Handel's Messiah at The Monastery, Gorton on Saturday 26 November 2011:
(with kind permission)
This performance of Handel's great choral masterpiece, premiered in Dublin in 1742, took place in one of the most unusual, sometime religious, environments I have come across in many years. Built by the Franciscan Order between 1863 and 1871, following their arrival in Manchester in 1861 to serve the local Catholic community, this magnificent Monastery building must have looked incongruous set within the east Manchester industrial slums of the time. It was built within a stone's throw of the Great Central Railway sheds and works, that of Beyer Peacock who supplied their unique design of railway engines to many countries in the world and Crossley Motors whose buses ferried the populace of many towns and cities to their places of work and pleasure. It was designed by Edward Pugin, whose father had been involved in designing the Houses of Parliament.
This magnificent former Monastery building fell into disrepair and was subject to vandalism in the 1980s. It was placed on the World Monuments Fund Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites in the World in 1997, alongside the likes of Pompeii, Macchu Picchu, the Valley of the Kings and the Taj Mahal. The Monastery is Grade II* listed and in the top 8% of buildings in England. It is well worth a visit if you get to this area. Following a 12-year fundraising campaign a total of £6.5m was raised enabling many of the original artefacts and decorative features to be rescued from auction and by good fortune. Although the restoration is not complete, a sense of the grandeur of the place can be gained by viewing the current range of activities via the series of pictures at the Home Page
The St George's Singers have presented two previous concerts in the Monastery performing the Monteverdi and Rachmaninov Vespers, but this was their first full-scale choral concert there. I have previously recounted something of the background and history of this outstanding amateur choir and with reference also to previous performances at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall. The Monastery with its high vaulted roof and solid, unadorned, walls, made for a somewhat unusual acoustic which was more on the dry side. This made hearing the superb articulation and diction of the choir
, prepared as always by Neil Taylor, a particular pleasure. Every one of Charles Jennings' words in the many choruses could be heard, savoured and enjoyed
, along with the unison singing and that of the choral parts. A special mention should be made of the men who, although outnumbered two to one by the sopranos and altos, were in particularly fine form. Their incisive attack, shared with their female counterparts, had a sonority that contrasted quite superbly.
The tangy gut strings of the Northern Baroque were heard to good effect throughout; they seemed to relish the acoustic whilst the solo trumpet thrilled in "The trumpet shall sound".
Unlike the Bridgewater Hall concerts presented by St George's, the soloists on this occasion had not yet embarked on the international circuit. Ruth Jenkins' warm but flexible light soprano was a delight, even if she could not quite match that ethereal lightness that long ago Mancunian, Isobel Bailie, brought to 'I know that my redeemer liveth'. Ruth has presence with a voice size and projection to match. Her alto colleague lacked something of both qualities, being somewhat underpowered and lacking in the lower voice. But then I have to admit that the days of the formidable contraltos of yesteryear, so common in the oratorio repertoire of the North West of England, seem long gone. I was grateful for her tuneful and sincere singing of the words.
Both men had strong well-projected voices. Marcus Farnsworth was more a bass-baritone than a true bass and although he had to reach for the odd low note his even vocal extension and clear diction were a delight. The tenor, Richard Dowling, who boasts a degree in Chemical Engineering and a PhD in a chemistry related subject, is only now studying music and voice full-time at the Royal Academy of Music. With power, projection and good diction allied to a pleasant tone, he will surely soon have to take important career decisions. Opera companies are always on the look out for tenors with strong well-projected voices. Here his heartfelt singing of the recitative 'Thy rebuke' was particularly notable and heavy with expressive meaning. The performers used the New Novello Choral Edition (Watkins Shaw).
St George's Singers will return to The Monastery on June 17th alongside the Fine Arts Brass Ensemble in a concert Vivat! Music for a Royal Occasion. Robert J Farr
ST JOHN PASSION
Bach's St John Passion at The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on Tuesday 19 April 2011:
|Manchester Evening NewsThe joint promotion by Manchester Camerata and St George's Singers of Bach's St John Passion at the Bridgewater Hall was not only a success at filling the building - it was also a great achievement in musical terms, under the expert hand of Nicholas Kraemer.
Borrowing good ideas from other quarters in staging the work, with the male solo singers on one side of the platform when 'in character' as Evangelist, Jesus Christ or Pontius Pilate, but moving to the other for the contemplative arias, and using lighting to focus on the chorus when necessary, it emphasised the near-theatrical quality which animates it.
The encounter between Jesus and Pilate - the latter excellently and alertly sung by Mark Stone - took on the atmosphere of
opera-in-concert, and Matthew Hargreaves' role as Christus had not only calm authority then, but an impression of the reality of agony as the crucifixion came to its end. The chorus - trained by Neil Taylor, who also played the chamber organ for the performance - were superb in those fugal interjections as Jesus is crowned with thorns and robed in purple before the hostile crowd.
There is much more to the St John Passion than drama, however, and (though the lighting effects did not always work perfectly and repositioning of performers on stage sometimes broke concentration) the contrasts of dynamic and colour obtained by Kraemer from his large army of singers and players - by today's canons of Bach practice - were remarkable and effective.
There was intimacy, too: I particularly admired Andrew Staples, not just for his fluid recitatives as Evangelist but for the quality of his aria singing, particularly in the meditation after the scourging.
