Monday, 31 October 2011

Reading Phoenix Choir: St Peter's Church Tiverton - Sue North brings back the award-winning singers by popular demand - Saturday 29 October

The Reading Phoenix Choir open with
Nigerian Highlife Music - 'O Re Mi'
with darbuka accompaniment
As a result of the dedicated work of the East Devon Choral Society's vice-chair, Sue North, St Peter's Church in Tiverton was host once more to the Reading Phoenix Choir. The choir has been operating for 43 years now, and last year won the Cheltenham Festival Gold Cup - and was first runner-up for the 'Choir of the Year' award.

They made a grand entrance - processing to the front of the nave singing a traditional Nigerian 'High-Life' song. Michael Brewer's arrangement of 'O Re Mi' had the exciting African - and Caribbean - flavour to start the evening off with a bang.

Conductor David Crown
One very special feature of the choir quickly became apparent. They sing entirely from memory. With no scores to read, the attention of each singer is fixed firmly on the conductor, David Crown, who is able to bring out every harmony, and every emotion, to perfection. Learning every song by heart is a big task - new members of the choir can only attend concerts like this in an auxilliary role, selling CDs for example, until they have mastered the repertoire.

The Reading Phoenix Choir
Following the rousing Nigerian singing, the choir performed a late nineteenth century English song - 'Hail, Gladdening Light' by that bastion of Anglican musical tradition, Charles Wood. From the exotic, we had moved to a soft and reassuring sound - extremely restful on the ear.

than came some wonderful renaissance liturgical music. Thomas Morley's 'Nolo Mortem Peccatoris' ('I don't wish that sinners should die') The words are from a fifteenth century 'macaronic' poem (mixing Lating and English phrases). As a result half were incomprehensible to most people, but expressing emotion which anyone could understand. The English words (e.g. "Father I am your only son") came unexpectedly and delighted the ear. The singing was incredibly controlled with every inhale made as inconspicuously as possible. Every eye was concentrated on David Crown, and every mind was focussed on the form and the meaning of the music.

The joy of song
The next song was even more moving. Anyone who heard David Acre's 'Counterpoint' choir at Buckfast Abbey two weeks ago would be familiar with the entrancing sound of Morten Lauridsen's late twentieth century choral music. Counterpoint sang 'O Nata Lux' from 'Lux Aerterna', which they will sing in full next May (details).

'Still Life with Lemons, Oranges and a Rose
Francisco de Zurbaran 1633
'O Magnum Mysterium' was composed by Lauridsen in 1994 for Marshall Rutter's Los Angeles Master Chorale. It was inspired by the symbolism of Francisco de Zurbaran's 1633 painting 'Still Life with Lemons, Orange and a Rose'. The images represent the Christian mysteries of incarnation and resurrection, and the corresponding music is equally moving. The voices merge seemlessly (in Latin) to extoll the great mystery and wondrous sacrament of the birth of Mary's child. The ending, "Dominum Christum, Alleluia . . . ", with it's sustained bass continuo, is devastatingly beautiful.

The next piece of music was something very unusual. David Crown and the Phoenix Choir have been experimenting with instrumental pieces arranged for chorus. Their first this evening was Toby Young's arrangement of Johann Strauss II's 'Pizzicato Polka'. When Strauss composed this piece in 1892, it was intended for orchestra, with the strings played pizzicato naturally. Later a ballet was created to fit the music, but Toby Young's version is quite something else. Initially the plucked notes, sung as "Da, da, da" don't seem right, but as the tune and harmonies become more complicated it all starts to work perfectly. The resulting sound was enormous fun - both for the choir, and for the audience who couldn't hide their enjoyment.

Organist Christopher Enston
Played Charles-Marie Widor's 'Toccata from Symphony No 5
During the 'Two Moors Festival', Exeter Cathedral organist David Davies came to St Peter's Church in Tieverton to give an organ recital which finished with the extraordinary 'Toccata' from Charles-Marie Widor's Symphony No 5 for Organ. It was so well received, and people were so keen to hear it again, that the Phoenix Choir's organist Christopher Enston was persuaded to play it once more. The Henry Willis organ had been retuned in the intervening week, to give its optimum performance. Having seen David Davies forced to play in shirt-sleeves to keep cool, we know how taxing this piece is for the organist. Christopher embarked on the piece with immediate energy, uproariously enthusiastic, maybe not as precise as David, but with enormous excitement. The bass pedals sounded out very distinctly throughout, finally running up the magisterial concluding chords. An amazing musical detour.

