Sunday 8 May 2011

A very major choral work: Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius' Exeter Chamber Choir & East Devon Choral Society at St Paul's Church Tiverton Saturday 7 May

Conductor of  'Gerontius'
and Director of Exeter Chamber Choir
Andrew Daldorph
Even with the enormous wealth of choral music in Devon there is occasionally an event which surprises everyone. On Saturday night visitors to the modestly sized church of St Paul's in Tiverton would have seen it filled to capacity by a full orchestra, two choirs and and a huge and enthusiastic audience, and would have heard an incredibly powerful and emotional performance of one of the greatest English choral works - 'The Dream of Gerontius' by Sir Edward Elgar.
After several months of preparation the two 'semi-choirs' finally came together in a union that was the sum of their immense individual talents, and much more besides. Under the direction of Andrew Daldorph, Exeter Chamber Choir (Andrew's own outfit) and the choir of East Devon Choral Society had been carefully versed in their respective parts. The combination of the two on Saturday night was not only a demonstration of Andrew's skill at 'remote coordination', but also a tour de force of choral singing, harmony - and choreography. As each section of the two choirs stood up or sat down, or even just raised or lowered their heads, the combined movement was such a big event that it became part of the performance. Andrew had drilled everyone in that as well, so that every movement was blended into, and complemented, the action perfectly.
Chairman of
East Devon Choral Society
1st Bass Martyn Green
And the orchestra - what an orchestra! Brenda Willoughby of the Divertimento Ensemble had been conspicuous by her absence at the organ and flute (!) recital at Powderham Castle the night before, but all became clear as she took her place as leader. Anna Cockroft, regular leader for the Exeter Bach Society, and Julie Hill, regular second violin to Margaret Faultless in 'Devon Baroque', both joined Brenda in the violin section. And in the viola section was none other than Alex West,.familiar to 'Classical Journey' regulars as a pianist and organist, he also plays the violin and the viola! Hilary Boxer led the 'cellos and the clarinets were led by Chris Gradwell. And playing the bass clarinet was another surprise guest -  Chris Caldwell of 'Music on the Edge'. No sign of his wife Susie and her flute on this occasion, but Susie's old pal Victoria Loram was with Chris and Chris as second clarinet. For depth and power Andrew Downton's organ playing, and Jon Cullimore's tuba, were backed up by the virtuoso timpani of Edward Scull, fresh from the recent success of his Marimba recital in Shaldon. And two special performers, who were to prove surprisingly prominent throughout, were Ruth Faber, with her concert harp, and Lucy Randall - playing the contra-bassoon!
Vice-Chairman of EDCS
1st Soprano Sue North
The concert was introduced by the President of the East Devon Choral Society, Frank Rosamond. This concert marked his last appearance as President and he assured us all that he couldn't have asked for a better send-off than Elgar's 'Gerontius'. As Frank explained, Elgar himself, discussing his greatest choral work, quoted John Ruskin's 'Sesame and Lilies'saying:
He would fain set it down forever; engrave it on rock, if he could; saying, "This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapor and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory."
The exciting prospect of hearing the two choirs, combined at last, was eclipsed temporarily by the prelude. The first instrument to be heard was the viola. Alex, already well known as a pianist, was superbly under control in the glare of this sudden exposure. In the background he was supported by the bassoons of Andrew Garton and Alan Boxer. As the remaining strings joined in, a series of single penetrating notes could be heard, deep and rasping, from Lucy's contra-bassoon. Visiting timpanist Edward Scull, impressive as he was in dinner jacket and bow tie at that amazing set of four tuned timpani, was very controlled and subtle, adding just the right amount of soft drum sound. Particularly notable was the combined sound of violas, 'cellos and bassoons which was utterly gorgeous and very reminiscent of my own personal favourite - Yo Yo Ma with the Philip Glass Orchestra. i.e. exquisite!
The Boss - Percussionist Edward Scull
After ten blissful minutes of this rapturous music the first soloist took the stage. Iain Milne's tenor voice, as the old man Gerontius himself, was strong as an ox despite calling to Jesus and Mary that he was near to death. But there was no contradiction. Through subtle inflection Iain drew us into his mood of supplication and despair, setting us up for the moment we had all been waiting for. The 'Kyrie Eleison' ('Lord have Mercy') is a standard part of the Catholic Mass and often arranged for chorus, but possibly never quite like this. Even having heard both semi-choirs in rehearsal, I was overcome again when I heard the full harmonisation - and realised that the orchestra were not involved. Both choirs combined seamlessly in an unaccompanied dream of sound which misted up several pairs of glasses around that auditorium! Every singer followed Andrew's prior instructions to the letter as he coaxed the very best from that throng of enchanting voices, singing softly to himself throughout.