The female leads were equally impressive. Julia Doyle the soprano, and Clare Wilkinson, who made the alto's Es Ist Vollbracht
a near-operatic scena.
And the soloists from the chorus - Jennie Smallwood, Andrew Charlton, Brian Marsden and Jonathan Gort - were highly effective also.
Impact hardly faltered in the course of the long evening, and Kraemer brought it all to a deeply moving conclusion, ending the final chorale with a surging crescendo of praise.
(with kind permission)
My recent review of the BBC Philharmonic's performance of Verdi's opera Otello, performed at the Bridgewater Hall three nights before this concert, began with the words 'what has gone round comes round again'. I was referring there to how the Hallé Concerts Society - back in in May 1968 - were able to mark Sir John Barbirolli's twenty five years with the orchestra by giving a concert performance of the same Verdi masterpiece. This time of course the event marked Gianandrea Noseda's farewell as the BBC Philharmonic's Musical Director after nearly ten years with the orchestra.
I might well have started with the same words in respect of this performance of Bach's first great masterpiece and its relationship with the St. George's Singers. They were founded as an amateur choir in 1956 and carry the name of the church where they started up in Poynton, a large village about fifteen miles to the south of Manchester, where they rehearse each week and perform from time to time. From the start, the choir had high aspirations and by 1958 they had grown sufficiently to perform Bach's St. John Passion, the same masterpiece they performed this evening. Currently the choir has a membership of over one hundred, and ninety of them gave yet another vibrant and committed performance of one of the great choral pieces. In the intervening fifty plus years between the two performances of the St. John's Passion the choir has become more aspirational with respect to what it does - and also where and with whom. In their aim to present the great choral masterpieces they have sought to hire the best soloists and perform in the most prestigious venues; in Manchester that means The Bridgewater Hall.
I first heard them in performing Elijah and later Bach's later St Matthew Passion (see review) and then his B Minor Mass (see review). It was evident to me from that time that the Manchester area was home to another truly great amateur choir comparable with that associated with the Hallé Orchestra.
The latter is able to perform without the worries of having to wholly finance its concerts with regard to venue and soloists to match its abilities. It was with interest that I noted that this performance was a joint venture with the specialist Manchester Camerata, the two organisations sharing the burden and, hopefully, the benefits, artistically and fiscally, of their combined support. The well-filled Bridgewater hall points to success in that field. Not to be ignored is the association with Nicholas Kraemer, a world-renowned baroque specialist working with Chorus Director Neil Taylor.If the LSO Chorus opened Verdi's Otello with strength and vibrancy on Saturday night, the St. George's Singers matched them in the opening Chorus Herr, unser Herrscher (Lord, our ruler). They maintained that high standard throughout the work, not merely in strength, but in verbal nuance and sensitivity, each section of the choir, whether in unison or counterpoint, articulating the words as well as the meaning, the concluding Chorale (Ah Lord, let your dear Angels) being particularly well contrasted in its plaintive appeal.
If the choral contribution is important to any success of this early Leipzig piece, even more so is the singing of the Evangelist who, along with the tenor solos, has the largest solo part in the story. I had not heard the tenor Andrew Staples before, but was immediately taken by the timbre of his voice in the Evangelist's opening recitative Jesus ging mit
(Jesus went with his disciples). His light flexible tenor moves between head voice and chest without a break to give a seamless integrated whole. An edge to his chest voice allows for expression and meaning and allied with his honeyed head voice and vocal characterization was the centerpiece of the evening. Matthew Hargreaves, tall and angular of stature and singing without a score, was an imposing Christus, his tone more covered than the strong-voiced Mark Stone as a dramatic Pilate. Both female soloists were of a similar high standard. Julia Doyle, singing in the high tessitura with an appealing purity, notably in the aria No. 35 (Dissolve my heart). Her alto counterpart, Clare Wilkinson, was sonorous and equally impressive in No. 30 (It is accomplished).
Nicholas Kraemer and the Manchester Camerata played an equally important part with the choir and the excellent soloists to give a memorable night for lovers of Bach's creation as we approach Easter.
Robert J Farr
Monteverdi's Vespers at Gorton Monastery on Saturday 20 March 2010:
Claudio Monteverdi's Vespers of 1610 is surely on the wish list of every choral singer and conductor, and as the large audience for St George's Singers' performance in Gorton Monastery on Saturday March 20th showed, there are many concert goers eager to hear this wondrous work. Maybe only Bach's B minor Mass or St Matthew Passion, Messiah, Elijah, the Verdi Requiem and The Dream of Gerontius have the same 'pulling power' for both choirs and their audiences. With its demanding multi-part choral writing, six vocal soloists, and dazzling instrumental accompaniment, it's a brave Choir that attempts the Monteverdi Vespers for both musical and logistical reasons. Let me say straight away that St George's performance was not an attempt - it was a triumph!
Almost any performance of the Vespers is a compromise. Monteverdi's instructions, for example as to pitch and instrumentation, aren't always clear. It isn't that long ago that many professional musicians would have struggled to play in an appropriate style, let alone with an appropriate sound. While we've come a long way since Nadia Boulanger reintroduced Monteverdi to the world in 1937 with a piano featuring in the accompaniments, finding good enough players with the right instruments is not easy.
