10th December 2016 - St John's Church
It is exactly what it says in all respects – yet again the Alresford Community Choir has excelled in a marvellous programme devised and conducted by their inestimable director, Keith Clark, to produce an evening of sheer delight appealing to young and old alike. It is a wonderful showcase for the very varied talents of the Choir to share their journey over the past five years from motley bunch drawn from far and wide to give us polished and consistently excellent choral performances for our and their obvious pleasure.
Right from the start we knew we could anticipate an evening of contrasts, and their first chord of Peter Warlock’s extremely difficult harmonies in ‘Bethlehem Down’, unaccompanied, exposed a trace of understandable opening nerves, but they soon got into order and the exposed harmonies were soon displaying a sensitive and sympathetic accomplishment with the tenors improving in confidence with every verse.
Suddenly it was the audience’s first attempt to join in with Charles Wesley’s ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ to David Wilcock’s well-known arrangement of Felix Mendelssohn’s tune, and the proper original words too! This was followed by the Choir’s mastery of an unusual and rarely performed version of ‘Adam Lay Y Bounden’ by Philip Ledger with a suitably confident lead by the tenors and basses; then another unusual arrangement of the Basque tune for ‘Gabriel’s Message’ by William Llewellyn, full of delightful surprises and performed with a well-measured dynamic range. Lastly in this section, we enjoyed the reliable John Rutter’s ‘Nativity Carol’ – a pleasingly modern arrangement in traditional style, presented with lovely dynamic contrasts and excellent diction fulfilling the storytelling needed for this piece.
And then, a delightful duet ‘I Sing of a Maiden’ by Patrick Hadley, sung exquisitely by Rebecca Priddle and Naomi Neville – their interaction as close as only sisters can, which of course they are, being the very accomplished daughters of Keith Clark. Beautifully accompanied by the redoubtable and versatile Kate Jones, pianoforte; she responded as always with the lightest of touch to complement the singers.
Next, ‘The Gallery Carol’ is sadly rarely performed, which is a shame considering the charming arrangement by Robin Wells. Another John Rutter composition, ‘Jesus Child’, enabled the Choir to explore his unique style of sometimes complex melody and syncopation and enjoy the singing and giving us the equal pleasure of listening.
Our turn to join in again: this time Franz Gruber and Guy Turner’s well-known arrangement of ‘Silent Night’, swiftly followed by a ‘work in progress’: a sneak preview of part of next year’s Handel’s ‘Messiah’, with Rebecca Priddle taking the solo soprano rôle in ’There were Shepherds’ and the Choir ending the excerpt with ‘Glory to God in the Highest’. This already promises to be an event not to be missed; and with accompaniment by the Hanover Band in the Harvey Hall, St. Swithun’s School, an absolute must see for your diaries on Sunday April 2nd, 2017.
As if the contrasts were not already enough, we were treated to her own enchanting arrangement of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s seasonal ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’ by the renowned young harpist, Amy Turk. Technically almost impracticable on her instrument, one was privileged to be close enough to observe her superb technical and artistic performance and compare to that of a swan – fingers calmly gliding over the strings, but with both her feet flying to engage the pedals to replicate the constantly varying key changes.
The Choir finished what was only the first half of the evening with another unusual arrangement; this time Robert Lucas Pearsall's version of ‘In Dulce Jubilo’. Starting conventionally enough with the familiar setting, it evolved in the later verses to offer opportunities for solos and multi-part chorus singing, exploited to the full by all sections of the Choir. And finally, a guessing game ! Well known seasonal tunes mingled fiendishly in Ron Howard’s splendid ‘Christmas Medley: how many did you spot? The intricate mingling of melodies required absolute commitment and got it handsomely.
Following a much-needed break for refreshments of a liquid kind – gosh, it comes as no surprise that all this singing is thirsty work indeed – for the start of the second half we all joined in ‘Once in David’s Royal City’ in the familiar arrangement by the sorely missed David Willcocks and Henry John Gauntlett, swiftly followed by the Choir’s spirited rendering of John Joubert’s ‘Torches’. Next, a personal favourite and again a wonderful contrast accepted gladly by the Choir: David Willcocks’ arrangement of James Pierpont’s ‘Jingle Bells’ exhibited their mastery of secular as well as sacred works. And what sort of celebration would we have without Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ in the familiar arrangement by Roy Ringwald ? The Choir revelled in the multi-part close harmonies, giving a refreshing tilt to a well-known standard.
A welcome return to the rostrum for Amy Turk and Naomi Neville, who gave us an enchanting version for soprano and harp of Edmund Rubbra’s ‘Hymn to the Virgin’ with crystal clear diction and insightful accompaniment by the princess of instruments and her accomplished artist.
A short master class for the audience and then straight in to accompany the Choir in the choruses of ‘Masters in This Hall’ – another of David Willcocks’ masterly tuneful arrangements, with such a sense of enjoyable fun engendered by our conductor.
