Saints and Soldiers
I have enjoyed many concerts by the Chanctonbury Chorus over the years and have come to expect an offering of major choral works integrating a substantial choir with orchestra and soloists. So it was intriguing to turn up at the Church of St Andrews, in Steyning, on a cold November evening for a very different kind of concert. The Chorus is currently smaller than hitherto, and on this occasion sang an ambitious and eclectic programme either with organ, or completely unaccompanied. I would imagine that much of the music – if not its composers – was new to the packed audience, and in another innovation the conductor, Siobhan Denning, introduced the works with some thoughtful notes and pointers as to what to listen out for. Given the wide ranging and quite challenging range of works by renaissance, baroque and twentieth century composers this was a helpful guide through the evening – although possibly briefer introductions at the start of both halves of the concert would have maintained more “flow” than comments piece by piece.
The first half of the concert featured early (renaissance and baroque) music, combining choral works with a Bach Fugue for organ and a delightful trumpet symphonia by Stradella. The chorus were perhaps more hesitant and exposed in the opening work – Bach’s Jesu, Meine Freude which is less well known than much of his choral repertoire - though there were beautiful passages such as the Gute Nacht, where the singing gained in assurance. In the Byrd Mass that ended this first half the smaller, chamber sound really came into its own, with the meditative, weaving form of the Mass projected with a more sustained and pure sound, especially from the sopranos.
The Byrd and the Bach are substantial works, and this first part of the evening was rewarding but demanding – both of the audience and the chorus. The second half of the concert was a collection of shorter works organised around the theme of remembrance and loss, to mark the recent centenary of the First World War Armistice. It opened with Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia, which the choir sang with an enjoyable lightness. There was a lovely solo from soprano Sarah Russell, who later delivered an exquisite rendering of the Geoffrey Burgon Nunc Dimittis. Works by Thomas Tallis, Arvo Part and John Rutter were interspersed with dignified and moving readings of war poets. The overall musical and aesthetic experience was very accessible given the unfamiliar nature of some of the music, and works from very different periods – such as the Tallis and the Part – integrated well. The concert closed with the audience standing to a rendering of the Last Post, by trumpeter Tim Mulkern, as the lights were dimmed in this beautiful old church. It was altogether a fascinating and varied evening and I look forward to seeing what the Chanctonbury Chorus will do next.
Brahms pre Christmas German Requiem concert hits the spot at Hurstpierpoint
A spine tingling pre-Christmas performance of Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem delivered by the combined talent of the Chanctonbury Chorus and the Hurstpierpoint College Chamber Choir and Orchestra resulted in a standing ovation from the packed audience.
The majestic surroundings of Hurstpierpoint College Chapel, the setting for this performance, added a unique atmosphere to Brahms' seven movement piece which was written in the mid 1800's and based on the Lutheran Bible.
Leslie-Jane Rogers (Soprano) and James Cleverton (Baritone) performed faultlessly whilst the full orchestra led by Charlotte Scott and conducted by Siobhan Denning (founder of the Chanctonbury Chorus) was more than a match for the musical and emotional challenges of this sometimes reflective and dramatic piece.
The packed programme began with a wonderful performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' first major choral piece entitled Towards the Unknown Region, sung by the Hurst Chamber Choir made up of pupils from the college and conducted by Neil Matthews, Head of Music.
Francis Poulenc's Concerto in G Minor for Organ, Timpani and Strings FP93 with Kate Bray at the helm of the Chapel’s organ followed.
Chanctonbury Chorus is an established group of about 50 singers who enjoy getting together weekly to rehearse a big choral masterpiece. The Chorus meet for rehearsals at 7.45pm on Wednesday evenings, during term time, in the Drama Room of the Lower School, Church Street, Steyning – all are welcome to join without an audition, just turn up on the night!
Summer Concert of the Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra
A fine May evening a glorious Norman church, and an unusually varied programme of choral and instrumental music, this was Steyning for the Summer Concert of the Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra. From Schubert to Korngold, Mendelssohn to Vaughan Williams, our musicians tackled a challenging programme that required sustained vocal control, wide dynamic grasp and considerable stamina. Under the magisterial leadership of their director, Siobhan Denning, they delivered music of a near professional standard, aided by orchestral leader Chris Phipps, the promising young tenor Ryan Williams and soprano Lucy Mair, whose fresh and radiant voice, pure-toned and unaffected, was one of the pleasures of the evening.
The orchestra played Mendelssohn's Octet in A flat which, after an uncertain start, soon gained a warmth and vitality that characterised their playing throughout the evening, especially in the major work of the first half, Schubert's Mass in C, an odd piece, pleasing but lacking the profundity of his best work. The choir proved resonant and strong, even though Schubert kept his sopranos steadily at the top of their register. Particularly in the Benedictus, the counterplay between soloist and choir was effective.
The second half opened to a fanfare blaze of organ – Mendelssohn's Wedding March, a flamboyant performance by Brian Sawyer - and then came the choir , singing a cappella, aided by pianist Geraldine Rowland, later to prove a sensitive accompanist to Lucy Mair as she sang Korngold's Shakespeare Songs with tremendous feeling and bell-like tone. Roberton's April Evening, reminiscent of his iconic Glasgow Orpheus Choir, was followed by De Pearsall, Sullivan and Vaughan Williams' “In Windsor Forest“. Here was delicious music making and the choir revelled in it, relishing the luscious harmonies of De Pearsall's Lay a Garland, the heartfelt emotion of Sullivan's The long Day Closes and rollicking their way through “In Windsor Forest” with lip-smacking enjoyment.
After an encore of the Sullivan piece, our warm applause expressed appreciation for a special evening.
Just for once we thought our Chanctonbury Chorus concert review should let last Saturday’s audience and photographs do the talking.
"A wonderful concert, remarkable soloists with a beautiful flow of music woven together brilliantly by the conductor Siobhan Denning.
I’ve never been to something like this before and I absolutely loved it. I thought the voices were beautiful and the soloists outstanding.
Lovely Christmas music brought out the best of the choir who were in very good voice."
Just some of the glowing comments captured by the writer as an enraptured audience departed from the Chanctonbury Chorus Bach Christmas Oratorio sell out concert.
Staged in the beautiful church of St Andrew and St Cuthman in Steyning with their largest ever orchestra, professional soloists Lesley-Jane Rogers, Will Towers, Ed Hastings and Ed Hawkins, the Chorus's performance of this complex piece clearly reached new heights!
Chanctonbury Chorus 'on song' with a sell out concert
A friend of mine spends time seeking out hidden treasures with a metal detector, however all he ever retrieves are tin cans and bits of rusty metal.
Now, here's a thought!
If he had sacrificed some of his search time to venture along to the beautiful Steyning church of St. Andrew & St. Cuthman Church on May 14th, he would have discovered a treasure trove of visual and aural splendour, in the company of 180 guests, a choir of 60, one professional singer and an orchestra!
It was last Saturday evening that the renowned Chanctonbury Chorus performed its summer concert as an early curtain raiser for the Steyning Festival.
Music was selected from a library spanning more than 300 years, from Baroque through to the romantic early 20th century providing contrasts in style and colour.
And all in the beautiful surroundings of a church dating back to around 1100, built with stone bought up the River Adur, all the way from France.
Conducted under the skillful baton of choir founder Siobhan Denning, the concert got under way with Faure's 'Cantique De Jean Racine. This was written by him at the tender age of 19. A beautiful piece accompanied by organist Brian Sawyer and sung to perfection by the choir.
West Sussex soloist Soprano Lucy Mair took to the stage to perform Henry Purcell's demanding 'Three Songs' which calls for clarity and an extensive vocal range. Lucy who studied music and Italian at Royal Holloway, University of London and attended the Conservatorio di Benedetto Marcello, Venice delivered a faultless performance.