The young players of Chetham's Baroque Orchestra, led by Yusuke Kinoshita, did wonders, making a lovely baroque sound along with the sensitive continuo of Arngeir Hauksson and Jeffrey Makison on theorbo and chamber organ. There were authentic sackbuts, while it is of course better to have well tuned oboes than unavailable (or wayward!) cornetts. When heard alone in the ritornelli, the orchestra really shone, and one could easily forget that all the players are still at school.
The soloists, Clare Lloyd, Amy Wood, Peter Davoren, Richard Dowling, Marcus Farnsworth and Jonny Herford were all fine singers, well balanced but with distinctive voices - very important when there are pairs of sopranos, tenors and baritones. The four men blended beautifully when singing the plainchant. While any one of them could have made sufficient sound on his own, it gave a real feeling of monks at their devotions. It was a very nice touch for solo singers sometimes to stand next to the theorbo, when the building, beautiful though it is, and in many ways an ideal venue for such a piece, has no transepts and alcoves for different groups of performers, such as Monteverdi probably envisaged. It's a pity the building didn’t allow the 'echo' soloists, even when behind the choir, to sound more distant. Personally, I would have liked the lights illuminating the audience to have been dimmed or even extinguished!
While soloists and orchestra only arrive at the last moment, for the choir, the performance is the culmination of many weeks of intensive rehearsal. St George's Singers is a large choir, far larger than would have been used in contemporary or many modern performances of the Vespers. The acoustic in Gorton Monastery seems to magnify voices while muting instruments, and baroque instruments are quieter anyway. While the details of orchestration were rendered almost inaudible in all but the quieter and more sparsely scored numbers, we could revel in a gloriously full and beautifully tuned choral sound. No one would wish to deny the Poynton choir its sonorous fortes, the balance between vocal parts was good even if the men sometimes predominated, and the tuning was impeccable. Contrapuntal entries were reassuringly clear from such a large group in such a reverberant acoustic, while the unison lines of sopranos and tenors were beautifully blended.
Neil Taylor had prepared the Choir to a very high standard, and he held the performance together with sensible tempi and a clear beat. This is a work that keeps our interest with frequent changes of tempo and rhythm even within a single movement that can create real difficulties for less well rehearsed and disciplined forces. This was a concert that was inspiring to both performers and audience: one to be savoured and remembered for a very long time.
MASS IN BLUE
Will Todd's Mass in Blue at The Royal Northern College of Music on Sunday 8 November 2009:
(with kind permission)
I have extolled the virtues of the St. George's Singers in the great choral classics such as Bach's B Minor Mass
and St. Matthew Passion
. This time the choir tackled a recently composed work in the jazz genre, which whilst new to me, was such a rare kind of event for a group who sang Ellington's Sacred Concert
in 2006. However, I hardly expected a jazz version of the Latin mass, but then that's my limitation, since it seems that in contemporary church worship almost anything goes musically, particularly in the Evangelical wing. Will Todd's Mass in Blue was premiered in 2003 and has received over twenty performances in the UK as well as others in Europe and the USA.
Born in 1970, Will Todd is already a prolific composer. Well versed in composing for the musical theatre and choral forces, he has worked with the Hallé Orchestra, who have recorded his oratorio Saint Cuthbert. He has also worked with The Sixteen, the BBC Singers and smaller opera companies including Welsh National Opera Max whilst his opera The Blackened Man, which won first prize at the 2002 International Verdi Competition, was performed at the Buxton Festival in 2004. Mass in Blue is set in the standard six parts with the Credo being reprised in the Benedictus and despite the reprise, at little over the half hour it's a relatively short work. So, although this concert was owned, if that is the right word, by the St George's Singers, the concert's first half involved the RNCM Jazz Collective and also gave the audience the benefit of hearing Tina May sing some jazz classics with the Collective’s backing before talking aboute demanding solo part in the Mass.
The RNCM Jazz Collective largely comprises of new undergraduates strengthened by one or two more experienced players. In the first half, when they played eight jazz classics including Koko by Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie's A Night in Tunisia, the band comprised four trumpets and trombones, a front desk of five saxophones, four of them women, along with drums double bass and piano. What struck me most was the sheer enjoyment of the Collective's membership in making their music, as well as their obvious skills. Many of them are eighteen and nineteen year olds, yet to benefit extensively from the specialist teaching within the College. This is a pleasing indication that music and instrumental teaching in UK schools is somehow managing to survive the constraints of the National Curriculum and budget cuts, although equal amounts of parental support are doubtless required too.
The Jazz Collective was prepared and conducted by the saxophonist Mike Hall, who along with a flourishing performing career, heads up the jazz studies department at the College as well being tutor in jazz saxophone and teaching improvisation, theory, history and directing the RNCM Big Band. The Collective's performance, with some members changed for the Mass, was of a very good standard indeed, with rhythmic vitality and instrumental verve being the order of the day.
Tina May, who has sung all over the world, started off with the Peggy Lee favourite The Folks who Live on the Hill, following with Johnny Mercer's Autumn Leaves - in French as to the manner born - and concluding with Kansas City Blues. By the end of her virtuoso performance, her strong mezzo-ish voice, with its free top extension, left the audience in no doubts about her capacity to deal with whatever Will Todd's version of the Mass had in store.