Amy Turk then changed the scene absolutely with a delicate yet no less sophisticated piece: her arrangement of the Sherman’s ‘Feed the Birds’, which didn’t fail to tug the heartstrings of a rapt audience.
Marten Lauridsen’s ‘O Magnum Mysterium’ composed in 1994 is now deservedly a fixture on any serious carol concert. The challenges of the tantalising resolution of his intricate harmonies were brilliantly accepted by the Choir, who gave us a definitive performance of clarity and concise progression as the phrases developed seamlessly. It was a great shame to your reviewer that time constraints prevented us from hearing David Willcocks’ version of ‘Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day’ but we were rewarded with a fabulous interpretation of Adolphe Adam’s ‘O Holy Night’ by performers and conductor choir who must have been exhausted but together rose way above a high average with a soaring top Bb by Rebecca Priddle
Finally, we all sang the traditional ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ in the John Francis Wade and David Willcocks arrangement to round off an absolutely fabulous evening’s entertainment and enjoyment; truly a Carol, and much more, For Everyone.
Keith Clark is undoubtedly a master musician; he has moulded Alresford Community Choir from scratch into a seriously enjoyable example of a popular trend in communal music making. His sheer enthusiasm and charisma is transmitted to the singers, who respond with a balanced sound and sympathetic dynamics and can produce singers of the highest levels who would not have dared attempt public exposure otherwise. He is a double diamond of a director, and you can tell a good choir from the way they look up from their copies to observe the minutest gestures from their conductor for a final ‘t’ or, more difficult ‘d’, where such sibilance is so vitally important in the telling of a musical story. Their enjoyment is plainly evident: copies held up, projecting pleasingly smiling sounds which make all the difference between average and outstanding performances. Here’s to the next five years and more – Cheers!
Highly Recommended *****
Johann Sebastian III
Saturday 23rd April 2016 - St John's Church
‘Leonard Bernstein! He wrote West Side Story. This will be an easy-listening treat!’ So ran the story round less-musical circles (like my circles) when we heard that our Community Choir was going to perform his Chichester Psalms. Well, it was a treat, a real treat, but of another nature entirely. Conductor Keith Clark, deservedly proud of the progress made by his hundred or so voices over four years, appears to have decided to test them to the limit, with some very difficult music, sung in Hebrew.
‘Difficult’ music in the hands of a great composer is of course much more rewarding than easy listening, provided it is well-performed. The ‘Psalms’ demanded a great deal of the choir, and you could tell from their furrowed brows and anxious glances at the conductor that they were working harder, probably, than ever they had been asked to do before. And they gained their reward. The feed-back from the singers to whom I spoke afterwards was that I was not just very satisfying to have performed this piece successfully, it was glorious.
But what about us, in the audience? Our challenge was in a way the greater, as we were, most of us, hearing the music for the first time, and as we did not have great familiarity with Hebrew simply following the words demanded great attention. In the end it worked very well. The clever structuring of the programme meant that we were first softened up by a familiar, lyrical piece of Brahms and then had our listening wits sharpened by an extraordinary performance of three contrasting pieces from the Hampshire County Youth Chamber Choir. There were just sixteen of them – four for each voice – led (or perhaps drilled?) by Amy Tribe to set an example to their colleagues and their elders in the Community Choir of very precise, very accurate singing, and with added warmth where the music required it. So we were ready to afford the close concentration required to follow the music. It was easier than expected to enjoy. Following the English translation enabled us to keep our place; it was not difficult to discern who was singing about raging nations and who about still waters. The sestet of soloists were deliciously easy to digest. The counter-tenor, Tom Scott-Cowell was compellingly attractive.
So we broke up for the traditional long interval in a high state of excitement. I overheard some who were so entranced that they wanted to hear it all over again, immediately. But most of the chatter was related to anticipation of the final piece, a Requiem by Guy Scott Turner. What courage (or what a nerve!) for a contemporary musician to compose a setting for the immemorial words familiar from works by the greatest composers of the last several centuries! But those familiar words came at us in a freshly wonderful way, propelled by great soloists (magical soprano singing at the end) and urged on by brilliant music for the horn, superbly managed by Max Dinning. He was almost constantly playing, sometimes decorating a theme, sometimes stating it, sometimes floating ethereally above the busy singing of others, sometimes even challenging St John’s mighty organ. The organ accompaniment for both the Requiem and the Psalms, very testing music indeed, was provided throughout by Kate Jones, usually seen sitting demurely at the piano but this evening on the organ bench illustrating for us, with great ease and power, what is meant by the indication con brio. At the end, the loudest roars of applause went to Keith and to Kate, and no wonder.
Many of us agreed that this was the best ACC concert yet. It was also the shortest – and it needed to be. The performers had given their all and it would have been impossible to wring more effort out of them. One interested party, a musician himself, expressed the view that the combined choirs and soloists had reached with this challenge the summit of their achievement. They could not better this performance. I said (but in my timid way, sotto voce) oh yes they can. Next concert July 16th, at St Swithuns.
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