Incredible bass sustain for John Tavener's 'Song for Athene'

After the Toccata, there was a change from the published programme. David Crown moved the choir to the back of the quire to sing John Tavener's funeral homage to Princess Diana, 'Song for Athene'. Again a very familiar style. Tavener's 'Last Sleep of the Virgin' written in memory of Dame Margot Fonteyne (and also used at Princess Diana's funeral), displays the same Russian Orthodox influence with handbells gently underpinning the sound. Instead of handbells 'Song for Athene' has a continuous sustained bass note which carries on through every word and every rest. The breath control of the bass singers is very impressive - there was no sign of inhale or exhale. Then, right on cue, the bells of distant St Paul's Church began to peal for eight o' clock. If that was deliberate, it was a stroke of genius. The combined sound was certainly absolutely perfect.
Full bass voice in the Tavener
The bass voices did get to sing part of the tune, leading up to some extraordinarily moving dischordant line endings - and then a huge, apparently final "Alleluia" - which faded to leave the same bass note continuing on and on - haunting.

Then, staying in the same position, the choir sang the music of 96 year old Knut Nystedt. Nystedt studied with Aaron Copland, picking up his American style. However, 'I Will Praise Thee O Lord' was also imbued with a Russian feel, complementing the preceding music by Tavener. The words of the Psalm were sung with deference, but lively and engaging. A delightful song.

Repositioned once more, the choir continued with Mozart's 'Ave Verum Corpus' ('Hail True Body'). Mozart had reached the height of his powers - and the untimely end of his life - just as he completed this choral masterpiece. (His great comic Opera, Cosi Fan Tutti, was completed in the same year, 1790.) With the singers in a line across the front of the Sanctuary, women on the left, men on the right, the sound was powerfully spiritual. The male voices followed the organ a lot of the time and went down with it to the last sustained bass note.

Moving away from the spiritual, David Crown had another delightful choral arrangement, originally written for 'other forces', Ben Oliver's arrangement of Claude Debussy's 'Des Pas sur la Neige' ('Footprints in the Snow'). Written in the romantic era, but with a forward-looking impressionist style, 'Footprints' describes icy whites and grays in music. Replacing the piano sound the bass voices built and sustained just like the sound of a glass armonica (or simply running a wet finger round the rim of a wine glass). The sopranos added a gentle humming even more reminiscent of the armonica. Then, at 8.15 sharp, the bells of St Paul's blended in perfectly again. Could it really be pure chance? As the sopranos sustained their hum, the men plunged down through arpeggios. It is hard to imagine anything more unlike a piano, but it was beautifully evocative of a winter landscape.

The choir brought us back to feelings of sunshine and greenery with Sir Hubert Parry's 'I was Glad' from Psalm 122 (used at coronations, and at this year's marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton). The telling second line, "Our feet shall stand in thy gates, O Jerusalem" were sung with genuinely exuberant joy. Christopher Enston accompanied softly on the organ while the soft voices of the choir built up to the supremely high soprano harmony and a strident finish on the organ.

After a convivial interval with wine and soft drinks, as the audience were welcoming the singers back with a round of applause, the choir launched themselves into Aaron Copland's Old American Song 'Ching a Ring Chaw'. The nonsense of "Ching a ring ching" and "Ho a ding kum larkkee" immediately grabbed everyone's attention, before progressing to real words and a very American vision of the promised land - and ending with more nonsense, "ring ching ching ching CHAW!" Very strange, very intriguing.

From nonsense David turned the choir to something much more serious. Eric Whitacre's 'Lux Aurumque' was originally performed by a virtual choir via the internet in 2009, and followed by 'Sleep' in 2010. Naturally David felt a physically convened choir must sing even better. David Acres' Counterpoint choir had performed both at Buckfast Abbey, and in Pont L'Abbé and Quimper in Brittany since then. The Reading choir, singing entirely without sheet music, gave a very special performance of the now familiar 'Lux Aurumque'.

The men are accompanied by a long long soprano sustain
in Whitacre's 'Lux Aurumque'

The song has unusual origins - the original words are not latin at all, but English. Working in collaboration with Eric Whitacre in 2001 Charles Anthony Silvestri was struck by the possibility of translating Edward Esch's poem 'Light and Gold' into Latin for Eric to set to music. Classical purists might not like the grammar, but the words are beautiful to sing. The choir really excelled, projecting the words of the nativity out into the audience. An extraordinary and captivating sound, each harmony was slowly built before fading just as slowly. The sustained soprano notes were utterly entrancing.