After that first half with the silent St. George's Singers sitting behind, and a full Concert Hall in front, the second half's involvement of the choir in the Mass was eagerly anticipated. The Kyrie opened with piano, bass and drums with the choir's altos and then the men in counterpoint joining in before the full choir gave it their all - as they needed to do when the brass was a little strident and the soloist came in to ride the vibrant beat. In the Gloria, the sound of the full choir and the beat was viscerally exciting
after which Tina May sang out strongly across her extensive vocal range in the very jazzy Credo. We all needed a breather at that point and it was as well that the Sanctus began quietly with bass, piano and small drums before a solo clarinet led the choir into a particularly expressively sung section with a solo flute soaring above the choral phrases; a quite magical musical effect
. The vocal solo for the Benedictus was like a song without words as Tina May's voice soared on and above the melody; I was very much reminded of Carmina Burana at this point. The Agnus Dei and its Credo reprise, with the latter's phrases from the soloist echoing from the choir, concluded the evening except for the extensive applause and the introduction of the composer who had been present in the audience.
St George's Singers, now under the direction of Neil Taylor, Organist and Musical Director of Sheffield Cathedral and regular broadcaster, lacked none of the quality that so distinguishes their work in the classic oratorios. As a non-singer, I would hazard that the demands on the choir in this piece were as arduous as anything in the classic repertoire and I am pleased to report that they were fully up to all of them, a fine reflection of Neil Taylor's work
on rehearsal nights and elsewhere.
The St George's Singers' schedule over the next few months starts with Carols and Brass by Candlelight, including extracts from Messiah, at their headquarters at St. George’s Church, Buxton Road, Stockport, on December 5th. Then they sing Monteverdi's Vespers with a Baroque Orchestra and soloists at The Monastery, Gorton, Manchester on March 20th and German Masterworks including choral works by Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn back in Stockport on 26th June.
Robert J Farr
Bach's B Minor Mass at The Bridgewater Hall on Saturday 22 June 2008:
|Manchester Evening News
Bach's Mass in B minor is a challenge for any choral society which offers it in concert, and it's a sign of the fact that St George's Singers' new musical director, Neil Taylor, is aiming every bit as high as his predecessor - if not higher - that this was chosen for their first concert together in the Bridgewater Hall.The way they handled the complex choral writing, whether in four, five, or eight parts, producing a mellow, balanced sound every time, is a tribute to the qualities of the choir's members and the skill at work in their training
There could have been a temptation to go for the big, dramatic effect beloved of choirmasters of an earlier generation in passages like the opening slow Kyrie Eleison
or the beginning of the Sanctus
, and Neil Taylor was obviously not unaware of the possibilities there, for he had them sing those straight at their audience from memory rather than reading from their books.
But there was no forcing in the singing there or anywhere else: instead a transparent sound which demonstrated how well the choristers knew their notes
Occasional thinness on the top soprano notes is hardly to be wondered at in Bach's writing (which sometimes seems designed more for the choirs of heaven he probably imagined in his head than mere mortals here below), and the earthy St George's basses give the sound an attractive humanity.
The soloists' team was distinguished by the purity of Nancy Argenta's soprano (particularly in the Laudamus Te) and the versatile, richly coloured mezzo of Rebecca Outram.
Michael George's bass was - as ever - intense and expressive, and Mark Wilde gently mellifluous in the tenor solos. The singer with the greatest impact, however, was counter-tenor Tim Mead, taking the place of the originally advertised (and his one-time teacher) Robin Blaze. This was singing of individuality and thoughtfulness - witness his Qui Sedes
Manchester Camerata, led by Richard Howarth, provided the accompaniment with distinction (and just the odd hiccup in the continuo) - especially in some glorious solos from Rachael Clegg (oboe d'amore) and Amina Hussain (flute).
The trumpet team and Diane Harper's horn provided many touches of resounding splendour.
(with kind permission)
It was as recently as 2004 that I first experienced the work of St. George’s Singers when, after advice from a member of the group, I tore myself away from my usual lot of reviewing live and recorded opera performances. On that occasion the choir, together with a prestigious quartet of soloists were performing Mendelssohn’s Elijah. It was a memorable evening, not merely for the quality of the solo singing, but more particularly for the contribution of St George’s.
My normal ventures outside the standard operatic fare rarely stretched beyond going to hear small choral groups and Verdi’s Requiem performed by the Hallé Orchestra and Choir and I was astounded by the quality of the St. George’s Singers. The group was founded in 1956 and carries the name of the founding church in Poynton, to the south of Manchester. The Singers have an active membership in excess of one hundred and twenty. Entry is by audition and currently there are no vacancies for altos and a desperate need for tenors. The choir rehearse in the same church each Tuesday under their Musical Director Neil Taylor and this Bach Mass was his first Bridgewater assignment in charge. (My colleague Ray Walker reviewed the choir’s performance of Haydn’s Creation under his direction at the Royal Northern College of Music last year. See review
By 1958 the choir had grown sufficiently to perform Bach’s St. John’s Passion. Their tradition of touring has taken in destinations such as Krakow, Helsinki, Tallin and, more recently, Dublin. In the best tradition of North of England amateur choirs, the members have to raise the money for such tours. Also, as with this concert, they are responsible for hiring of the Hall, employment of soloists and orchestra. In my assessment of their performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (see review
) I suggested that the efforts, commitment and quality of St. George’s Singers is such that they can stand at least alongside the Hallé Choir as the North West’s leading choral ensemble. Their singing in this performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass confirmed me in this view.
