Sunday 1 December 2013

Counterpoint: "The Remarkable Mr Henry Purcell" Buckfast Abbey Saturday 26 October 2013

David Acres
Counterpoint Choir
Buckfast Abbey
Saturday 26 October

Amid exciting developments, The Counterpoint Choir go from strength to strength.

On Saturday 26 October this year, David Acres was at Buckfast Abbey to conduct the first performance by a new, 18-voice, Counterpoint line-up - in an evening of music by "The Remarkable Mr Henry Purcell". The special guest for the evening was operatic countertenor, James Bowman. (Full details below.)

Since then, David Acres has taken up new and exciting responsibilities - in Cleveland, Ohio. In the snow-clad splendour of the Lake Erie shoreline, David will be teaching, singing and touring the states until early next year. Meanwhile the Counterpoint Choir continue to create beautiful music on this side of the Atlantic.

This Sunday evening (24 November) Jonathan Peter Kenny conducted Counterpoint and the Cathedral Choir and Isca Voices and the English Touring Opera soloists and the Old Street Band in Handel's "Music for Vespers".

As well as being conductor of the ETO and Old Street Band (for example, in Handel's "Agrippina" on Friday and Saturday this week at the Northcott Theatre), Jonathan is also a former countertenor singer with David's Counterpoint Choir. Jonathan knows the drill for Counterpoint's Vespers. He was in the chorus for the "Dixit Dominus" with soloists James Bowman and Mary Bevan at the concert "Handel in Italy" (Buckfast Abbey Saturday 16 October 2010).

Next Year, Kit Perona-Wright will conduct Counterpoint in the rescheduled "Life & Works of Thomas Tallis" at Buckfast Abbey on Saturday 15 February 2014. Kit is also a former member of Counterpoint. He sang as a tenor under David Acres before moving to Bexhill to become Master of Music. He now lives in Cheltenham, and is the Musical Director of the Serlo Consort.

David Acres will be back to conduct "The Glories of Spanish Polyphony" - which has swapped places with the Tallis concert, and will be at Buckfast Abbey on Saturday 24 May 2014. This will give David several months to fully rehearse the choir in the sixteenth century music of Guerrero, Peñalosa, Esquivel, Morales, Vivanco, the Portugese composer Duarte Lobo and Castilian choral creative master Tomás Luis de Victoria.


Organist: David Davies
At Buckfast Abbey on Saturday 26th October, David Acres unveiled a new experimental Counterpoint Choir vocal line-up. The number of voices was reduced. Eight women sang with twelve men. All the women sang soprano, with four each of counter-tenors, tenors and basses.

In the bass section was the new Musical Director of Buckfast Abbey, Philip Arkwright. The countertenors and sopranos were joined respectively by John McElliot and Judith Overcash of 'Quire Cleveland'.

John and Judith invited David Acres to sing alto in their choir during a recent UK tour. David was so impressed by the experience that he invited them to join Counterpoint for the evening of Purcell songs. (David has since joined the Cathedral Choir, and Chamber Choir, at Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland OH, and has become a regular member of Quire Cleveland.)

On the sidelines
- but voice front and centre
Tenor: Edward Woodhouse
(right: Michael Graham)
The special guest for the evening was James Bowman, who not only sang astoundingly beautiful solo works by Purcell, but also joined the choir as an additional countertenor voice and occasional soloist - not to mention some very lovely ensemble singing with selected choir members.

The evening began without pre-amble. The opening song was one written by the 23 year old Purcell for the coronation of James II to augment Handel's 'Music for the Coronation of George II'. No explanation of the music was necessary. As usual, David Acres had provided full historical details in the programme notes.

The words of Psalm 122, "I was glad when they said unto me, 'we will go into the house of the Lord'"  demonstrated the full potential of the new Counterpoint structure. Every voice was strong and individually audible, and the overall sound perfectly balanced.

For the closing words, "As it was in the beginning . . .", the powerful and mature sound of Edward Woodhouse's tenor voice made itself known - a voice which would return to the fore several times during the evening.

Sweet soprano voices:
Elle Williams
& Denise Kehoe

John McElliot
Anselm Carr-Jones
Clive Dickinson
The choir then slipped back in time a couple of years, to Purcell's arrival at Westminster Abbey, aged 21. "Remember not, Lord, our offences" takes the words of Thomas Cranmer and enhances this appeal for clemency with a delightful musical setting.

The additional soprano voice introduced by Purcell seemed to be taken up by the countertenors, including James Bowman, and probably David himself from the rostrum. The high tenor voices broke through impressively with "Neither take thou vengeance of our sins." The choir's amazing ability to sustain each note in consort was then demonstrated by the words, "but spare us good Lord . . . "

Then followed something much more intricate. The choir members changed places for Purcell's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, written for his later work 'Evening Service in G minor'

Blistering bass solo
Julian Rippon
Emma Perona-Wright and Judith Overcash now took on separate soprano lines, while James Bowman and Anselm Carr-Jones led the respective countertenor parts. Matthew Cann and Julian Rippon, two men used to singing on opposite sides of the Cathedral Choir, divided the bass parts between them.

Suddenly only three voices were active. James Bowman joined Julian and Ed for a gentle trio. Then there were two - as Emma and Judith sang in duet. The interplay between the singers was fascinating to watch as the choir took over, before making way for the micro-choir to sing once more.