Haydn's Missa Brevis Sancti Joannis De Deo took us towards the interval with the choir in full and strong voice. Dating from around 1775, the emphasis is on short masses with little or no solo work.
It is one of those pieces that is hard to dislike and no doubt wonderful to sing. You only had to look at faces of the choir to see that they were obviously enjoying themselves, lovely counterpoint and a cheery, uplifting piece for the audience.
"We are the Music Makers and we are the dreamers of dreams". This is the evocative opening line of The Music Makers by Edward Elgar, written as a celebration of music itself. Elgar set an "Ode" by Alfred O'Shaughnessy called 'Music and Moonlight' to music using quotations from his earlier works. These include Enigma, Gerontius and Sea Pictures. Lasting some 45 minutes, this piece was undoubtedly the most demanding of the evening's repertoire.
It swiftly gathered momentum to provide what the writer best describes as a composition of extremes, a force majeure and ideally suited to the acoustics of a wonderful church and the capabilities of the choir and orchestra.
It was good to be reminded of 'Nimrod', Elgar's most renowned composition and surely recognised wherever it is played and listened to.
Soloist Lucy Mair was upstanding once again to effortlessly deliver, with a wonderful voice which rang pure to the rafters and surely floating out high across the village of Steyning into the ether.
Simply outstanding and fit for the world stage if I am not mistaken.
The problem with any public performance is allowing sufficient time for the different musical elements to come together for rehearsals so that they deliver as an entity. Perhaps this is why the orchestra had a few challenging moments but all in all a magnificent, sterling performance fit for her Majesty in her 90th year.
At the post concert party someone was heard to comment: ' I think Elgar would have been proud of that performance'.
Congratulations to all and a fantastic effort resulting in a sell out concert!
Chanctonbury Chorus is a group of 50 plus singers centered in Steyning for singers of all ages. Rehearsals take place in the Drama Room of Steyning Grammar School, Church Street on Wednesday evenings at 7.45, all voices welcome, no audition required, just come along and join in.
What a great way to spend a Wednesday evening, get along there as soon as possible.
The combined choirs of Chanctonbury Chorus and The Hurst College Choral Society and Orchestra make their performance of Verdi's Requiem a night to remember
It is a long journey both in time and distance from the Church of San Marco, Milan, to the splendour of the Hurst College Chapel West Sussex. For this is where 140 years later on Sunday, December 6 a packed audience gathered together to luxuriate in a magnificent presentation of Verdi's Requiem. The combined might of Chanctonbury Chorus and the Hurst College Choral Society and Orchestra performed this beautiful work in the Chapel's appropriately historical surroundings - and what a night it was.
Under the orchestral leadership of Charlotte Scott and the guiding baton of Neil Matthews, the Requiem launched into its softly descending opening, immediately suggestive of the word Requiem. Strong support from all four soloists in turn, and the 100 + mixed choir made this a tour de force to be reckoned with.
With no hesitation and no faltering this was clearly building to be a performance to remember. The hours of rehearsal, missed meals and late nights were quickly forgotten as the performers got into their stride.
Mind you as with any professional or semi professional performers the cacophony of the orchestral warm up leads one to wonder how the hundred strong voices and 50 - strong orchestra will pull off a performance to be remembered - but this is what they managed.
The beautifully tight, sometimes contemporary harmonies of the orchestra and voices totally belied the age of this piece. If we didn't know better it could have been composed just yesterday, not close to 150 years ago.
However, the forceful opening and explosive launch of the Dies Irie, approximately 40 minutes long, clearly pushed everyone to their limit, and they loved every minute of it as did the audience.
All had a chance to excel with the wonderful interaction of the soloists, underpinned by the close harmony of the choir and the orchestra, all giving what they could without putting a discernible foot wrong.
After the scrabble for an essential glass of wine during the interval, the second half of this classic performance presented the audience with the Offertorio; Sanctus; Agnus Dei; Lux Aeterna and the climactic Libera Me with its hushed entry and return to full strength and terror before leading to the final choral fugue which brought the work to its enthralling conclusion.
Written by Giuseppe Verdi as a memorial to Italian poet and novelist Alexandra Manzoni, Verdi apparently forgave conductor Hans von Bulow's perhaps untimely comment that the opera was "an opera in church vestments". Possibly because Brahms also reprimanded von Bulow.
The four soloists excelled: the soaring soprano voice of Leslie-Jane Rogers, the breadth of scale demonstrated by Anne Mason (mezzo soprano), the confidence and clarity of Stephen Brown (tenor) and the bass resonance of Nicholas Warden brought harmony and depth to an outstanding performance.
And how lovely for Chanctonbury Chorus director and founder Siobhan Denning to be able to lay down her baton and listen to her choir which she has nurtured for the past 20+ years. Let's hope it is not too long before she regains the giddy heights of the conductor's rostrum.
If anyone ever doubted that the coming together of two of the county's premier choirs would be a success then this evening's performance was living proof that they surpassed average success. High drama, emotional extremes and sheer raw excitement was present in abundance; and all available for the cost of a modestly priced ticket.
Chanctonbury Chorus – another record breaking Concert!
It was always going to be a tough choice.
Stay in to catch the latest “Britain’s Got Talent” or venture out on a beautiful May (16th) evening to soak up the latest offerings from the Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra – no contest!
Into the car and head off to St Andrew’s Church in Steyning.
But hang on, where’s the choir?
The answer wasn’t long in coming. A sublime wall of unaccompanied sound rang out from the back of the church. Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki’s “Totus Tuus” was delivered without fault; from an explosive opening to a slow, hypnotic end - in my mind the choir passed the acappella test.
The calendar was reversed for one of Schubert’s best-known songs, Amdie Musik written in 1817 and performed with a crystal-clear clarity by Lesley-Jane Rogers, one of the most versatile sopranos of today and accompanied on piano by Brian Sawyer.
This piece is a hymn to the art of music, its popularity is generally attributed to its harmonic simplicity and sweeping melody. You would have to travel much further afield than Steyning to catch a better performance.
Now time for the orchestra to make its debut with the full choir.
Franz Schubert’s Mass in G. Choirs love this piece for its ‘singability’ and colourful harmonies particularly in the Credo. Extraordinary to think Schubert (1797-1828) was just 18 years old when he wrote this Mass in 1815. No surprises, no shocks- delivery as smooth as silk, and so it should be after six months of extensive rehearsal.
All in all a fabulous piece demonstrating full synchronicity, which took the writer, back to his schooldays in a Benedictine Monastery.
What can you say about one of the Nation’s favourite composers? Better to let his music say it all.
John Rutter’s “Requiem” was composed in 1985. Mystical, darkly beautiful, expressive and thought provoking, it soars to majestic heights with a cacophony of chords then descends into simple harmony, not just once but time and time again.
The growling cello and deep resonance of the organ added a mystique and depth without equal. The choir handled the extreme vocal demands with near professional capability. At the outset a little more vocal projection would have been welcome, perhaps nerves kicking in but as an overall experience and performance this was one not to be missed.
Mind you, it could easily have come to nout, if this 50+ choir of housewives, businessmen and retirees had wilted under the incisive baton of Siobhan Denning, founder and conductor of the Chanctonbury Chorus.
But they clearly didn’t!
I for one will find their next concert of Verdi’s Requiem at Lancing College on December 6th details of which can be found on the Chorus' web site at www.chanctonburychorus.org
The Chanctonbury Chorus & Orchestra celebrated Saturday November 15th with an outstanding performance of Handel’s Messiah, the first in recent years.
Seated in a pew in St Andrew and St Cuthman’s Church, Steyning, I watch in anticipation as the four soloists, eighteen musicians, one organist and fifty plus singers launch into Part 1 in front of a full house. At the helm is Siobhan Denning, conductor and founder of the Chanctonbury Chorus since 1981.
