hear more of this gorgeous choral music (especially anyone who had the misfortune to miss this concert) there are two fabulous concerts coming up in May. They will feature not only David Acres' Counterpoint Choir, but also the 'Groupe Vocal Jef Le Penven' de Jean-Philippe Brun.

(Jef Le Penven? - a twentieth century composer from Pontivy in Brittany, and conductor of the Orchestre de Bretagne.)

Jef Le Penven Choir
from Quimper in Brittany
Jef Le Penven Choir (Quimper, Brittany)
Church of St Michael and all Angels
Mount Dynham, St David's Hill, Exeter
(NOT Heavitree)
Wednesday 8 May 7.30pm
Sensational French choral music
(Brittany's equivalent to 'Counterpoint')
details to follow

Counterpoint Choir
from Exeter in Devon
Counterpoint Choir - AND
 Jef Le Penven Choir (Quimper, Brittany)
Buckfast Abbey
Friday 10 May 7.30pm
Gabriel Fauré: Requiem
Maurice Duruflé/Francis Poulenc: Motets
Conductor (CP): David Acres
Conductor (JLP): Jean-Philippe Brun
details to be confirmed
Counterpoint website

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