Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Starling Octet: A Spectacular Modern Mass Choral Music by Eight 20th Century Composers Pinhoe Parish Church Friday 11 July 2014

The Starling Octet
Soprano: Zoë Fitzsimmons & Mary O'Shea
Alto: Sarah Pennington & Marion Wood
Tenor: Ben Pennington & Tim Hampshire
Bass: Neville Gibbings & Malcolm Field
Church of St Michael & All Angels, Pinhoe
Friday 11 July

As the harvest moon rose over Pinhoe Parish Church last night, eight singers who have come to be known as "The Starling Octet", performed an extraordinary a capella mass in last rays of the setting sun.

Each section of this very modern Eucharist had been composed by a different modern musician. The music opened with "A Child's Prayer" by James MacMillan. Bass Neville Gibbings explained the tragic history of this piece - James wrote the music in memory of the sixteen schoolchildren and their teacher, murdered at Dunblane Primary School in 1996, by a disaffected former (barred) scoutmaster.

Neville's explanation set the sombre tone for the octet's introit, sung from the back of the nave.

The subsequent mass began with a sense of fresh hope. From the front of the chancel the choir burst into vigorous song with the Kyrie from Edmund Rubbra's first Catholic Mass, composed following his conversion in 1948.

In a perfectly blended combination of eight voices, the familiar voices rang out - Zoë Fitzsimmons and Mary O'Shea's stratospheric soprano voices cushioned by the mellow alto harmonies of Sarah Pennington and Marion Wood.

Marion conducted as well as singing, but explained later that she is not the musical director. Sarah's nephew, Ben Pennington, takes that credit - and also sings tenor with new octet member Tim Hampshire. Tim took over from Richard Mitchell at the Starling Octet's last outing (Madrigali) in Bradninch.

Richard, Tim's fellow chorister at Buckfast Abbey, is taking time out - to pursue a career as a racing driver! Richard was, in fact one of the octet's basses. Neville Gibbings, who previously sang tenor with Ben, has moved down in pitch to sing with regular Starling bass, Malcolm Field. (I hope that is all quite clear.)

To hear what the combination sounds like try this "MixCloud" upoad of the live recording of the Starling Octet singing Rubbra's Kyrie at Pinhoe on Friday. There will be more of this concert uploaded soon - and included in the regular Tuesday morning "Classical Journey" on Exeter's community radio station, Phonic FM.

Edmund Rubbra is already familiar to Classical Journey regulars. He was music tutor to Exmouth composer and pianist Josephine Pickering at Oxford University, and is also the father of Drewsteignton artist, Benedict Rubbra.

Six more composers need to be mentioned. Each section was from a different mass, and often contrasting interestingly with the ones before and after.

Richard Rodney Bennet: Gloria

Frank Martin: Credo
Francis Poulenc: Sanctus
Leonard Bernsten: Benedictus
Samuel Barber: Agnus Dei
James MacMillan: Ite Missa Est
Gustav Holst: Nunc Dimittis

The masses, from which the respective sections was taken, each had a distinctive history and musical flavour. The singers took turns to deliver a fascinating explanation of the music to come. Marion even led the octet in a detailed advance demonstration of the final eight bars of Poulenc's Sanctus, so that the audience would catch every subtle nuance when the time came.

Martin's Credo had the interesting distinction of being written for two four voice choirs. Confusion reigned briefly as the singers, dazzled by the setting sun, struggled to change positions in the confined space in front of the rood-screen. However, this did not detract from the engaging intensity of the music that followed.

Fortunately the Sanctus did not start until after a 20 minute interval (during which the audience were fêted with food and wine (or soft drinks) in the adjoining church hall . Needless to say, the choir were "all back in order when the teacher got back".

Among all the fascinating, unfamiliar, music was one piece which was instantly recognisable. Even without Marion's very informative introduction, Barber's "Adagio for Strings" would have been impossible to miss - included in the octet's mass as Barber's 1967 arrangement for voices, the Agnus Dei. (The adagio was imprinted on the minds of a generation 20 years later as the soundtrack of Oliver Stone's Vietnam war movie "Platoon".)

Friendly, fun, informative and impressively musical, this new programme from the Starling Octet maintains their already well-established reputation for very special musical gatherings. More are planned for the future. Details will appear on the "Classical Journey" radio programme and blogs, and news hot from the press can be found on the Starling Octet Facebook Page.

Ευχαριστούμε - until next time

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