Their fame has spread more widely than the North West and earlier this year they were invited to take part in a prestigious project involving Paul McCreesh, members of his Gabrieli Consort, in three performances of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, at Chester and Manchester Cathedrals and St George’s Chapel, Windsor. It is typical of the involvement and commitment of members of the group that despite the Windsor performance being only a day before their own of Rachmaninov’s Vespers at Gorton Monastery, they made the journey to Windsor. The performance at Gorton Monastery was so successful, demand for tickets far outstripping supply the first time round, that they will be repeating it in September.
Verdi’s Requiem is often cynically referred to as his best opera and for the Libera Me
he used the music he had composed for a tribute to Rossini which didn’t come to fruition at the time. Bach, operating in the Lutheran Protestant tradition wrote his Latin Mass towards the end of his life, drawing together music he had composed earlier. Scholars reckon they can determine the various musical traditions he passed through but, be that as it may, the final product of the B Minor Mass is widely recognised as presenting the Everest of challenges for choral performers. It was a challenge that St. George’s were well up to, singing with vibrancy, excellent articulation and a wealth of expression
. If in the Kyrie
Neil Taylor did not quite get the balance between his female voices and his men quite right, the ladies being far too strong, it was more than well corrected in the Confiteor unum
when even an undernourished tenor section (and which amateur choir has a full complement?) gave their all to tuneful and dramatic effect. When singing full out as in the Osanna in excelsis
and elsewhere the choir were overwhelming in their dramatic effect, never losing tone, cohesion or meaningful expression
For them it was another good night and for Neil Taylor a very successful initiation into one of St. George’s big nights at The Bridgewater. The Manchester Camerata orchestra played a full part in the success with notable contribution from the oboes in their support of the bass soloist in his second solo Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum
When a choir set out their stall employing soloists of international reputation there is always a tingle of anticipation, which is not always fulfilled as it was here. The good news was the singing of the countertenor Tim Mead who stepped in at the last moment after Robin Blaze, his teacher, withdrew. Mead is well known in his own right and his performance was a tower of strength, with clear diction and a wide variety of colour in the Agnus Dei
following on from his excellent rending of Et in unum
where he was joined by the tall and elegant Rebecca Outram whose voice soared up into the Hall.
Regrettably, her co-soprano, Canadian Nancy Argenta, who came with the biggest reputation, was a serious disappointment. Her voice was tight and altogether restricted. She never once let it open up and soar in the same way as her soprano colleague. The bass Michael George sang with sonority and good diction in both Quoniam tu solis
and Et in Spiritum Sanctum
without really imposing himself. Mark Wilde was rather tight at the top of the voice and did not really convey the spirit of what he was singing.
The programme quoted HansGeorg Nägeli’s view of Bach’s B Minor Mass as "The greatest musical work of art of all times and of all nations". Maybe. It is certainly one of the greatest of challenges that can face a professional choir let alone an amateur group. The fact that it is not often performed is a reflection of that reality, and when it is heard these days it is often with period instruments and a small professional choir. Neil Taylor and St. George’s are to be congratulated on tackling this highest of mountains and rising to the challenge so successfully
. I won’t bet on another opportunity of hearing it performed again in the near future, and if I do I will be very fortunate if it is up to the standard of this performance.
Robert J Farr
Haydn's The Creation at The Royal Northern College of Music on Saturday 24 March 2007:
(with kind permission)
The St. George's Singers have been in existence for fifty years and judging by this performance their tradition and professionalism could easily allow their popularity to stretch for another fifty. Based in Poynton near Hazel Grove, Cheshire, a fertile area that rises up to Lyme Hall and the Pennines beyond, they regularly provide a tight annual programme that has taken them touring on the continent. Under their new conductor, Neil Taylor, the quality of singing by over 100 voices is very fine
and on a par with the Hallé Choir. This fact was particularly true for this vibrant performance.
Declared a masterpiece, Haydn's 'The Creation' has always been popular since the composer's creative energy combines music as an art form with music in a form that conveys romantic expression. It was Haydn's aim to transcend his audience’s earthly emotions to a higher spiritual plain with an experience heaven-sent. Haydn's inventiveness with orchestral texture and effects were revolutionary at the time and apparently, in an outstanding concert performance of 1801, lost none of the charm when played by only nine musicians. This performance used Novello's new edition of the work, which improves on its original and imperfect German translation. The 40 strong Manchester Camerata (leader Martin Clark) did full justice to the score under Neil Taylor's baton. The orchestra's configuration was of double woodwind (3 flutes in fact), double horn, trumpet and trombone and usual complement of strings. A harpsichord continuo led the narratives.
Leading the choir were a fine pedigree of confident soloists: Rachel Nicholls, Richard Edgar-Wilson and Matthew Brook. Rachel Nicholls is a confident singer with powerful voice (and mezzo undertones to her soprano) whose fine breath control successfully fills out wide phrasing. Her aria, With verdure clad
was well paced, and the Mozartian Most beautiful appear
was utterly delightful.
