WHAT a treat! There was hardly an unoccupied seat in the gloriously redesigned St Andrews Church on Sunday night as an appreciative and knowledgeable audience came together to enjoy the Arbroath Choral Society’s Spring Concert.
Musical director Jane Miller had thoughtfully and sensitively brought together a well-balanced and challenging selection of pieces, each one of which was greatly enhanced by the magnificent setting of the Sanctuary of St Andrew’s Church. This was a modern programme presented in up-to-date ecclesiastical surroundings.
Best known as a well-loved Baptismal hymn, the arrangement of ‘The Lord Bless You and Keep You’ provided a gentle and solemn introduction to the much more lively pieces that made up the bulk of the programme. The anthem is particularly suitable for upper voices and thus a splendid choice for a choir in which the women outnumber the men by almost three to one
The sense of calm before the storm was repeated in the second half of the programme as the elegant melodies and warm harmonies of ‘This Is the Day’, the choral work commissioned specially for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in April last year, soared to the hammer beamed ceiling and filled the Sanctuary with a palpable sensation of comfort and reassurance.
This year marks the centenary of the death of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who is most famous for his cantata for tenor solo, chorus and orchestra, ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’, written in 1898 and based on the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’. At one time, the number of performances of this popular work was rivalled only by those of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’. Coleridge-Taylor went on to write two other cantatas based on the poem although, of the trilogy, neither of the other two was ever as successful as ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’.
The cantata owes its rhythmic drive to the way Longfellow structured his poem together with Coleridge-Taylor’s effort to capture a flavour of Native American speech patterns. The choir sang this lyrical feast with great feeling and full marks to them as they managed to cope with not only a few tongue-twisters but also some very difficult to pronounce names of the various characters, foodstuffs and musical instruments that feature in the poem. Apart from a few instances where it was helpful to have the entire poem set out in the programme, it was generally possible to follow the action without constant recourse to the printed page, thus allowing the audience to concentrate better on the music
Tenor soloist Kenneth Miller sang Chibiabos’ love song ‘Onaway! Awake beloved’ with great compassion and tenderness in an accomplished performance that was clearly enjoyed by the audience.
A recent poll nominated Karl Jenkins as the most performed composer in the world today. Jenkins, originally best known as a jazz musician in the early 1970s and co-founder of the jazz-rock band Soft Machine in 1972 , made his cross-over debut in 1995 with the release of his first classical piece, ‘Songs of Sanctuary’, part of the much more extensive Adiemus project.
His ‘Gloria’, a choral work based on an early Christian hymn is decidedly dramatic, the music punctuated by readings from other ancient texts including passages drawn from the Hindu Bhagavadgtta, the Taoist Tao Te Ching and the Koran, read beautifully on this occasion by David Searle.
Its primeval-sounding harmonies and pounding drum rhythms make it as powerful as classical music gets especially when set against the tranquillity of the slower movements.
The piece is scored for choir and orchestra with the addition, common to much of the composer’s work, of ethnic percussion instruments indigenous to those cultures mentioned above. There are echoes of these ethnic and third world cultures throughout the five movements, an example of which is the delightfully staccato tango that appears towards the end of the final Exultation.
From start to finish of this piece, the atmosphere in the church was electric. The captivating voice of soprano soloist Elaine Taylor provided a soothing contrast to the vocal power of the choir and the exciting instrumental strength of the orchestra as did David Searle’s reading.
The two major works are characterised by subtle and not so subtle changes of tempo which both choir and orchestra handled well under the careful guidance of conductor Jane Miller.
This is particularly impressive since the choir and the orchestra had only two rehearsals together prior to the performance making it no mean feat for all concerned to turn in such a polished and proficient performance.