|Conductor of 'Gerontius'|
and Director of Exeter Chamber Choir
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.
East Devon Choral Society
1st Bass Martyn Green
|Vice-Chairman of EDCS|
1st Soprano Sue North
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|
|The mighty tuba of Jon Cullimore|
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|
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)|
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|
(flanked by organist Andrew Downton
and harpist Ruth Faber)
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!
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)
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|
|Second Clarinet Victoria Loram|
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|
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, 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!
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
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 ! !|
|Last man standing|
An exultant - and exhausted - Edward Scull
wheels out one of his four heavy timpani