Monday, 18 November 2013

Michael Graham's Exodus Choir: Tippett and Martin "A Child of Our Time" and "Mass for Two Choirs" St David's Church Exeter Friday 15 November 2013

The Exodus Choir
Baritone (& Conductor): Matt Cann
Bass: Julian Rippon & Peter Hale
Tenor Jonathan Harris
Tenor (& Director): Michael Graham
Alto: Laurence Blyth & Jonathan Titchin
Soprano: Rachel Mitchell, Elle Williams, Josie Walledge
Alto: Anselm Carr-Jones  Tenor Edward Woodhouse
Tenor: Jason Bomford  Bass: Philip Arkwright

St David's Church Exeter Friday 15 November

Musical Director & Host:
Michael Graham
On a chilly winter's night, St David's Church is a very welcoming venue for an evening of choral music. The bright Portland stone interior gives a French look to the place and, with it's very efficient gas heaters, the whole building is warm as toast.

On Friday evening the Exodus choir filled the nave with their beautiful a capella singing. Fourteen singers were there, with tenor Michael Graham and baritone Matt Cann taking turns to conduct. The singers, dressed in black, faced the audience in a loose semi-circle. Without accompaniment of any kind they combined their voices in every conceivable ingenious harmony.

Mark Blatchly
All of the members of this choir are experienced singers of all styles of choral music, ancient and modern, but this concert was set firmly in the twentieth century. The opening piece was by Oxford Organ scholar (and now organist at Ipswich Cathedral) Mark Blatchly. His "Panis Angelicus" (The bread of angels has become the bread of men) set the tone perfectly.

William Harris
Following this Matt Cann conducted two anthems by Oxford organist and choir master William Harris. First his 1959 setting of John Donne's prayer, "Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven", then Edmund Spenser's "Faire is the heaven where happy soules have place" which he set to music in 1925.

Then came a series of 'spirituals' very relevant to this week of remembrance. Michael Tippett's 'A Child of our Time' is an oratorio written when he was 35 following the atrocities of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany. The text relates the experience of oppressed minorities everywhere, and includes five traditional spiritual songs relating the suffering of African Americans as a direct or indirect result of the slave trade.

Sir Michael Tippett

Even without the intervening narrative, the songs were as moving as Tippett intended. Michael Graham took over the baton and the choir began with 'Steal away to Jesus'. Ed Woodhouse's tenor voice immediately came to the fore with the solo line, "My Lord, he calls me by thunder", accompanied by the lilting soprano of Josie Walledge. Ed also sang "Nobody knows the trouble I see", with the choir juggling complex harmonies in the background. "Go down Moses" requires a baritone voice - and who better than Matt Cann with that telling line, "Let my people go!". Josie Walledge also got to sing a perfect soprano solo in "O by and by" - "I'm going to lay down my heavy load", before the final haunting refrain, "Deep River".

Rabanus Maurus
Following the interval Matt Cann was conductor for two wonderful pieces. First his own work, a setting of the Gregorian hymn "Veni Creator Spiritus". (Originally written by Rabanus Maurus in the eighth century and reused unforgettably in Mahler's Eighth Symphony - performed by Exeter Music Group 16 Sept 2012 +.)

Ed Woodhouse took on those mighty opening words, while the men savoured each one in turn, in bass, then tenor then countenor, before moving on to the next. Elle Williams finished with "in saeculorum saecula" before a delightfully balanced Amen. Matt has made a fabulous arrangement of this latin prayer, using his experience of these brilliant singers to bring out the best of their abilities.

Equally beautiful was Frank Martin's "Mass for Unaccompanied Double Choir". Martin was the only non-English composer to feature. He lived the last twenty eight years of his life in Holland where he developed the ideas of Schoenburg and completed most of his major compositions, starting with the Passiontide oratorio "Golgotha" immediately after the Second World War.

Frank Martin
Previously, he had studied mathematics and physics in his native country, Switzerland, and also developed his musical skills with Joseph Lauber in Geneva. After the Great War, Martin worked with Emile Jaques-Dalcroze and by the age of 35 had not only founded the Chamber Music Society of Geneva but also completed his first great work: The Mass for Double Choir.

Matt conducted again, and Laurence Blyth began the beautifully high Kyrie, followed by fellow countertenor Anselm Carr-Jones - and finally soprano Josie Walledge. The Gloria, like Matt's Veni Creator involved rhythmic repetition of the key words in different registers before the final, "in excelsis deo". During the Qui Tollis, a sonorous continuo was introduced - not instrumental. A gentle hum from some of the voices provided all the accompaniment needed.

From opposite ends of the two choirs Julian Rippon and Philip Arkwright combined their bass voices for the Sanctus.  The Credo was longer and the interactions of voice more complicated. The left hand choir opened, followed by the right. An interesting stereo effect. Josie Walledge's voice continued, "Et in unum Dominum Iesum Christum". In 'choir 2', Jason Bomford and Philip Arkwright were followed by Ed Woodhouse and Anselm Carr-Jones in "genitum, non factum". Ed and Julian pronounced, "Crucifixus etiam" and the coda, "et resurrexit tertia die" went to the sopranos and altos.

Josie Walledge sang beautifully in the Sanctus and both choirs joined in the final line taking the word "hosanna" stepwise up the scale before the final climactic, "in excelsis", the sweetest top note going to soprano Elle Williams. The Benedictus and Agnus Dei were equally magical and ended with the the reassuring words, "Dona nobis pacem" (Give us peace).

The whole concert created a comforting sense of peace, alloyed with delightful exhilaration. Even the darkest lyrics of the Tippet oratorio were imbued with the sense of settled determination and hope. To take on such a varied programme of music is ambitious. To achieve such an inspired balance of reassuring precision and disconcerting wonder, on a two hour journey that went in so many fascinating directions, is a magnificent achievement indeed -  and all attained using the human voice alone.

After the concert Michael Graham returned to the nave to reassure everyone that there will be more opportunities to hear the Exodus Choir in the future. Watch this space for details.

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