In the second part, I felt her voice rather strong in the trio, On thee each living soul awaits
as it tended to mask the others. Richard Edgar-Wilson is a light tenor with good clarity and has good focus and pace. His aria, In native worth and honour clad
was particularly well sung and held the audience's attention. Of these soloists, the one that brought colour as well as delicate humour to the oratorio was Matthew Brook, a velvety resonant bass. He is given the monotonous task of carrying most of the narration, yet he did so with such good dynamics (from pp
) that attention on him was accentuated. With good diction, he injected good amusement to Straight opening her fertile womb
where a description of 'ble-e-ating sheep and hosts of insects' heightened enjoyment of the performance for everyone concerned. His aria, Now heaven in fullest glory shone
, preceded by a charming tone-poem pastorale was delightful. Here was a memorable moment with its catchy flute melody and strong rhythm. As found in other parts of the oratorio, Haydn sometimes sets up a dialogue with a delicate wind melody line echoed by the strings that is quite engaging. The duet for Adam and Eve (Graceful consort
) was magnificently delivered in the lighter setting Haydn devised to represent these innocent characters.
In the vocal score the editor has marked a speed of 108 for a quaver and the Introduction sounded slow and laboured if this speed was adhered to. However, the confidence of the orchestra built up admirably after the opening 25 bars of Representation of Chaos
. Throughout the whole oratorio, Neil Taylor sustained good control of both orchestral and vocal forces, and managed to provide some fine moments in the finales of both parts. The choir was well-rehearsed and strong in voice (as one might imagine 100 voices might be). It brought added depth to the piece and delivered wide-ranging dynamics with a nice balance preserved in pianissimo
sections. The tenors, although not altogether swamped, might have benefited from added strength of numbers in forte
This performance at the Royal Northern College of Music was well attended, and deservedly so as an appreciative audience demonstrated.
Raymond J Walker
A NIGHT AT THE GRAND OPERA
Supporting Manchester Camerata in their concert A Night at the Grand Opera at The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on Sunday 31st December 2006:
Extracts from a review of New Year Concerts in the Manchester Evening News
...The most expensive concert of the year-end (probably most expensive of the whole year) was the Camerata's New Year's Eve 'Night at the Grand Opera'.
An augmented orchestra here invites two soloists, St George's Singers as the precise and responsive chorus
and a presenter to join it, and Stephanie Hughes is (thank goodness) one to do the introductions who knows her stuff and can pronounce the Italian properly. ...
Stuart Stratford chose to end New Year's Eve (except for the Brindisi
from La Traviata, the inevitable encore to include all forces) with the finale of Bernstein's Candide
, a relative rarity which demonstrated the quality of St George's Singers' a capella sound
in its introduction. ...
(The full review can be read here
The Wilmslow ExpressNight at the opera is the perfect new year treat
There can be no more perfect way to bring the old year to a close than enjoying a night at the grand opera - courtesy of Manchester Camerata at the Bridgewater Hall.
A delightful programme, introduced by BBC Radio Three presenter Stephanie Hughes, transported the audience through some of the most familiar and most stirring offerings from the maestros of opera such as Verdi, Bizet and Puccini.
Conducted by Stuart Stratford, the musicians of Manchester Camerata were in sparkling form.
They were joined on stage by soprano Linda Richardson, a last minute replacement for Alison Roddy who was indisposed. She stepped into the role with great aplomb - especially with her sparkling performance of the Puccini aria Quando m'en vo
from La Bohème. She was perfect as the vivacious, flirtatious Musetta.
Tenor Wynne Davies, who is a principal with Welsh National Opera, proved himself to be a singer with great passion as well as a wonderful voice. He brought a tear to the eye with his solo numbers, especially the Flower Song
from Carmen and Her Tiny Hand is Frozen
from La Bohème.
But this was an evening about the whole opera experience and it would not have been complete without some famous grand opera chorus numbers, sung superbly by our own locally based St George's Singers from Poynton
This marvellous choir has gone from strength to strength since its formation in 1956 and it regularly shares the stage with musical luminaries including, at two recent but very different events, Sir Willard White and Jacqui Dankworth.
On this occasion they put heart and soul into the famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves
from Nabucco, the Anvil Chorus
from Il Trovatore and the hauntingly beautiful Humming Chorus
from Madama Butterfly.
This New Year's Eve concert has become justly popular with audiences over the several years since it first started and what a treat it is to end the year with such a feast of music - and still have plenty of time to crack open the champagne for the coming year. Bravo!
DUKE ELLINGTON'S SACRED CONCERT
Duke Ellington's Sacred Concert at Manchester Cathedral on Saturday 24 June 2006:
|‘Blue Light’, the Newsletter of the Duke Ellington Society (UK)
(with kind permission)
The first news that Manchester Jazz Society had of this performance came from one of our members, Kath Whale. Being a retired medic., she had her finger on the pulse. Then our secretary Peter Caswell sprang into action, contacted the website, and we were soon in possession of a great wad of elegantly designed flyers which members took away to pass around to the enlightened. We were excited by the names of Ellington and Jacqui Dankworth, but of the St George's Singers and the Big Buzzard Boogie Band we knew nothing. The number of tickets to be sold was 800. They didn't expect to sell out, so it was 'turn up on the night and pay at the door'. As a retired jazz promoter I know that feeling!
