As the nights draw in and we reach the darkest part of the year, what better way to spend an evening than listening to the luminous textures and harmonies of Gabriel Fauré. In St Mary's Priory Church, Monmouth, on Saturday evening, there was an extremely well-attended concert of English and French choral and instrumental works given by Monmouth Choral Society and the Regency Sinfonia orchestra under conductor Steven Kings.
The programme started with a comfortingly secure and beautiful performance of Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine, loved by most amateur choirs (those who can cope with the language!) I use the word “amateur” with caution, but I might point out that there are very few professional choirs in the UK at all. The harp and lower strings created a suitably rich and sonorous support that was yet perfectly transparent enough to clearly hear the choir, who sounded on good form.
The conductor had arranged the next piece, Sospiri by Edward Elgar, so that it used the instruments needed later for the Requiem. So the strings were joined by harp, solo violin and organ for this rarely performed work. Next the choir were back for Balfour Gardiner's richly evocative Evening Hymn. It was here that I experienced a very deep rumble which, after early alarms, turned out to be a very low pedal point played by the organ. This rattled the windows and, I suspect, a few people's teeth. A small niggle, not improved by moving where I sat for the second half. That organ is a hefty instrument!
Following two charming Debussy arrangements played by harpist Alison Martin, the first half of the concert ended with Stanford's famous Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis. Here we had a chance to hear soprano Fiona Hunt and baritone Rob Pritchard in admirably full voice. The choir responded, with the addition of French horns to the orchestra creating a full and rich tapestry of sound.
After the interval, Fauré's Requiem crowned the evening. From the hushed solemn opening followed by some really beautiful singing by the tenor section, the choir were inspired to great effect. It was one of those uplifting performances that go by far too quickly, but will stay in the mind for a long time. Fiona Hunt, who I first heard many years ago as a very impressive young singer, touched the heart-strings with her lucid, unforced interpretation of the Pie Jesu. The choir did justice to the moving Agnus Dei and Rob Pritchard was a clear compelling soloist in the Libera Me, with spot-on singing again from the well-balanced choir.
In Paradisum brought the concert to a glowing, and in the case of one member of the audience, tearful end. Tearful because of the beauty of the music, but also because something special was coming to an end. For this, Steven Kings must take an extra bow: he has achieved so much with this choir, and the way they respond is both moving and a testament to his skill and musicianship. “Well done” to all.
- Christopher Northam
Ancient Stories & Modern Voices
Monmouth Choral Society's autumn concert at the Blake Theatre Monmouth on 17 November began by bringing choir, organ and audience together brilliantly in a short rehearsal of two hymns which Britten included in his work, St Nicolas, the last piece of the programme. Everyone responded with great enthusiasm under the guidance of Steven Kings, the musical director, accompanied by organist, Sam Baylis.
This was followed by a piano duet featuring a selection of pieces from West Side Story. James Drinkwater and Christopher Northam entertained the appreciative audience with these most exciting arrangements.
The Broadway spirit continued in the following work by Leonard Bernstein, Chichester Psalms. Hailed as a masterpiece it is a perfect choice to celebrate the composer's centenary. The setting of three Old Testament texts, in Hebrew, of praise, prayer and petition began powerfully with the exhortation, ‘Awake!' Thrilling and vibrant moments were balanced by passages of serene beauty. The work is considered exceptionally challenging, yet on this evening Steven Kings melded each element; the choir, the Regency Sinfonia and the soloists, Ruth Bamfield, Heather Ashford, Jack Parry and Charlie Morris. Capturing the essence of this glorious and uplifting work it was truly a stirring performance which ended on a note of peace and calm.
The final work of the programme, Britten's St Nicolas, a dramatic cantata, recounts the legendary life of the 4th century Bishop of Myra: his miraculous birth, his growth in compassion and spirituality.
This was a superb performance with the tenor, Ben Thapa, singing the role of the saint with great power throughout. He immediately engaged with the audience with the opening phrase, ‘Across the tremendous bridge'. The choir, taking the part of different characters in the story, act as eyewitnesses to the unfolding drama. Their prayers and praises were sung with joy and exuberance which contrasted with poignant passages. A particularly moving section occurs where St Nicolas journeys to Palestine. The storm that arises was evoked with a vibrant intensity by choir and orchestra. After building to a climax the piece concludes in tranquility: the saint, now in his old age, prepares himself for death. The audience and the choir conclude this work by singing the final hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way'.
Steven Kings brought out the nuances of the music, creating an integrated and extremely impressive performance in which the sensitive playing of organist, Sam Baylis and the Regency Sinfonia, complemented those of Ben Thapa, soloists and choir thus ensuring a profound and memorable experience. This concert certainly fulfilled its promise of offering a rich and varied evening of music.
- C Margaret Iggulden
Rossini's Petite Messe Solenelle
St Mary's Priory Church, Monmouth, was the setting on Saturday 17th June 2017 for Monmouth Choral Society's Summer Concert.
The choir presented just one work, Rossini's Petite Messe Solenelle (Little Solemn Mass) which is renowned for being neither small in stature nor predominantly solemn in mood. Taking the form of the Latin Mass, it was written in 1863, during a particularly creative period in the composer's later years, and contains much deeply felt music. It is accompanied by the unusual combination of piano and harmonium.
The choir's hushed tones in the opening Kyrie and their secure intonation in the unaccompanied Christe set a reverential mood. The quartet of vocal soloists blended well in the Gloria. Monmothian, Andrew Henley, excelled in the operative tenor aria Domine Deus, while Rhiannon Llewellyn (soprano) and Helen Anne Gregory (alto) expressed the devotional music well in the Qui Tollis duet, and bass Meilir Jones captured the lyricism of the Quoniam. The choral Cum Sancto Spiritu, with its intricate melodic writing, brought the first half to a rousing close.
Conductor, Steven Kings drew out the intensity and drama of the Creed. The choir impressed in their phrasing, articulation and diction, particularly in the fugal sections. The central solo Crucifixus was sublime. The instrumental Offertory gave the singers some respite and the audience an opportunity to hear more of the superb playing of the Gus Tredwell (piano) and Peter Dyke (harmonium). The Agnus Dei, with its prayer like sentiment, brought Rossini's final serious work to a fitting conclusion.
Altogether, a most enjoyable concert of which all the performers should be justly proud!