Handel’s Messiah features impressive solo arias, like ‘Ev’ry valley shall be exalted’ and ‘Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion’ which are interspersed with compelling chorus numbers, telling the story of Jesus’s birth, life, resurrection, and final victory over sin and death.
Stephen Brown ( tenor) delivered beautifully with a voice that truly reached all corners with a clarity of diction that was to die for. The choir was in superb form –on the note and with unrivalled harmonies, that meant months of hard work paid off. James Cleverton ( baritone) delivered “Thus saith the Lord” with power and resonance which was perfectly suited to the acoustics of Steyning’s church.
Then the turn of Claire Seaton ( soprano) with a voice that soared above the orchestra with grace and skill. Susan Legg ( mezzo soprano) exhibited a lovely warm rich timbre to her voice, full of character and colour.
Special praise must go to the cello of Richard Kerney-Haynes who was rarely out of the spotlight in Part one. The string section lead by Elaine Patience did a job they could be proud of although the occasional off-note was detected. The fluent trumpet solo performed by Tim Mulkern in Part Three of “The trumpet shall sound” was beyond praise.
The ladies outscored the men in the choir who occasionally sounded a bit wooly without always demonstrating the pin sharp accuracy necessary to get the best from Handel’s work.
So, was my expectation and anticipation fulfilled? Indeed it was with a resounding yes! It just goes to show that passion, enthusiasm and sheer hard work can make a good performance outstanding.
Finally thanks to chairman Simon Moore, volunteers and all those who turned out on a cold, damp night in November and went away with a warm glow of satisfaction, and of course the audience without which the performance would have been meaningless.
I wait with eager anticipation for the society’s next concert on May 16th 2015 at St Andrew and St Cuthman’s church, Steyning. This will be a performance of Schubert’s Mass in G and the Rutter Requiem details of which can be found on www.chanctonburychorus.org
Dona Nobis Pacem
Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra’s Autumnal offering on Saturday 23 November in St Andrew’s & St Cuthbert’s Church, Steyning, was arguably a concert of two halves. Each half differed in character both by the motivation of the performances and in the nature of the music given either side of the interval.
Chanctonbury must be applauded to the rafters for bringing into their repertoire and willingly tackling the challenging work that featured in the opening half of this concert. Dona Nobis Pacem was composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams for the Huddersfield Choral Society’s centenary concert on 2 October 1936. Despite a sombre tone to some of the text, directly related to the growing danger of war, there is optimism in the music that possibly reflects the mood held by many at that time that those war clouds would pass away.
No doubt due to a lack of familiarity with this difficult piece, there were some insecurities on display during Saturday evening’s performance of Dona Nobis Pacem. These, however, were insufficient to distract the audience from this moving music or large enough to dilute the passion with which the performers clearly felt for and gave to it.
The star turns of this pre-interval part of the concert came from the modest brilliance of the two soloists. The soprano, Claire Seaton, quietly exhibited a strikingly pure voice – touching in its poignancy – during the hushed prayer-like passages; and then serenely soared with great beauty in the loud sections, overcoming the competitive volume of the full orchestra. The expressive tonal warmth in the voice of baritone James Cleverton was thrilling to experience as he deftly handled the elegant melodic lines, projecting impeccable diction in each meaningful word that many a choral singer might value as a model to emulate.
By the fourth section, a setting of Walt Whitman’s Dirge for two Veterans, the Chorus had well and truly hit their stride with some enjoyably powerful singing, particularly from the women. And in the final sixth section, there were some wonderfully glorious contributions by the choir, with much excellent triumphant and weighty counterpoint from the Orchestra that only lacked the sound of bells to top it off. As a coda, a short reprise of the opening prayer circuitously brought this testing but beautiful work to a close. Chanctonbury must do it again!
Haydn’s Nelson Mass, given in the second half, is more staple fare like The Messiah, bread and butter to numerous choral societies throughout the land. Where the first half may have accommodated the edge of struggle at times, the performance here was comfortably smooth, forthright and finely balanced, joyously concluded and distinctively laid out for the audience to ingest. And yet. And yet, for me, as masterly a composer as Haydn undoubtedly was, it did not have the bite or possess the rich depth of the music of the first half. Was it just the production of the familiar that gave me little feeling? To make it tick, is something very ‘special’ required in performance of such seemingly perfunctory music? Or does this work and its ilk (the ever challenging music of J S Bach aside, of course!) no longer register anything sufficiently meaningful to say to me (and maybe some performers) because of that over-familiarity? It’s a singular point of view.
On Saturday 15th June 2013, Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra conducted by Siobhan C. V. Denning, performed their Summer Concert in St. Andrew & St Cuthman’s Church, Steyning. There were three works on in the programme The Sprig of Thyme by John Rutter, Rejoice in the Lamb by Benjamin Britten and Come Unto Him by Felix Mendelssohn.
The concert began with The Sprig of Thyme a cycle of folk-song settings arranged by John Rutter. The melodies of which remind us of our school music lessons. Rutter keeps the original tunes but his arrangements have made them far more interesting and melodious.
The second work was Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Accompanied by the organ played by Brian Sawyer, this piece contains some tricky sections which the singers negotiated with apparent ease.
Mendelssohn’s Come Unto Him followed the interval. This cantata is a selection of the composer’s music. Two of the songs, Hear My Prayer and O for the Wings of a Dove, were sung by a soloist new to Chanctonbury Chorus concerts soprano Lucy Mair. When her last note died away, the audience seemed to hold its breath. Several people told me afterwards that they would loved to have applauded her but applause was saved for the completion of each work. However, many hope to hear Lucy singing in future concerts.
The next concert by Chanctonbury Chorus will be on Saturday 23rd November 2013 in St. Andrew & St. Cuthman’s Church, Steyning when they will be singing Haydon’s Nelson Mass and Vaughan William’s Donna Nobis Pacem. More information on www.chanctonburychorus.org
An impressive and heart gladdening performance of Claudio Monteverdi’s ‘Vespers’ of 1610, was given by Chanctonbury Chorus & Orchestra on the evening of 2nd February at Steyning’s St Andrew & St Cuthbert’s Church.
Conducted by Siobhan Denning – with the exemplary orchestra assuredly led by Elaine Patience –, this thrilling rendition included two soprano soloists, the splendid Emma Brain-Gabbott and the ever-excellent Lesley-Jane Rogers, and two tenors, the marvellous Stephen Brown and Oliver Mercer, the latter having brilliantly stepped, last minute, into a breach left by the unfortunately indisposed Mark Bradbury.
Monteverdi’s artistic ingenuity is fully communicated in this work. Despite the music frequently conveying a feeling of improvisatory freedom and spontaneity – often employing what he described as his ‘agitated style’ –, the composer balances phrases with care, using repetition as an organising factor.
From the gloriously exhilarating and powerful opening ‘Deus in Adjutorium’ – with the choral parts centrally reciting the text on one chord, whilst the orchestral instruments freely dance around with rhythmic attacks – to the wonderful final flourishes from chorus and orchestra in the ‘Magnificat’, the performers’ unifying achievement here on this evening, was to satisfyingly display Monteverdi’s true stature, innovative expressiveness, insightful accomplishment and, yes, novelty of his work as a composer.
The ‘Vespers’ provide musicians with both a huge challenge and serious delight; and Chanctonbury Chorus, Orchestra and Soloists overcame the first whilst radiantly delivering the second. This is not to say there were not any blemishes, but these were but minor brush strokes within a much larger positive picture.
A few performance highlights of note, then, would include a full rich timbre in ‘Dixit Dominus’; some lovely involved singing from the Chorus during ‘Laudate Pueri Domine’; a remarkably attractive violin/viola duet as part of ‘Santa Maria’; and a beautifully supportive cantabile line from the cello continuo (Richard Haynes) beneath the two soprano soloists’ delicate duet in ‘Pultra Es’.