The evening of the performance was warm and balmy, the end of a hot summer's day. We joined the crowds of people heading for the Cathedral - ticket numbers 762-3 - phew! We only just got in!
Time to scan the programme. The St George's Singers have 50 years of performing works from Bach and Britten to Flanders and Swann under their belt. The concert, a climax to their jubilee season, was the Manchester première of Duke Ellington's Sacred Concert. It was also the last performance under the baton of their Director for the last ten years, Stephen Williams. They are based at St George's Church, Poynton, Cheshire, where they rehearse each week.
The Big Buzzard Boogie Band is the brainchild of Andy Williamson, a man with an amalgam of musical experience who has settled presently for an elastic-sided jive band format, depending on the gig. They are based in the south of England and you may well run them to earth in London's 100 Club. Jacqui Dankworth needs little introduction - daughter of famous parents, actress and singer in many facets of music.
This version of the Sacred Concert has become part of the repertoire of the BBBB. They have performed it at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and also for some BBC broadcasts. The score is known as the Høybe/Pederson version. After Ellington's death it became usual for presenters to select pieces from the three Concerts, depending on the circumstances, musicians and singers available. I quote from the programme notes:-
'In 1993 John Høybe was asked to lead a large international workshop on Ellington's Sacred Concerts. As no score was available, he decided to arrange the music along with Peder Pederson and to have a complete score including orchestral parts and choral arrangements published. In the original version the choir mostly sang in unison and had a somewhat minor role, partly because the touring composer had a very limited time to rehearse with the successive local choirs. Furthermore, Ellington was not nearly as familiar with the choir as he was with the orchestra. In the Høybe/Pederson version of the score, which St George's Singers are using tonight, the choir and the band are equals - perhaps even with a slight emphasis on the choir. As the new version consists of material from all three concerts, it is simply called The Sacred Concert.'
The concert begins and Andy Williamson leads the 11-piece Big Buzzard Boogie Band out. Unhappily cathedrals are usually fine for listening but not often for seeing, due to pillars, etc. We could see that the leader was wearing a hat, for which he apologized to the Lord and to those assembled, explaining that it was necessary to keep his great unruly mop of hair in order. They kicked in with The Preacher
, then One O’Clock Jump
, Stompin’ At The Savoy
, all good old good ones suitable for a mixed audience of jazzers and non-jazzers. After Mambo Mintz
, Jumpin’ At The Woodside
and Over The Rainbow
the band was augmented by musicians associated with the Royal Northern College of Music, including the director of their Big Band, Mike Hall, on tenor. At this point Jacqui came on with her trio led by pianist Zoe Rahman. Using an arrangement by her father, she sang If I Were a Bell
from Guys and Dolls, and then Teach Me Tonight
. Next, with just the trio, came But Beautiful
and finally with the band, September In The Rain
. To finish up the set, the BBBB had us not jiving in the aisles but jigging in the pews to a spot of Louis Jordan. A happy and satisfying set; Jacqui has a lovely voice and there are nuances of her mother - or maybe it’s my imagination?
Now to the second half and the serious business of the evening. With the choir already in situ their conductor Stephen Williams was warmly welcomed. They began with Praise God
and the impact of their voices in the fine acoustics of the building was simply stunning
. As I listened the words that came to mind were ‘coffee and cream’. I was transfixed. Next came Heaven
, featuring Jacqui with very much her own voicing, and beautiful it was too. Then Freedom Suite
with the choir and some terrific solos from the musicians, Zoe Rahman on piano and I think (I couldn’t see!) Nick Yates trumpet and a tenor who was hidden behind a pillar. Also included were The Majesty of God
(Jacqui, choir and band) Come Sunday
and David Danced Before The Lord…
(all), Almighty God
(choir), My Love
(Jacqui) and Praise God And Dance
. The reception was rapturous and deservedly so
. I reflected that, as this was the choir’s last performance with Stephen Williams, it had been the most wonderful parting gift he could have wished for. With the band and Jacqui they made a most ‘joyful noise unto the Lord’ which would have warmed Duke Ellington’s heart.
Bach's St Matthew Passion at The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on Sunday 19 March 2006:
|Manchester Evening News
The highlight of an exciting jubilee season for St George's Singers, Poynton, last night's performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion, conducted by Stephen Williams, was also a musical triumph and a profound experience for listeners in the packed Bridgewater Hall
The line-up included James Gilchrist, as the Evangelist, who is in demand over the world for such roles - to hear his tone, diction, sense of drama and emotion is to know why. Christopher Purves brought nobility and humanity to the role of Jesus, which I found very moving. Joanne Lunn and Alexandra Gibson, as the chief female soloists in a line-up, hardly to be faulted, contributed purity of tone.
The whole presentation, in English, was designed to communicate, and the musical resources provided by the Manchester Camerata and choristers of Manchester Cathedral Choir combined with the confident and awesomely versatile chorus
to deliver it. It will surely be remembered as one of the greatest achievements of a remarkable 50 years.