The mighty tuba of Jon Cullimore
Into the ensuing void Iain injected more of the words of Gerontius. No confusion now, clearly desolate, he accepts death and prepares to meet his God. Cardinal Newman, the author of the words Elgar used, had a vision of impending death and judgement, as expressed in the poetry, which has a distinctly Catholic ideology behind it. Newman, who had been an Anglican priest for twelve years, converted to Rome in 1847 and wrote his epic poem eighteen years later. With the zeal of a convert he wrote something which has continued to move listeners (regardless of whether they share, or even understand, Newman's beliefs) ever since. And in 1900 Elgar knew he had found, in Newman's poetry, the words he needed for a truly great work.
Moving on from their prayer to the Virgin Mary for intercession, the choir (here playing the part of 'assistants' to Gerontius) pray directly to God for grace. Despite the ppp in the score, Andrew had insisted that they must be audible, and they certainly were. Every word was clear and expressive. "Lord, Deliver Him!"
Leader Brenda Willoughby
Iain took things further with his (partly) Latin aria, 'Sanctus Fortis' ('Holy Mighty One'). This (Catholic) Good Friday prayer of the 'Adoration of the Cross' is usually sung in a setting by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the defining voice of rennaissance Roman sacred music. With the atmospheric sound of a modern orchestra it becomes something different. At the end of each iteration a gentle drum roll echoes the final word 'Domine' before the return to English and a confirmation of faith in the Creed. At each reprise a new accompaniment took over, brass then woodwind then strings, with startling ricochcet playing - each string player battering the strings with the bow in that rather disturbing way.
The assistants' final plea for clemency, citing the many cases of divine reprieve from individual suffering and peril described in Hebrew Scripture, was soft as down. As each line ended Andrew would press his finger to his lips to discourage any tendency to crescendo. The final harmony was built softly, carefully, ending in an extended and excruciatingly sweet harmony of voices - broken through gently by Iain resigning himself once again to death.
Another leader (but not tonight)
Anna Cockroft
Then a completely new voice. Bass James Arthur, as 'Priest' sends Gerontius on his way to the afterlife. James' voice, incredibly, overpowered even the brass instruments, but gave way to - Ruth's harp!
As the assistants restated his words, with surprising force, the brass sounded out regally - together with that incredible contra-bassoon. Every instrument joined the fray at full power - including Edward's timpani, of course! At the crucial moment the female choristers fell silent perfectly, leaving the men singing alone. And, when the men gave way, Brenda and her violins continued until all that was left was - the harp. As the voices and instruments joined in together for one last time they blended perfectly and held together for apparent eternity, before Andrew let them come to rest.
End of part one.
Owing to the huge number of performers, and the enormous capacity audience, there was no room to serve refreshments during the interval, or to do much else. Nevertheless, for ten minutes people could stretch their legs and have a chat. The first half had been surprisingly short, but the sad demise of Gerontius is not the main theme of the story. His experiences on the way to the afterlife (whether dreamed or actual) take up the longer second half.
and a Devon Baroque violinist
Julie Hill
(flanked by organist Andrew Downton
and harpist Ruth Faber)
That second half opened, like the first, with the violas' sound prominent. 'Cellos and harp added to that sweet sound while Iain, as Gerontius' soul, describes the experience of having died (as Newman imagined it). Waking, as if from sleep, he feels refreshed and at peace.
Now at last we heard the one element that had been missing so far. The mezzo soprano voice of Frances Bourne. Standing imperiously she sang (as 'Angel') in a rich and quivering voice of the completion of the final task of Gerontius' life. He has not only died but been granted grace to enter the kingdom of Heaven. He has passed through the narrow gate. Iain echoed the impression of wonder by singing an aria expressing his recognition of the Angel. She is indeed a spiritual being. Iain and Frances then sang in duet and dialogue. Their voices were perfectly matched and the interplay between the two protagonists convincing and absorbing. But as the interchange reached its conclusion Gerontius seemed anxious, and the Angel confirms that his fears may be justified. Meanwhile Andrew could be seen calling for something big from the orchestra. A surprise was in store.