(You can hear the virtual choir version here - x)
(Compare the Reading Phoenix Choir version here - x)

The familiar sound of 'Jupiter' from Gustav Holst's 'Planet Suite' followed, in his 1921 setting of Sir Cecil Spring-Rice's 'I vow to thee, my country'. Spring Rice was a British ambassador, involved in influencing Woodrow Wilson's American government to join the allies during the Great War. Very patriotic of course, but also very beautiful - with a very powerful tenor solo part for Simon Wellings, perfect and unforced.

Great singing by the tenor Simon Wellings
in 'I vow to thee my country' and 'Nobody Knows'
From the west we travelled to the east and a song by Estonian composer Piret Rips-Laul. After living under communism for the first 24 years of her life, she delights in creating new material and reaching a wider audience. Paradisi Gloria is a charming arrangement of 'Fac, ut portem Christi mortem' ('Grant that I might bear the death of Christ') from the Stabat Mater. With the bells of St Paul's ringing nine o' clock in the background it was absolutely lovely.

In contrast to Piret Rips-Laul, who has been enjoying freedom from oppression since 1989, Michael Tippett was influenced by the tyranny of the Third Reich in the later thirties to write his oratorio 'A Child of our Time' based on Ödön von Horváth's 1938 novel of the same name. The individual songs are intended to serve like Bach chorales, but are in varied styles including 'spirituals'. 'Nobody knows the troubles I've seen' sounds like something from the deep south, but takes on an even more sinister significance when we remember that it was composed just after the outbreak of the Second World War in the context of Nazi atrocities in Europe. There was another superb tenor solo by Simon Wellings, but the singer was somewhat hidden in the ranks of the choir. He was very audible though, and his singing was very beautiful and moving. (See his photo above.)

The organ interlude in the first half had been splendid, but now we had a very different and exotic addition ot the programme. Tenor Didier Garçon is also an accomplished player of the traditional Provençal instruments, the galoubet and the tambourin. Didier demonstrated how the galoubet, a small pipe, can be used to play several full octaves by the use of harmonics, despite having only three finger holes. The galoubet can be played with one hand - leaving the other free to beat a rhythm on the tambourin.

In Provence whole bands of players entertain the local people all night, imitating the sound of an orchestra. That must be quite a sound!

Didier Garçon Plays Galoubet and Tambourin
To hear Didier play was a very special treat. There are only about four hundred players left now. The traditional instruments date from the thirteenth century and can recreate the flavour of traditional French mediaeval music beautifully.

Didier becomes impassioned

Didier's first peice was 'very French' - a seductive waltz tune. Initially courtly the music became increasingly lively and impassioned. 'The Nightingale' was contrastingly sweet and gentle, and allowed Didier to demonstrate his amazing breath and tongue control. A real treat. Everyone was very grateful for Didier's delightful contribution the the evening's entertainment.

The choir show their appreciation for Didier's wonderful music
Of course Didier had to resume his place in the choir as a tenor for more singing. A whole programme of modern choral works still to come. Didier did look a little overwrought after his wonderful performance, but rallied quickly to join the other singers with a will.

Didier returns to his position in the choir
With Christopher Enston playing piano, the Choir tried a little 'alternative rock'. 'Viva la Vida' ('Long live Life' - also ironically called 'Death and all his Friends') has a very modern youthful feel to it. A perfect echo of Didier's Mediaeval sound.

'Coldplay', who recorded the song in 2008, have some local connection of course. Chris Martin their lead vocalist, was a pupil at Blundell's school in Tiverton!

Coldplay gave way to gorgeous Welsh traditional song - 'Suo Gân' ('Lullaby'). David had carefully learned the correct pronunciation of the title, but still allowed the choir to sing in English - despite some protest from Welsh speaking members!  However, the English speaking audience were more than happy to hear the restful words 'Sleep my baby' carried along by sweet humming harmony from the sopranos.

A glorious soprano solo by Kate Dogra in Cole Porter's
"Miss Otis regrets, she is unable to lunch today"
Then came the ominous black humour of Cole Porter's 'Miss Otis regrets' ('she's unable to lunch today'). The soprano soloist, Kate Dogra, sang the story with incredible conviction and clarity. Miss Otis' servant, observing polite etiquette, relates the reasons for Miss Otis' absence - a terrible litany of duplicity, murder and lynching. The choir and soloist fully conveyed the contrast between the style and the content of the terrible message. Shocking, but beautiful, with a haunting quaver in the soloist's voice on the final word, " . . . today!"