The dramatic antiphonal effect between the two astonishing tenor soloists, singing their florid threads during ‘Audi Coelum’, must have sent tingles of pleasure through many in the audience, the quality of the sound perhaps momentarily transporting some to a fine liturgical building in Cremona or Venice. Indeed, much of the drama in this magnificent piece, one full of contrasts, surely owes much to Monteverdi’s experience and love of writing opera.
Contrast was certainly in evidence in the ‘Magnificat’, with its exquisite legato singing from the sopranos and altos of the Chorus – blending beautifully with each other –; an absolutely captivating and authentically delivered duet from the soprano soloists; a strong resonant sound from the combined Chorus & Orchestra; and those magnificent antiphonal tenors again, declaiming their melismatic patterns whilst Lesley-Jane Rogers quietly sustained the sweetest of sounds.
All of these elements, and more, wholly helped produce a (mostly) confident, comprehensive and cohesive performance of a unique work by a great composer. A memorable evening.
Parry, Weber, Handel, Puccini
Battered by economic recession and a Summer that has stopped smiling, it was a pleasure to find us retreating to the other worldly calm of Steyning Parish Church for its hosting of the Chanctonbury Chorus Concert. Yet there was more than just a buzz in the drenched calm of its cool walls, for here we were to celebrate the 30th anniversary and remarkable success of this treasured local choir, a choir without pretension (it welcomes all comers into its ranks) but with an indubitable pedigree. The three choral pieces on offer clearly were chosen to demonstrate its flexibility and prowess.
We started with Parry's I was glad a festival cracker if ever there was one. The chorus made an immediate impression – solid, firm and rousing – though it was compromised by the adverse balance of the organ. It was only when the accompanist moved onto the swell organ and closed the box that we began to have something like a perfect balance. However it was discernible that this chorus had sufficient weight and expertise to take us through a thrilling evening; one took appreciate note of the sopranos edging their way up the stratosphere of the final page.
Next, one of Handel’s evergreen Chandos Anthems – No 9 Title, where the chorus was joined by the two excellent soloists of the evening – Stephen Brown (Tenor) and Stephen Foulkes (Bass). Both possessed full sonorous voices which made an exciting impact inside the church. Here the Chorus was certainly put through a musical lexicon of vocal techniques which called on both their agility – those lithe runs – and expressive sensitivity – the dying notes of sound receding up into the heavens. In all, they were securely conducted by the redoubtable Siobhan Denning whose grip on the evening’s music-making ensured its success.
It was not until we came to the Gloria of Puccini, after the interval, that we realised we really had strayed into a different palate of sound. With a masterly orchestral reduction of the original score, which in no way diminished the excitement of the music-making – the Chanctonbury Chorus stood up and relished every turn of this sojourn of a musical tour – for surely with Puccini’s novitiate imagination – we passed through landscapes trod by Gounod, Bizet and the young Verdi. The orchestra here, occasionally exposed in the first half of the concert where the acoustic allowed for little cover, garnered itself into a reverential romp. It was terrific fun and at the same time curiously moving. Puccini would, of course, move back into a church at a later stage, but here, for the present, lingered no Scarpia in the wings. It was explained to the audience that concert performances allowed for some deft rearranging of the order of the Messe. The felicitous choice of leaving the Gloria section to the last allowed this excellent chorus to round off its celebrations with a fire-cracking delivery of this exuberant section of the score. Bravo!
The evening also included, in the first half, a deft rendition of Weber’s Andante & Rondo Ungarese for bassoon from the nimble fingers of Helen Beckingham, a welcome antidote to the high religiosity of the evening.
With the first snow fall of the year in these parts, many patrons of Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra found warmth and sustenance in their performance of The Creation, an oratorio by Joseph Haydn, on Saturday 4th February in St Andrew & St Cuthman’s Church, Steyning.
Despite a number of vibrant coloratura moments, Haydn (1732-1809) was enjoying the distinction between German/Italian cultures and the Viennese one for which he was writing. His love of life and nature, his energy, tenderness and humour, along with a sense of the open air that was part of his peasant upbringing, all unequivocally emerge in this work structured around the six days of creation and an agreeable concluding distraction with Adam and Eve in Eden.
Composed in 1798, the chorus part perhaps features less than it normally might in Haydn’s engaging setting of the creation story. Nevertheless, when they were called upon, Chanctonbury Chorus delivered here some exuberant, satisfying and cohesive singing, with well-handled dynamic shadings. Like an exaltation of larks, their collective assuredness flew through fugal passages, with committed polished ensemble singing during other sections as well, most notably in ‘The heavens are telling’, to end the Fourth Day, ‘The Lord is great’ that rounded off Day Five, and ‘Achieved is the glorious work’ on the Sixth Day.
Chanctonbury Chorus’ founding Director of Music, Siobhan C V Denning, had clearly prepared them well, but was unfortunately indisposed on this occasion. The breach was ably filled by the purposeful John C Hancorn who conducted with equanimity.
The fine orchestra, brilliantly led by Elaine Patience, was no less committed with at times some outstanding playing that included excellent clarinet work, an exquisite cello duet during the recitative ‘And God created…’, and a sensitive opening from a pair of flutes in the Introduction to Adam and Eve in Eden.
As one of the splendid trio of soloists, Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano) clearly enjoyed hitting her top notes, and her innate musicality always shone through her performance. Tenor Mark Bradbury’s singing too was strong, expressive and convincing. There was also some delightful bass singing from Stephen Foulkes, particularly during ‘In long dimension creeps with sinuous trace, the worm’, the long held, very low final note of which brought a collective warm smile from the audience.
Adur Festival 2011 Concert
In a performance suffused with flowing communication and directness, the collective forces of Chanctonbury Chorus, Shoreham Oratorio Choir and Orchestra (conducted by Siobhan C V Denning) serenely sang and played their way through ‘A German Requiem’, one of Johannes Brahms’ finest and most beautifully crafted compositions. Scored for soprano and baritone soloists, large orchestra and chorus, this performance of a magnificent work took place in Lancing College Chapel during an autumnal-like June evening on Saturday the 18th as part of Adur Festival 2011.
A brave but appropriate decision was taken here by the choirs to sing this masterpiece in its original German, given that the text, music and phrasing are completely connected in such a version as opposed, say, to an English translation. If the vowels might have been longer and the consonants more clearly annunciated on this occasion, all was mostly forgiven for the courage shown by their choice.
The first low chords were ‘still’ enough to convey a sense of mystery; after all, this is a work principally about death, yet at the same time containing music able to deliver a modicum of hope and optimism. And the choir almost masterfully offered a suitably balanced, quiet stillness in their opening choral appearance.
Like many choirs these days, the lack of tenor numbers cause an unfortunate weakness in the texture, particularly noticeable here – perhaps overawed by the challenging acoustic of the building – in their fugal entry during the lighter triple-time section of the funereal second movement. Nonetheless, the tenors that were present gave of their utmost and valiant best.
There was a fullness of sound from the voice of baritone Stephen Foulkes in the third movement, imposing himself in the musical mix. Brahms’ renowned setting of part of Psalm 84 for choir and orchestra allows the singers to enjoy fully their musical lines during the fourth movement.
In the fifth, Lesley-Jane Rogers, soprano, produced a glorious top line that seemed to send shafts of light shimmering through some of the sorrow of this work, here pleasingly accompanied by the choir’s gently blending voices in the background. There was a beautiful moment towards the end of this movement when the soprano’s voice magically dissolved into the sound of a clarinet.
Indeed, with outstanding expressive qualities heard from many of the instrumentalists, the orchestra really came to the fore in movement six with tremendously uplifting playing, exemplarily led by Elaine Patience, encouraging the Chorus and Choir to unleash a real sense of power.