Surprise violist - Alex West
a very capable pair of hands!
When it came it was a terrible surprise, even for me - and I had been at the rehearsals.
With both choirs working together, and that extraordinary orchestra, Andrew created a terrifying explosion of sound and wrath. The choir were now 'demons'. The initially low and ominous voices of the demons, accompanied by bizarre and disconcerting noises from the orchestra, built rapidly to a roar, dismissing Gerontius as a mere human. What are humans, but base creatures bloated with pride? The assault is aimed not just at Gerontius but at us all. Like any hellfire preacher, Newman is berating us for overestimating our worth - until granted grace, of course. Frances voice, initially appearing to offer the solace of grace, actually reaffirmed what the demons were saying before they began again with a blood-curdling tirade punctuated by sounding brass and demonic laughter. After deriding the vanity of man they returned to the weirdly inarticulate words of their previous aria, "Dispossessed, Aside Thrust, Chucked Down!". I've heard it many times now (from both choirs, and of course we heard it on the 'Journey') but I still can't get to grips with that strange rhythm. Certainly not a tune that 'grows on you'. As the sound degenerated into chaotic clamour, Hilary and the 'cellists could be seen raking the strings of their instruments with their bows. The brief reassuring reappearance of the angel was swept away in a wave of rage. Each successive "Ha Ha!" from the demons was more demonic until, very strangely, the voices softened. The women stopped singing and sat down. Then the tenors. Finally, with the orchestra almost silent, the basses sat down and held their tongues, leaving - Lucy playing the contra-bassoon alone, softly and slowly sinking through the scale to the very deepest note she could manage.
An established favourite,
'Cellist Hilary Boxer
confers with Rebecca Allnatt
(behind them Michael Dawson
and Felicity Maries)
Into the ensuing silence Iain expressed the terrible dread that Gerontius was feeling. He could not see the demons, and did not understand what was going to happen to him. Although Frances' voice sounded reassuring as always, her words were disconcertingly vague. Gerontius would see God, but it would not be an experience of unalloyed pleasure. Gerontius was more perplexed than ever.
As Frances paused before confronting Gerontius with the confusing contradiction of redemption (as conceived by Newman) Andrew pulled off one of the simplest, but most unnerving, effects of the concert. As the angel was about to speak, and all eyes were on Frances, a strange new sound was heard. No more than a rustle with a few squeaks mixed in - it was the entire female section of the choir rising to their feet, but what for? Would they be demons, or would they be assistants?
After a beautiful exposition of Christ's passion by Frances we got our answer.
"Praise to the Holiest!" They were a choir of archangels! The sense of returning hope was almost palpable. Francs interrupted briefly to explain who they were and, as they continued their praises to the accompaniment of the tinkling harp, Frances interjected periodically to explain that we were entering into the 'House of Judgement'.
First Clarinet Chris Gradwell
Excitement mounts. Iain, as the soul, joins in, resigning himself to whatever fate awaits him. But his calm acceptance turns to anxiety as the enormity of the situation dawns on him. His mouth opened wide, singing at full volume, and Frances did likewise (to a celestial harp accompaniment) as she overpowered the orchestra and choir with the news that they were now 'crossing the threshold'.
Second Clarinet Victoria Loram
The archangels repeated their 'Praise to the Holiest' but now they somehow represented that very transition, and shocked us all with the volume and passion of those few words of adulation. As I concentrated on the sound of the choir, I felt a tug on my sleeve. The person sitting next to me was trying to direct my attention to Andrew on the rostrum who, clearly filled with passion himself, was exhorting every member of the orchestra to give everything they could to this crucial moment.
Then softly, and appropriately for a Christian image of Heaven, the choir began their own exposition of Christian belief in redemption. Very reassuring words for any Catholic to hear, as Newman surely intended.
Bass Clarinet Chris Caldwell
After the deadly slow and ponderous final words, 'To suffer and to die", the "Praise to the Holiest" is repeated, not volubly, but in a complex and increasingly passionate fugue, but with occasional bursts of that same mad excitement. The final, additional words, "Most sure in all his ways", was drawn out before suddenly stopping, leaving a pregnant silence.