Robert Burns' 'O my luve's like a red red rose' is equally familiar. Roddy Williams version opened as a soprano number, but quickly diverged into a complex counterpoint for four voices. A lovely arrangement.

From Wales to Scotland to - Sweden. Benny Andersson's Abba hit 'Dancing Queen' was perfect in Mac Huff's arrangement for choir. Christopher Enston was back on the piano and flew into an opening glissando and bashed out the tune in a gloriously wild 'honky-tonk' style. The singers joined in with a will, perfectly recreating the sound of breathlessly excited teenagers. Very clever, and very entertaining.

Formality is abandoned to sing a song for Haiti

Finally, in recognition of the continuing hardships of the Haitian people, following the earthquake last year, the choir broke up their formal ranks and stood, or sat, individually around the front of the quire. From their various positions they sang an incredibly moving Haitian folk song, specially arranged by Roddy Williams, 'Fey-O'. The Darbuka drum was brought out again, and Didier played another.

A more relaxed style for Roddy Williams' 'Fey-O'
The baritone solo by Dan Bignall was superlatively rich and emotive. The sincerity of the singer showed in his voice - and his facial expression. As the singing slowly faded, the drum playing became more passionate, before slowing to end with the solo baritone voice. This song was a very moving reminder of the continuing suffering of people in crisis-affected areas of the world.

A very moving baritone solo by Dan Bignall
in Roddy Williams' arrangement of Traditional Haitian folksong 'Fey-O'
As a final encore the choir sang Bob Chilcott's 'Irish Blessing':

May the road rise to meet you, 
May the wind be ever at your back 
May the sun shine warm upon your face 
and the rain fall soft upon your fields, 
and until we meet again, 
May God hold you in the palm of his hand. 

Such an incredible evening of music. Skilled, beautiful, and full of emotion - and such a journey of discovery, with so many different styles and traditions.

Thank you so much to the Reading Phoenix Choir for making a special trip to Devon to entertain us. And special thanks to the vice-chair of the East Devon Choral Society, Sue North, whose tireless efforts made this wonderful evening possible.

Until we meet again . . .

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Update: Now that the Counterpoint choir have returned from Brittany, Matthew Cann - with the help of David Acres - is creating a new Choir - 'Antiphon'. They are already in preparation for an Advent concert at Buckfast Abbey on Saturday 3rd December. The programme will include some of the pieces sung by the Reading Phoenix Choir on Saturday - and many more as well.

A Concert for Advent
Buckfast Abbey
Saturday 3 Dec 7.30pm
Antiphon Choir
Director: Matthew Cann
Fantastic programme, including:
Gabriel Jackson: 'I look from afar'
Thomas Tallis: Videte Miraculum
Morten Lauridsen: O Magnum Mysterium
Henryk Gorecki: Totas Tuas
Eric Whitacre: Lux Aurumque
Tickets: £16 (advance £14)

Advent Programme

Rorate Coeli – plainsong                         (F major)

Rorate Coeli – Byrd                                 (F major)

1. Advent antiphon – O Sapientia         (G minor)

I look from afar – Jackson                       (G minor)

O Maria Vernans Rosa – Cox                 (G major)

2. Advent antiphon – O Adonai             (G minor)

Salve Regina – Poulenc                          (G minor)

Videte Miraculum – Tallis                         (E minor)

3. Advent antiphon – O Radix Jesse     (G minor)

O Magnum Mysterium – Lauridsen          (D major)

4. Advent antiphon – O Clavis David     (Fminor)

 5. Advent antiphon – O Oriens                (F minor)

Totus Tuas – Gorecki                                 (E major)
6. Advent antiphon – O Rex Gentium      (F minor)

Ave Maria – Parsons                                   (A major)

Lux Aurumque – Whitacre                                 (D major)

7. Advent antiphon – O Emmanuel            (F minor)
Lully, Lulla – Leighton                                   (G minor)

8. Advent antiphon – O Virgo Virginem     (G minor)

Tomorrow go ye forth – Jackson                   (G minor)

Benedicamus Domino – Warlock                   (C major)
Tallis –Te Lucis Ante Terminum                       (B minor)

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