This choral/orchestral jewel comes to a restful conclusion; still, as at the beginning, but with more comfort.
The concert opened with a vigorous rendition of the ‘Academic Festival Overture’ by Brahms, followed by a rounded homogeneous sound in Bruckner’s ‘Four Motets’, both works being conducted by Tony Allen most adeptly and with fine judgement.
On a chilly evening, Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra’s concert given on Saturday 29th January in a packed St Andrew and St Cuthman’s Church Steyning, concluded with a wholly resolute, robust and, at times, radiant performance of Mozart’s Requiem Mass in d minor. It followed a purposeful if sometimes bumpy rendition of J S Bach’s Magnificat in D, the other work on the programme. The assiduous conductor, Siobhan Denning, had occasion to bring the Chorus back to the rhythm and the beat of Bach’s magnificent music, holding everyone together and repairing any unsteadiness. Philip Adams, playing organ continuo with excellent solid support where necessary and a suitably discreet presence at other instances, ably assisted her in this endeavour.
Bach’s music never fails to inspire performers and draw an audience into its spiritual sound world. Amongst the glorious gems here were the exuberant orchestral opening and closing proclamations, highlighted by the trumpets; the lovely soprano line, sung by Claire Seaton with unforced musical expressivity, duetting with an equally fine contour from an oboe d’amore; a beautifully delivered melody from the bass, Giles White; a tellingly touching duet between alto and tenor (Deborah Miles-Johnson and Mark Bradbury), tenderly accompanied by some exquisite flute and cello playing; outstanding string ensemble support for the tenor’s mellifluous melismas; and, despite earlier choral worries in this difficult work, niggling concerns of time and place were vigorously overtaken by a surge of confidence from the whole choir towards the end of the fugue.
The Chanctonbury Orchestra, brilliantly led by Elaine Patience, was in particularly good form the whole evening, nowhere more poignantly so than in the scene setting instrumental interweaving opening of the Introitus to Mozart’s Requiem. It was mesmerising, beautifully balanced and led to rich and secure entries by the Chorus. Any little insecurities felt in the Bach were fully redeemed here in the comfort of a well-loved coat, with all its seams, creases and buttons in their rightful and familiar places. The choir dispatched a passionate Kyrie and a credibly strong Dies irae, complemented by seriously good playing from the orchestra.
Following the tenor trombonist’s beefy positive start to Tuba mirum, he then offered such subtle accompaniment for Mark Bradbury’s striking solo singing, that it clearly demonstrated the range and skills of these fine orchestral musicians.
There was exemplary singing from the whole Chorus in Rex tremendae. The elegant and warm sound of a pair of bassett horns introduces the Recordare section, which also incorporated superb ensemble singing from the four soloists. (Indeed, the two female soloists, Claire Seaton and Deborah Miles-Johnson, are a real find, with the natural resonances of their individual voices blending beautifully in duet, producing something rather special.) As if influenced by the four soloists, this quality was then replicated by the Chorus in the energetic Confutatis.
Lacrimosa, with its distinctive upward leap of a sixth in the upper voice part, was eloquently sad, with the choir and orchestra giving an excellent ‘rounding off’ at the end. The Offertorium sound was brilliant with good dynamic contrasts to the fore, as expected.
It’s a tiny quibble, but perhaps some clarity on enunciation of beginnings and endings of words would have improved and already good choral sound. This was especially noticeable in Hostias, but such small failings occurred elsewhere too. After the concert, a member of the audience suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that maybe Michael Gove might like to offer Chanctonbury Chorus his valuable experience in the preparation of Latin texts – as a volunteer, of course.
Like the Bach, the end of this Requiem may have references in its beginning. Lux aeterna brings the work to a close with some sumptuous singing from the Chorus in this particular concert, and although completed by Süssmayr after Mozart’s death in 1791, the whole masterpiece undoubtedly has the hand of Mozart all over it.
Dido & Aeneas
Now I have to admit that I am not a great opera buff so it was some trepidation that Saturday evening saw me go along to the Steyning Church of St. Andrew and St Cuthman to listen to the latest production by Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra, Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas.
In view of the fact that the opera is relatively short, the concert had been split into two parts. The part before the interval comprised five of Purcell’s works and short and very interesting and enlightening talks by David O’Dell a member of the chorus, about Purcell’s prestigious music output, his life and the troubled political and religious times in which he lived.
It was also in this part of the concert where the piece of music that animated the audience the most was performed. Two of the evening’s soloists Lesley-Jane Rogers soprano and Alison Darragh mezzo soprano sang the duet Elegy Upon the Death of Queen Mary which I later heard one audience member describe as ‘toe curlingly good’. I agree. Over the years that I have been attending Chanctonbury Chorus concerts, I am often amazed at the extremely high quality of the soloists and this concert was no exception. Lesley-Jane Rogers who also sang the part of Belinda in the opera is a regular soloists in Chanctonbury Chorus productions so her superb qualities are no secret to us, Alison Darragh a new face to us who also sang the part of Dido in the opera have strong but light and accurate voices which complement each other beautifully resulting in a really exciting performance of the duet.
Part two of the concert comprised entirely of the Opera. It is common practice with amateur productions to share the parts out between a small group of soloists, especially in performances where the action is not staged.
The part of the Sorceress was sung by Deborah Miles-Johnson whose confident manner and excellent Mezzo Soprano voice brought just the right amount of authoritative evil to her singing required by the role. Although the opera was not acted, nobody thought to tell the first and second witches were also sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers and Alison Darragh respectively who, to the evident amusement of the audience, donned black head scarves and suitably evil demeanours to sing their roles.
Mark Bradbury tenor, made a workman like job of the part of Aeneas and members of the Chorus were variously courtiers, people, witches and sailors. The continuo was played by Brian Sawyer. The leader and conductor of Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra is Siobhan Denning whose imaginative musical talent made this evening such a success.
On Saturday 27th March in St. Andrew & St. Cuthman’s Church, Steyning, Chanctonbury Chorus & Orchestra under the baton of their leader Siobhan Denning, performed their Spring Concert. The concert comprised four works; three for choir and orchestra and Poulenc’s Organ Concerto in G minor played by the Chanctonbury Orchestra and the resident church organist, Brian Sawyer. The concerto is one continuous movement and is described as having its emphasis on fun! It also gave Brian Sawyer the opportunity to demonstrate the power and superb tone of the recently refurbished organ.
Allegri’s Misereri is considered a simple work but the devil is in the detail and the ability to sing quietly and at the same time keep a good balance between the various voices is paramount. The choir was up to this challenge and in particular the deep tones of the basses created a wonderful balance to the chords throughout. Emma Brain-Gabbott’s singing of the soprano solo was superb. Miss Denning had placed the soloists in the west wing of the church which gave the whole piece a wonderful ethereal quality. The soprano solo which was sung by Emma Brain-Gabbott, came over particularly well.
Deborah Miles-Johnson Mezzo-Soprano joined Emma to take the solos in Pergolesi’s Magnificat. Here again the mood of the piece was captured magnificently by the choir.
Vivaldi’s Gloria contains some very catchy melodies and rhythms much appreciated by the audience some of whom described it to me afterwards as ‘a fitting end to an uplifting evening’. I have rarely heard the choir and orchestra in better form.
Messiah by Handel
The evening of Saturday 14th December in Steyning was dark, cold and wet, a thoroughly miserable but perhaps, typical December evening. The one bright spot in the area was St. Andrew’s and St. Cuthman’s Church where Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra were to perform that most imperishable of oratorios, Messiah by Handel.
The church was packed and, as the time for the start of the concert approached, an air of enthusiastic anticipation hung over the nave.
