Sunday, 3 February 2013

'SAMSON' - Handel's oratorio is brought to life by Laurence Blyth's Exmouth Choral Society, Holy Trinity Saturday 2 February 2013

Nick Hawker is Samson
with Exmouth Choral Society
in the bass chorus: Andrew Odber
and David Lee
- seen here with conductor Laurence Blyth
As Laurence conducts the choir
Elizabeth Drury sings the part of Delilah
Elizabeth's husband James Armitage
sings the countertenor part
- Micah
Ed Woodhouse joins the tenor chorus
Bass Matt Cann is Samson's father Manoah
The finest instrumentalists:
harpsichordist Jonathan Watts, director of Devon Baroque
 is joined by musicians from Divertimento Entertainments
'cello: Vicky Evans, leader: Mary Eade
second violin: Catherine Hayek, double bass: Michael Allnatt
For those exhilarating fanfares -
the piccolo trumpet of David Shead
Laurence Blyth controls the choir's sound
- "Bigger!"
"Sweet!"
Laurence Blyth has moved from being Music Administrator at Exeter Cathedral to new responsibilities as the Cathedral Events Coordinator. In the past year he has brought a succession of talented musicians to the Cathedral and Chapter House. Somehow, he also finds time to direct three choral societies, Exeter, Exmouth - and Wellington - where he put on an exquisite performance of Henry Purcell's 'Dido and Aeneas' in 2011.

Laurence has a beautifully sensitive countertenor voice - but can't be conducting and singing at the same time. The solution, however, is close at hand. New Zealand countertenor James Armitage recently married an English Soprano - Elizabeth Drury from Topsham - and now they live just 120 miles away in Oxford.

On Saturday evening we were privileged to hear a performance by Elizabeth and James at Holy Trinity Church in Exmouth. In a sumptuous production of Handel's oratorio 'Samson', Elizabeth was Delilah while James sang the part of Samson's friend Micah. The part of Samson went to a tenor from Truro, Nicholas Hawker. (Look out for Nicholas in another Handel oratorio - 'Judas Maccabeus' - with St Austell Choral Society in April.) The part of Samson's father Manoah went to a well known Exeter bass, Matthew Cann, director of the Antiphon Choir.

The instrumental accompaniment was provided by members of Divertimento Entertainments, with their familiar leader, Mary Eade. Despite a broken finger on her bowing hand, Mary played several flawless violin solos which added immeasurably to the already overwhelming atmosphere. Vicky Evans, Andrew Gillett, and Michael Allnatt were as sensitive and expressive as ever, playing 'cello, viola and bass. The second violinist was Catherine Hayek - familiar from her recent impressive performance in the Counterpoint Choir's 'Evening of Handel' at Buckfast Abbey.

Handel wouldn't be Handel without oboes and trumpets. (Who could forget baroque trumpeter Crispian Steele-Perkins and the Handel Players at Ottery St Mary for the Honiton Festival in 2011?) Lynn Carter and Kate Hill-Art played incredibly sweet oboe all evening, while Paul Thomas and David Shead were intermittently present for those all-important fanfares. David Shead also amazed everyone with his superb trumpet solos and delicate piccolo trumpet accompaniment of Elizabethn Drury's solo arias.

Too wee!
two hours on that
'stool of repentance'
must be an endurance record
Centre stage was a very familiar figure - harpsichordist Jonathan Watts (director of Dartington Community Choir and Devon Baroque, and recently piano accompanist for the first of a series of opera galas at Dartington Great Hall - 'Diva|Divo'.) The hardest working member of the orchestra, Jonathan set up and dismantled the harpsichord single-handed - a feat worthy of Samson himself.

What many couldn't see was that Jonathan was really suffering for his art. Owing to the split level stage, Jonathan's seat had to be a higher level than the harpsichord. The only solution was to use a tiny nursery chair as piano stool. Jonathan is a big man and must have found it excruciatingly painful. All the audience saw, however, was Jonathan total master of the instrument - and playing his trademark sensitive continuo support with total concentration.

After the concert Jonathan Watts starts work
Impressed onlooker - Alison Burnett
Concert harpsichordist
and removals man
- all in a day's work
for Jonathan Watts


The overall effect? - greater even than the sum of its parts!

This unfamiliar oratorio brought to life the final days of Samson ('Man of the Sun'), who was one of the last of the Judges of Israel. Blinded and in chains, held captive by his despised enemies, the Philistines, Samson is first consoled by his friend Micah and father Manoah. Later the Philistine champion, Harapha, taunts him, threatening to force him to break his Nazarite vows to the god Jehovah by joining the worship of the Philistine god Dagon.

The famous exploits of Samson's life are remembered, including his defeat of the Philistine army at the Rock of Etam, armed only with a donkey's jawbone. Most important we recall how he was defeated by his Philistine wife Delilah who discovered that breaking his Nazarite vows (by cutting his hair) would offend Jehovah and cost him his physical strength. Once powerless, he was quickly reduced to his present state by his Philistine captors.

Elizabeth Drury as Delilah approaches 'with doubtful feet and wavering resolution', professing still to love Samson and seek his forgiveness. Nicholas Hawker as Samson is unimpressed. ("I  know thy warbling charms!") The casting was perfect. Elizabeth was charm itself, almost believable. Nicholas was doggedly resolute, all hope abandoned. Beside him Elizabeth's real-life husband James followed every word of the passionate confrontation.

James himself, as Samson's friend Micah, provided the narrative in an incredibly commanding countertenor voice. Mastering that impossibly high male range with apparent ease, James injects extraordinary power into every phrase. It is easy to see (or rather hear) why the countertenor voice was so popular among baroque composers. The sound is always surprising, arresting, and charms with its languid sweetness. What a special experience, to hear such a professional singer delivering those lines with so much delicate precision and passion.

Let's not forget dad. Matt Cann sang the part of Samson's father Manoah with mature authority. That resonant bass voice is more captivating and assured at every performance. Matt, of course, is regularly exercising his voice here in Devon. He is a member of the Exeter Cathedral Choir and, in addition to conducting his own choir, Antiphon, he also sings with David Acres' Counterpoint Choir. (There is not long to wait to hear Matt and Counterpoint again - they are singing sensational English renaissance music from the time of Mary Tudor at Buckfast Abbey this Saturday!)

Most impressive of all was what Laurence was achieving with the choir. Despite the ubiquitous shortage of male singers (come on men, get involved!) Laurence elicited a balanced and dominating sound for every chorus. The voices were beautifully coordinated with each section rising above the others at a sign from Laurence on the rostrum. Particularly memorable was the lament of the Israelite virgins (sopranos) as the votive offerings were laid on Samson's casket.

A familiar story, but an unfamiliar oratorio. Would we want to hear it again? After such a splendid performance by so many accomplished and dedicated musicians, the answer has to a resounding, "Yes!".

Laurence doesn't have any immediate plans for another oratorio with the Exmouth Choral Society, but let's not forget his other choral projects. Two more oratorios are planned. No news yet about details of instrumentalists and soloists, but expect more spectacular music.

Laurence Blyth
Wellington Choral Society
St John's Church Wellington
Saturday 23 March
Felix Mendelssohn: 'ELIJAH'
conductor: Laurence Blyth
details to follow on WCS website







Laurence Blyth
Exeter Choral Society
St James Church Exeter
Wednesday 8 May 7.30pm
Josef Haydn: 'NELSON MASS'
Ralph Vaughan Williams:
'Five Mystical Songs'
'Lord thou has been our refuge' (TBC)
conductor: Laurence Blyth
details to follow on ECS website

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