(with kind permission)
The St. George's Singers were founded in 1956 and take their name from the founding church in Poynton, a large village about fifteen miles to the south of Manchester. The choir rehearse in the same church each Tuesday under the direction of Stephen Williams, their Musical Director who took over eight years ago, and by 1958 they had grown sufficiently to perform Bach's St. John Passion. They tour every year with recent destinations including Krakow, Helsinki and Tallinn.
In the best tradition of North of England amateur choirs the members, now numbering around one hundred and twenty, have to raise the money for their tours and for the likes of the Sunday night concert under review. The result of that commitment and effort is that the choir now stands alongside the Hallé Choir as the North West's leading ensemble
. However, whereas the Hallé performs with its orchestra, who fund the soloists, St George's has to provide both for its major performances. It is a measure of their reputation that in November 2004 the soloists in Mendelssohn's Elijah were Sir Willard White, Mark Padmore, Sarah Fulgoni and Mary Plazas. Since it was Mendelssohn who did so much to revive Bach's St. Matthew Passion (composed during Bach's tenure as Kantor in Leipzig where he wrote the work for double choir and presented it on Good Friday 1727 in the Thomaskirche) it was good to see the Bridgewater Hall full once again for the significantly harder work.
The St. Matthew Passion is scored for two choirs and two orchestras. At the original performances, lofts on opposite sides of the church allowed the choristers to face each other. This was not attempted in the Bridgewater Hall, the one hundred and ten choir sat in rows, men behind the women and not quite matching them in number. The Evangelist, sung by the renowned specialist James Gilchrist was seated behind the orchestra, next to the first keyboard. Christ, sung by Christopher Purves, sat at the front next to the conductor's podium. The other soloists walked from a side position to make their contributions before returning to their seats. The only drawback of this arrangement was the sound of shoes of the walking soloists.
The work is long at over two and a half hours and in the original performances in the Lutheran Church, the two halves would have been divided by a sermon. Here the audience had a comfort break, an appropriate intermission separating the distinctly different moods of the work's two halves. In Part One the mood is softer with the orchestra having melody and solo items to feast on. Part Two, describing the trial and crucifixion of Christ, is much more dramatic and the dramatic impact of the music was enhanced by the lowering of the lights at Jesus' point of death in this performance.
As Christus, Christopher Purves, who also sings a fair amount of opera, took a little time to find his legato but once having done so, he sang with musicality and a wide range of expression. Of particular note was his soft singing in Go to such a man in the city
. As the Evangelist, James Gilchrist carries the greatest vocal burden and his clarity, again after a little settling, was marked by vocal dynamism and range going to a heady top note at the end of And immediately the cock crew
. Joanne Lunn sang the soprano part: the high tessitura does not allow for ideal clarity of words nor does a vibrato-less voice lend for expression. None the less, tall and imposing, she was able to inflect her words with meaning. The same was true of Alexandra Gibson, nominally a contralto but with a timbre somewhat higher. The two ladies sang in perfect unison in Behold my saviour now is taken
as they alternated with the chorus. Andrew Foster-Williams with his lean bass was distinguished in The saviour, low before His Father bending
, his timbre being distinctly different from the appropriately sonorous and steady bass tone of Dean Robinson as Pilate. This essential difference of timbre in the same vocal register was also to be heard in the young tenor Robert Murray's singing which contrasted nicely with James Gilchrist's Evangelist. Murray is a Covent Garden Young Artist who sings with elegant phrasing and he should have a good future in both fields of opera and oratorio. The other solo parts in this performance were adequately taken by members of the choir.
Vital though the quality of the soloists may be, it is the quality of the choir's contribution that makes, or otherwise, a performance of this particular rendering of the Passion story. I am particularly pleased to report that the standards I admired so much in the performance of Elijah were fully maintained. The sonority of the singing was impressive as was the clarity of diction.
Every word was clearly enunciated and could be followed without the aid of the programme print. Most important though, was the group's ability to convey the accuracy of Bach's writing in Part Two where Bach's demands for dramatic inflection and bite are quickly followed by contrasting soft singing and fine legato.
Such performing quality comes only as a consequence of proper preparation and plenty of rehearsal under Stephen Williams' leadership. His conducting was well paced and drew excellent playing from the Manchester Camerata and the various orchestra soloists in their individual contributions.
There are few opportunities to hear this seminal work and Manchester was privileged to hear such a fine rendering. All concerned can be justifiably proud of the achievement and I was particularly pleased to see Mancunians giving the work and the St George's Singers their full support at the box office.
Robert J. Farr
Mendelssohn's Elijah at the The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on Sunday 28 November 2004:
|Manchester Evening News
St George's Singers of Poynton staked a weighty claim as the most enterprising choral society in the north west with last night's Elijah at the BWH.
A starry line up of soloists joined them under Stephen Williams' direction. Sir Willard White, in the title role, gave it that declamatory passion which is his trademark and fits the role of the righteous prophet ideally. Mark Padmore, tenor, is if anything more sought after, for his peerless diction and purity of tone, in sacred music.
Mary Plazas, soprano, and Sara Fulgoni, contralto, brought their classy operatic skills - the latter relishing her episode as Jezebel even a little more than angelic purity. But it was the superbly drilled massed voices of the chorus which made the performance.
Manchester Camerata provided (with limited string numbers) an acceptable accompaniment, not always quite in sync with the voices, and Darius Battiwalla's rendering of the organ part made a rich and, on occasion, stunning contribution.