The first thing I noticed about Chanctonbury Chorus was the number of new faces on show. I understand that earlier this year, the Chorus ran a recruiting drive to try to transfuse some new blood into its ranks. This seems to have been something of a success but it remained to be seen if the Choir’s normal high quality of sound had been taken to even higher plains as a result of the new voices.
A last minute change to the programme saw the tenor Steven Brown drafted in as a replacement for the sick Mark Bradbury. Although Steven Brown was not asked to sing until the afternoon of the concert, his opening Recitative and Aria were a joy to listen to. He obviously enjoys his singing and has a powerful voice with clear diction.
It was at this time when I first became aware of a couple of gentlemen sitting near me – and these people are nearly always men – who knew the music and wanted to sing along with it – in a loud humming/muttering sound and about one octave below the melody. In my early days as a singer, one of my choirmasters called this type of singing ‘Fisherman’s bass’. This phrase now seems to be attributed to a particular computer game rather than to a really annoying irritation among an otherwise quiet and attentive audience.
From the first chorus ‘And the glory of the Lord’, it was evident that Chanctonbury Chorus had benefited from the extra voices although, it has to be said, a few more tenors would not go amiss. I was particularly interested to hear the extra sound produced by the Altos which contributed greatly to the overall very rounded and well balanced sound of the Choir as a whole.
Siobhan Denning, leader and conductor of the Choir, had gone to great pains to ensure that the Choir didn’t simply bash out all the choruses at the top of their voices but to introduce some light and shade into the performance. However, I did feel that the choir sounded hesitant when they were asked to sing very quietly. This was especially noticeable at the beginning of the chorus ‘For unto us a child is born’. This is written as a joyful chorus heralding the birth of Christ. Unfortunately, for me, the beginning of the piece was so quiet that it seemed almost as if the glad tidings were being greeted with something less than the enthusiasm that it deserved. The volume was cranked up as the piece went on until ‘His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, …’ produced a splendid quality of sound. It is absolutely right that light and shade be introduced into such music but I felt that the shade was just a little too dark to be really effective.
The habit of members of the audience standing during the singing of the Hallelujah Chorus seemed to have died out for a while but it was revived during this concert when almost all the audience decided to follow tradition. Standing during this particular chorus began when George ll rose to his feet. Royal protocol has always demanded that whenever the monarch stands, so does everyone in the monarch's presence. Thus, the entire audience and orchestra stood too, initiating a tradition that has lasted more than two centuries. It is lost to history the exact reason why the King stood at that point, but the most popular explanations include:
1. The Hallelujah chorus clearly places Christ as the King of Kings. In standing, King George II accepts that he too is subject to the Lord of Lords.
2. He was so moved by the performance that he rose to his feet.
3. He arrived late to the performance, and the crowd rose when he finally made an appearance.
4. His gout acted up at that precise moment and he rose to relieve the discomfort.
5. After an hour of musical performance, he needed to stretch his legs.
6. He was tone deaf and thought the National Anthem was being played.
The two female soloists Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano) and Susan Legg (mezzo soprano), both regulars at Chanctonbury Chorus concerts, gave their usual professional performances . Of note was the well loved soprano solo ‘I know that my redeemer liveth’ and ‘He was despised..’ beautifully sung by Susan Legg. Susan Legg (mezzo soprano) not only has the most wonderful voice but also a most amazing physical presence. When she stands up to sing, she looks around at the audience and smiles warmly to everybody and as she sings she looks at members of the audience with the expression on her face resembling a kindly teacher telling her pupils a story. This was especially noticeable in the aria ‘He was despised.
This was followed by Giles White (bass) who treated us to an exciting performance of the aria ‘The trumpet shall sound’ with superb trumpet accompaniment by Andy MacFarlane.
The oratorio finishes with the rousing chorus ‘Worthy is the Lamb’ which was sung superbly and brought to an end a most enjoyable evening of singing and playing by Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra and which was evidently much appreciated by the packed audience.
Mass in Time of War
One of the musical highlights of this year’s Steyning Festival was given by Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra at St Andrew’s and St Cuthman’s Church on Saturday 6th June. Siobhan Denning conducted a superb performance of the 1796 Mass in Time of War, eloquently making the case (through the music) for showing Joseph Haydn to be one of the greatest of all composers.
In this 200th commemorating year of his death, we have been luminously treated to much more of Haydn’s music than is usual, due in the main to the generosity of BBC Radio 3 as well as to local organisations like Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra.
In this Summer Concert, there was some beautiful oboe playing in the opening slow introduction of the Kyrie followed by crisp, sparkling solo singing from Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano) and Susan Legg (mezzo) as the Allegro moderato suddenly lurches the music forwards. The Chorus produced some spirited up-beat singing in the following Gloria with the Orchestra in fine fettle, including incisive cello playing from Richard Haynes during the slow central section that accompanied a telling bass solo from Stephen Foulkes
Haydn’s revelatory music, with its vibrant rhythmic interest alongside his usual one or two surprises, keep singers and audience on their vocal and aural toes. Chanctonbury Chorus magnificently rose to the occasion and, particularly in the Credo and the final Agnus Dei, sang with pure confidence and certainty to moving effect.
During the Sanctus of this Mass, the Leader of the Orchestra, Elaine Patience, produced some lovely playing and there was warm, delightful singing from Mark Bradbury (tenor) and Susan Legg. In fact, the quartet of soloists excelled in the Benedictus with expressive, colourful and balanced ensemble singing.
Because of Haydn’s employment of the timpani throughout this work, it has acquired the nickname of ‘Drum Mass’ and Oliver Tunmer played this part with subtlety and appropriateness during this performance from beginning to end.
Where there was no lack of conviction in the Haydn, the six Bruckner Motets that opened the concert were patchily good, with the Chorus occasionally on slightly shakier ground. That said, there was a pleasing demonstration of dynamic shading, with rounded, polished concluding cadences and impressive moments, the women sounding glorious in the third Motet and the men being particularly strong in the sixth.
In the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in E flat, which preceded the interval, soloist Andy Macfarlane gave an at times applicably ardent performance and at other times and aptly mellow one, yet always a fittingly fine interpretation.
Chanctonbury Chorus, in fine fettle, and Orchestra gave an invigorating performance of Mozart’s ‘Solemn Vespers’ of 1780, K339, as the second half of their Winter Concert on Saturday 17 January in St Andrew’s Church, Steyning and conducted by Siobhan C V Denning.
In the opening Dixit Dominus, the choir immediately produced a strong homogenous quality and this standard continued into the following Confitebor with some glorious singing. Mozart keeps things moving along in the third movement, Beatus Vir, Chorus and Orchestra serving him well here with a fabulous concentrated sound. In Laudate Pueri, a fugue in D minor – related both by key to his later ‘Requiem’ and by a particular leap in the theme to the Kyrie of that work – there were clear and well-judged entries from each section of the Chorus, with clean and agreeable interjections from the Orchestra, led by the excellent Elaine Patience. A gentler pace and mood greets the listener in the penultimate Laudate Dominus, with the soprano soloist, Lesley-Jane Rogers, warmly delivering some fine lustrous singing over the moving choral textural bed. The magisterial opening by the Chorus in the Magnificat was swiftly followed by some spirited singing from each of the four soloists, which included Susan Legg, Mark Bradbury and Stephen Foulkes, bringing the concert to a fittingly uplifting conclusion.
Although Mozart wrote his ‘Solemn Vespers’ when he was a young man of 23, one wonders from where the future audience is to come (and therefore, how this music is to survive) when so seemingly few young people attend concerts such as this. So it was heartening to see a couple with their gently audible baby at this one. Perhaps a bigger sense of inclusiveness needs to be made by all concert promoters in encouraging the young to attend or take part.