At the very end Matt Cann's bass voice augmented the doxology, repeating the assertion of divine presence, "is now," three times before, "and ever shall be, world without end." The final, "Amen" got special treatment from the male voice trio of Julian, Edward and James.

Special Guest Soloist
James Bowman

The next item was, surprisingly, not by Henry Purcell. The words of John Donne's "A Hymne to God the Father" is a piece which was set to music by Purcell's predecessor Pelham Humfrey. Although Humfrey died (aged 27) when Purcell was 15, Purcell was greatly influenced by his work.

The Hymn is a solo song for countertenor, and an opportunity for James Bowman to demonstrate his vocal skill. Accompanied by David Davies playing the organ, he sang with his usual volume and precision.  (A performance which was well worth the price of admission in itself!)

Just before the interval the choir added a coda to the concert they performed to start the year
("The Life and Times of Mary I", 9 Feb 2013: details & review).

Male voice trio
Anselm Carr-Jones
Tenor: Michael Graham
Bass: Philip Arkwright
When Mary I died, her half-sister Elizabeth became Queen. Their father's great niece, Mary Stuart, would have succeeded Elizabeth but was executed in 1587 for plotting with Sir Anthony Babinton to assassinate the Queen. Mary Stuart's son James succeeded Elizabeth to the English Throne in 1603. Although his son, Charles I, was executed in 1649, and a commonwealth formed, his two grandsons, Charles II and James II, reigned from 1660 to 1688. James II was succeeded by his daughter Mary II - Mary I's first cousin (four times removed!)

Mary II and Henry Purcell were contemporaries. (Purcell was three years older.) When Mary died, aged only 32, it was Henry Purcell who composed the music for her funeral. The same music was used for Purcell's own funeral only a year later.

 . . . becomes a quartet    
Soprano: Josie Walledge
The opening march involves drums and trumpets - an arrangement that the Counterpoint Choir performed about eight years ago. This time, however, the trumpets and other instruments were provided by David Davies playing the Buckfast Abbey organ, and the words were sung a cappella.

Initially a male voice trio stood forward to sing, "Man is born of woman, hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery." Three new voices had their chance to shine. Countertenor Anselm Carr-Jones was joined by tenor Michael Graham and bass Philip Arkwright. For the telling line, "In the midst of life we are in death," a fourth angelic voice filled the Abbey with sweet sadness - soprano Josie Walledge. David Acres was using the vocal skills of the choir members to the full.

After the interval several other voice combinations were introduced. For the setting of Psalm  119, "Thy word is a lantern unto my feet," James Bowman reproduced his 1993 performance with tenor Charles Daniels and bass Michael George, recorded with the Choir of the King's Consort ("Henry Purcell, The Complete Anthems and Services, Volume 3": Hyperion - audio). This time the tenor and bass were Michael Graham and Matt Cann respectively.

Transatlantic duet
Soprano: Judith Overcash
Alto: James Bowman
In anticipation of St Cecilia's day, which was four weeks away, David Acres had prepared the choir in Purcell's "Jubilate in D major" (written just before Purcell died). This very complicated choral work was set about once again by David Davies' 'trumpets' from the organ. The first voice was that of James Bowman, "O be joyful in the Lord all ye lands." Later James was joined by soprano Judith Overcash in a beautiful duet, "We are his people and the sheep of his pasture."

Next an uncompleted fragment from Purcell's first years at Westminster. "Hear my prayer o Lord" from Psalm 102 was a chance to hear a new and different duet, sopranos Elle Williams and Denise Kehoe.

Michael Graham and Julian Rippon collaborated in another, very much completed, work from the same period. "Jehova quam multi sunt hostes mei?" (Jehovah, how many are my enemies?). Michael pronounced the immortal words, "At tu, Jehova, clypeus es circa me" (But you, Jehovah, are a shield around me), while Julian replied with, "Voce mea ad Jehovam clamanti, respondit mihi e monte sanctitatis suae maxime" (As my voice cried to Jehovah, he answered from the mountain of his holiness).

A unique combination
Bass: Philip Arkwright
Tenor: Ed Woodhouse
James Bowman
An evening of Purcell with James Bowman would not be complete without hearing James sing 'An Evening Hymn', the song with which he closed his farewell performance at Wigmore Hall in 2011. James also sang this song at the ceremony to confer on him the 'Fellowship of the Royal School of Church Music' at Exeter Cathedral the following year (details). On that occasion he was accompanied by David Davies playing a chamber organ.

With David Davies accompanying on the Buckfast Abbey organ, James gave yet another delightful solo performance of this moving and evocative chaconne. (listen)

Finally the choir accompanied James Bowman in another trio performance. This time he was joined by the Abbey Musical Director, Philip Arkwright, singing bass and the tenor voice of Edward Woodhouse.

With David Davies playing a perfect continuo the evening ended with the rousind "Rejoice in the Lord" (and again I say rejoice!) Those opening words also serve as the final climactic crescendo. An unforgettable ending.

In its various permutations, the new Counterpoint line-up has lived up to expectations. It was sad not to see or hear several familiar choir members. However, the exquisite results David Acres was able to achieve with just eighteen voices, fully justified the change in approach. Less really can be more!

Watch this space for further news of this week's Handel Vespers, not to mention choral music by Thomas Tallis, and 'The Glories of Spanish Polyphony' next year - all performed by the unique 'Counterpoint Choir'.

Musical Director David Acres joins
the Counterpoint Choir in applauding
James Bowman
Countertenor collaboration
James Bowman David Acres

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