It surely can't have been planned this way, but into that silence came strange creaks, groans, and snaps which added immeasurably to the tension. With nearly one hundred people in the two choirs there was no way they could all sit perfectly still. Every time one of them moved even a muscle, the folding chair under him or her would complain audibly. Music from the most unlikely source!
and - ranged behind the imposing figure
of Leader Brenda Willoughby -
the great Double Choir
Then as Frances introduced the hour of judgement, Iain hears more voices. They are the voices of penitents praying to Jesus for intercession on behalf of the deceased. Suddenly James, who had been inactive for most of the performance, reanimated his resounding bass voice, as the 'Angel of Agony', for the words of the prayer for intercession. The exhortation, in the name of Jesus' sinless suffering, pleaded clemency - for all lost souls. Edward's timpani and the huge sound of the trombones backed up each line, with Andrew carefully controlling their power at each outburst.
Then, after Iain announced that he was about to face judgement, very softly with a gentle accompaniment of strings and clarinets, ending on a long sustained single note on the organ, the choir repeated the prayer as 'voices on Earth', but the entreaty was now personal: "Spare him Lord - Deliver him." To an excited crescendo from the orchestra Frances finally announced the resolution - his suffering soul is safe!
Conductor congratulates Leader
- and vice-versa!
The end? Not quite. As Frances repeated "Praise to his Name" the woodwind began to increase their volume, and to be joined by brass. Incredibly Iain then begged masochistically to be 'cast down' (as threatened by the demons). In true Catholic penitence he eschews the sin of pride and dismisses himself as worthless - without which admission he can't be redeemed. (Newman's pushing it a bit now!) Instead of Anglican heaven he craves the deferred benefits of purgatory, in preference to a worse fate.
Into the stillness the choir, now as souls in purgatory, confirm the expectation that the sure hope of poor sordid humans (as long as they are good Catholics) is in the salvation 'earned' (if I'm understanding Newman right) through pre-planned suffering, willingly endured. Gently backed up by the 'cellos and timpani, this was where the choir, softly and carefully created the very best harmonies of all. How do they do it? - I've no idea!
Andrew acknowledges three great soloists
Mezzo Soprano Frances Bourne
Tenor Iain Milne
Bass Baritone James Arthur
Now that any non-Catholics were nicely confused, Frances confirmed that Gerontius will indeed be 'dipped into the lake' of purgatory but, although it is a place of suffering, he will be tended by angels while, on Earth, Masses will be held to bring about his day of redemption.
Finally (and this time it really is the end) The choir come in with a very softly delivered message that the 'Elder Race' (sorry, yet another new idea at the last moment - and not a very appealing one) have been favoured by God by being given a preternatural battle to fight - and also the promise of victory. This essential addendum to any Catholic account of resurrection, though confusing and inviting further consideration, was clearly seen by Newman, and Elgar, as the natural and fitting end to Gerontius' story. Certainly the choir made it the most magical time of the whole evening, singing softly under gentle strings and harp, and taking the final amens down and down to end in perfect peace with just Ruth's harp strummed quietly over their last breath.
. . . and the Two Choirs ! !
After all the hard work and preparation, 'The Dream of Gerontius' was an enormously complex and intriguing piece of work, beautifully played and sung, with great feeling, by all the performers. Every instrument, every section of the choir, seemed to have their moment. And each rose to the occasion with extraordinary brilliance. With quite incomprehensible skill and expertise the conductor, Andrew Daldorph, was able to bring all the wonderful elements together into an impressive and coherent whole - which was definitely more even than the sum of its parts. In addition Iain Milne and Frances Bourne, as Gerontius and the Angel, sang faultlessly and wonderfully, both separately and in duet. Despite his lesser part, James Arthur's bass voice also demands equal praise. Lastly the two choral groups, singing as semi-choirs, having practised separately and been brought together only shortly before the performance, harmonised with each other exquisitely. To hear either choir alone is a treat in itself, but together, and singing as perfectly as they did, they transformed that May evening, which was otherwise quite ordinary - and quite rainy - into a voyage of discovery. And, with the church filled, there were plenty there to enjoy it.
Last man standing
An exultant - and exhausted - Edward Scull
wheels out one of his four heavy timpani
And did the audience enjoy it? They certainly did. The audience were ecstatic! Some said they were literally transfixed by the time the final amen sounded - held by the spell of the music and emotion. When they were able to 'untransfix' themselves enough to clap their hands, the applause was long and loud and Andrew Daldorph humbly (as always) accepted our sincere thanks, extending his own appreciation to the soloists, the orchestra - and to that heroic double choir. Bouquets, curtain calls, all were in order. This was a choral concert truly worthy or any amount of acclaim. To everyone involved, thank you and well done!

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