There was something slightly less assured about the first half of the concert, particularly the opening ‘Serenade for Strings’ by Elgar despite some delightful playing in the second movement. The small orchestra was ideal to accompany the Chorus during the second half of the evening from a balance point of view, but here the strings [four 1sts, four 2nds, two violas, two cellos, one double bass] were unfortunately underpowered in this romantic work. This drawback, however, seems more about insufficient financial backing than any lack of ability on the players’ part: Chanctonbury Chorus & Orchestra would clearly love more sponsorship and patronage!
Lesley-Jane Rogers’ lively vocal rendition of Handel’s ‘Let the Bright Seraphim’, was equally matched by the sparkling trumpet obbligato part played by Nick Trish. Vivaldi’s ‘Qui Sedes ad Dexteram’ was sung beautifully by Susan Legg, who has such an exquisite tone, with the Orchestra here sounding much brighter. And the evening’s four vocal soloists blended effortlessly in Mozart’s Benedictus from his ‘Requiem’ in a well-balanced interpretation.
The first half ended with a lovely contrapuntal and antiphonal interplay between Nick Trish and Andy Macfarlane (who had taken over at late notice on second trumpet) in the ‘Concerto for Two Trumpets in C’ by Vivaldi, a work that might have commenced this programme with a little more energy than was offered on this occasion by the Elgar performance.
Adur Festival Concert
Overlooking the river, in the imposing neo gothic structure of Lancing College Chapel, an appropriate climax to this year’s Adur Festival took place on Saturday 14th June. The equally marvellous Chanctonbury Chorus and Shoreham Oratorio Choir conjoined to perform two relatively recent British choral works to a packed – “like sardines”, someone said – and enthralled audience.
Superbly accompanied and supported throughout by an excellent (unnamed) orchestra, the first half conducted by Tony Allen consisted of John Rutter’s 1985 Requiem, a work likened by some to Gabriel Fauré’s gentle masterpiece. To this listener, however, the Rutter does not possess the consistent magic, subtle contrasts or anything as melodically memorable as that so cohesively contained in Fauré’s Requiem.
Nevertheless, there are some beguiling, attractive moments to be cherished by an unchallenged audience. A sweet melody for sopranos in the opening Requiem aeternam, a deep introspective cello solo to the second movement, Out of the deep; there is some spirited choral writing in the short Sanctus and a charming oboe obbligato passage (finely played) in the penultimate movement, The Lord is my shepherd.
The combined choirs’ diction was particularly good from the opening, as indeed it was during most of the evening. Unfortunately, given the difficult acoustic in this building, the bottom half of the choral sound did not always penetrate adequately; and there were occasional small intonation problems, undoubtedly due to members not always able to hear their colleagues. These niggles aside, there was a high quality to the overall performance.
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano) was on excellent form, delivering a natural pureness in her Pie Jesus solo, managing to fill the chapel with a full-blown sound on her final high note. During the Agnus Dei, the altos offered up a richly clear and lovely line from the middle of the texture, with the whole chorus producing a finely balanced warm tone in the final cadence. There was also some strong, passionate singing by the sopranos at the heart of Lux aeternam – the movement that ends the work in a calm, peaceful way.
The second half of the evening’s concert, conducted by Siobhan Denning, was taken up with The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins, premiered in 2000 and subtitled a Mass for Peace.
More challenging to both listener and performer than the Rutter (and therefore probably more rewarding), Jenkins opens his work with variations on the fifteenth century Burgundian song L’homme armé used by a number of Renaissance composers – notably Dufay, Josquin and Ockegham – as the basis of their own masses. The song’s dance-like tune is initially presented high up on piccolo (played flawlessly here) accompanied by a hushed – yet persistently disquieting – snare drum, followed by the variations that include an exciting canonic interplay between choral voices.
As well as selecting texts from the liturgy and English literature, Jenkins also brings in other religious beliefs including Hinduism and Islam; the latter markedly used here in The Call to Prayers, eloquently performed – unaccompanied, of course – in this concert by the Muezzin, Sanderson Topham, his sound conjuring up a far away place undergoing arduous times.
Once again, Lesley-Jane Rogers produced a radiant sound in the Kyrie (accompanied by some equally beautiful choral singing all underscored with ravishing orchestral playing), as well as singing with poignancy in Now the Guns have Stopped. One highlight of the evening came with Save Me, unaccompanied settings from Psalms 56 & 59 for the male choristers. It was here that the men’s commanding vocal mettle at last shone through in positive style.
One can understand why this is a popular work. For example, the Sanctus has a sustained, insistent rhythm and a simple harmonic pattern, all repeated at various levels of dynamics, providing engaging if easy listening. Kipling’s Hymn Before Action was not afraid to be announced by relatively strident discords and be followed by (what seemed like) film music, particularly in the orchestral writing, that at times sadly overwhelmed the chorus in this movement. In Angry Flames, there was a lovely touch on the word ‘merge’ as, from the sound of a solo soprano, the choir suddenly and subtly, if briefly, joins in. The cello solo in the Benedictus was exquisitely played in this performance by John Eady, particularly those high and possibly relevant ‘Protecting Veil’ moments.
The final Better is Peace reprises some of the opening movement – not a bad idea with which to conclude the circle. As it segue’s from the original song to a setting of words by Tennyson, there is something joyously Irish about the pipe and drum sound that dances its way towards the conclusion. Like a chorale blessing, however, these accomplished joint choirs sing a final coda a cappella to a setting of Revelations 21.4 and an anticipated outcome that is about hope rather than loss.
The Chanctonbury Concert which took place on Saturday 2nd February in St. Andrew’s Church, Steyning, was billed as a Schubert Extravaganza and with exclusively Schubertian works on offer, that was pretty much what it was.
The concert began with the Overture to Rosamunde played by the 27 piece Chanctonbury Chorus Orchestra leader Elaine Patience. This was a good opening choice for the evening’s music, since it set the tone for the rest of the concert. The Overture is scored for flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons in pairs, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, timpani, and strings and lasts for about 10 minutes. It is sometimes considered to be one of Schubert's finest orchestral pieces, filled with often catchy tunes and demonstrating his characteristic warm heartedness and good humour in a masterly utilisation of the orchestra's resources.
The Chanctonbury Chorus Orchestra has improved almost beyond recognition over the years. It is now a highly professional sounding ensemble and under the baton of the leader of Chanctonbury Chorus Siobhan Denning, produces a nicely crafted balance of sound sensitive to the needs of the singers that it usually accompanies. There is no singing in this opening piece, so the orchestra did not have that consideration but the sound produced was pleasant and enjoyable and well received by the almost capacity audience.
Emma Brain-Gabbott who had stepped into the Soprano role at the very last minute when Claire Seaton was forced to pull out at short notice showed that she has a lovely voice and she sang with great confidence and accuracy. The other soloists were the very professional Mezzo Soprano Susan Legg, two Tenors Stephen Brown and William Blake and Bass Stephen Foulkes and as with most concerts given by this choir, I was most impressed by the amazing professionalism demonstrated by these soloists.
Following the orchestral piece the soloists, with the exception of William Blake, performed four Partsongs accompanied at the piano by the highly accomplished Brian Sawyer resident organist of the St. Andrew’s Church. These four Partsongs are written in German but even with somebody like me struggling to get to grips with this Germanic language, the soloists enunciated the words so clearly that I was able to follow lyrics with relative ease.
The four Partsongs are written for a quartet of mixed voices. The four singers performed these lively and tuneful works as though they had been singing together for many years. The songs have the titles Lebenslust D.609, An Die Sonne D.439, Schicksalslenker D.763 and Der Tanz D826. Although I was not familiar with these songs An Die Sonne must have served as the inspiration for Howard Goodall’s signature tune to the BBC TV series Blackadder.
The final work in the first part of the concert was Ave Maria arranged for three-part treble voices by Henry Geehi. The ladies of the choir split into three well balanced parts for this piece. This particular arrangement is pleasant without being particularly exciting but it was performed well and was well received by the audience.
The second part of the concert was devoted to the Mass No. 6 in E Flat D 950. This mass, which was composed in the last year of Schubert’s life, expresses anything but the joyful message of the Resurrection. The Kyrie rings out with tormented doubts and deep despair which changes only with the string triplets in the Gloria. The acapella entry of the choir in the Gloria was excellent and I felt that the basses and tenors did particularly well in this section. In the Creed Schubert places an accented question behind each ‘I believe’ which, I felt highlighted the well practiced articulation and accentuation on the part of the choir as well as the inspired playing by the orchestra.
Once again in the Agnus Dei the tone of the music is predominantly overcast and gloomy with all the sins of the world on its shoulders when all supplications for mercy seem to be passing unheeded. All hope seems lost until the prayer for peace in the Dona Nobis Pacem brings with it the first green shoots of hope for the world.
This provided a moving conclusion to the concert which was followed by enthusiastic applause for all the performers.
In a Summer Miscellany, a concert of uneven quality given by Chanctonbury Chorus, Steyning on Saturday, it was more than worth both braving the extremely damp weather and the cost of the entrance ticket just to hear the entrancing music of Veljo Tormis and Henryk Gorecki, two living composers.
The work of Estonian composer Tormis, Kulervo’s Message contained a variety of vocal techniques, including chanting, whispering and brief Sprechstimme-like proclamations, as well as lines of quasi folksong melody.
The chorus, pictured right, produced some particularly beautiful singing during the last verse, when, thinking he had nothing left in life, Kullervo’s mother reminds him: “Still there lives my black dog Musti…take him to the wooded country / where the forest rises thickest and the birds frequent the pine trees / there to seek their assistance….with their favour.”
Perhaps leaning heavily on Baltic folklore, this piece – conducted and finely arranged for mixed choir from a quartet of solo male voices by Paul Robinson – embraced a healthy, pastoral primitiveness.
One had to admire Chanctonbury Chorus’s commitment to contemporary music for tackling such relatively unusual works as this.
While there was something pure, almost naïve about it, there was also a captivating layering of repeated monotones, with counter pointed melodic lines, including delightful canonic twists and turns that work well, as it mostly did here, only if the choir is sufficiently focused and prepared. The choir revealed some very fine and controlled singing in the Gorecki piece, too, here admirably conducted, along with the rest of the choral works in the concert by Chanctonbury`s excellent founding director of music, Siobhan Denning.
There was some tellingly commendable pianissimo work towards the conclusion of the piece, with the choir split into three units around the audience, making good use of sound and space within the building. Totus Tuus is perhaps Gorecki`s most well known work after his 3rd Symphony, and the chorus clearly felt more comfortable with the harmony in this piece compared to the more famous Adagio, by Samuel Barber, performed with slightly less assuredness earlier in the evening. Indeed, the Gorecki and the Tormis pieces, along with Lotti`s Crucifixus – once a start shaky on intonation had quickly been ironed out – as well as a jolly, breezy performance of the Sortie in E Flat by Louis Lefebre-Wely for organ solo given by Brian Sawyar, were all part of a sumptuous gourmet filling in a sandwich topped and tailed with popular, but slightly stale fare.
There was no comparison between the two tired Handel pieces (which opened and closed this concert) and the vibrant, magnificent performance of Bach`s massive St. Matthew Passion given by the same lovely choir on Good Friday this year.
This is, of course, a personal view, but there always seems something fresh, new and spiritual in the work of J. S. Bach, qualities which frequently appear lacking in the music or performance of Handel.
Having said all that, full marks must go to Chanctonbury Chorus for its adventurous historically encompassing and often enchanting choice of repertoire over the years. More singers from the coastal towns between Worthing and Brighton, as well as the country towns of Steyning, Storrington and their surrounding villages, should be encouraged to join this eminently engaging choir. The effort to do so would be vocally, socially and musically rewarding.
Put Mozart on the publicity boards and bring in the Punters, it rarely fails. And so it proved once again on Saturday evening when Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra performed a concert entirely devoted to works by the great composer. St. Andrew’s Parish Church was packed and I should be surprised it anybody attending the concert went home feeling short changed.
The evening began with the Orchestra playing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik the third movement of which, to my eternal shame, always reminds me of a sketch in which the Two Ronnies in one of their television shows, put words to the music. Nevertheless, the 26 piece Orchestra lead by very accomplished musician Elaine Patience, played the piece well until, unfortunately, a couple of violins got a bit lost in the last movement; the sort of thing that is inclined to happen in live performances.
The second work of the evening was Exultate Jubilate sung by a new face to the Chanctonbury Chorus concerts, the Soprano Claire Seaton Claire confided to me before the concert that the two works in which she was to be involved during the concert, are among her favourites in her large repertoire. Claire has a wonderful voice and it is little wonder that she has sung at, amongst many other places of note, Glyndebourne and in the BBC Proms. She has a powerful, controlled voice with superb breath control. She showed during the Exultate Jubilate that she eats top C’s and even the C# in the Cadenza, for breakfast.
The second half of the concert was Mozart’s Mass in C Minor in which the orchestra was joined by Brian Sawyer the resident organist of St. Andrew’s Church who frequently plays during the Chanctonbury Chorus concerts. This work gave us the opportunity to enjoy the second new voice of the evening, the Mezzo Soprano Deborah Miles-Johnson who came to the concert with a very impressive CV, where does the Chanctonbury Chorus keep finding these singing treasures?
Use the links below to read other reviews Deborah’s solo in the C Minor Mass was sung with wonderful clarity, accuracy and confidence; she looked and sounded every inch the professional that she is.
The section Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, a trio in E minor was sung by the two female voices mentioned above together with Mark Bradbury the solo tenor for the evening. Mark, another voice that we had not heard before at the Chanctonbury Concerts, also comes with a full CV and I, for one was impressed by how well he fought his corner, during this trio against the combined, powerful voices of the two female soloists.
Martin Elliot, the only soloist who has sung with the Chanctonbury Chorus before, was given only a walk on part during this concert since his only contribution was in a quartet with the other soloist. Nevertheless, he showed why he is a popular figure at these concerts.
So far Chanctonbury Chorus has been mentioned only in passing but their singing during the C Minor Mass was most enjoyable showing that the weeks and months of practice really had paid off. The choir was split into two enabling the two choirs in certain sections of the Mass, to answer each other antiphonally with passages of sustained sound. As is usually the case in relatively narrow venues such as a church, the male singers are placed at the back of the choir and as a consequence often find their voices being lost in the high rafters but on this occasion, they were strong enough to give an excellent account of themselves and especially so in the Credo. The Choir, which was generally well balanced looked and sounded as though the forty or so singers were really enjoying what they were singing.
As part of Chanctonbury Chorus’ 25th Anniversary, a 35-minute rapturous hymn to choral and vocal music was performed at St Andrew’s Church, Steyning, on Saturday 17 June by the Chorus and chamber orchestra under the inspiring direction of Siobhan Denning. This 25th Anniversary neatly coincided with the 60th birthday year of the internationally acclaimed composer, Michael Finnissy, who, fortunately, happens to live in the small market town of Steyning where the Chorus is based. Partly because of the round happenstance meeting of these dates, place and people, Chanctonbury Chorus commissioned Finnissy to compose ‘Favourite Poets’, a remarkable work full of vocal and instrumental colour, striking invention and musical architecture. Indeed, with its new musical language, this was an extremely challenging work for any amateur chorus, but the commission appointees rose to meet it with a focused determination, an honest openness and, in places, sheer delight.
The small professional orchestra – in which Elaine Patience proved an excellent leader – supported the choir superbly throughout, added to which were some finely executed and exciting flourishes of its own.
At times, particularly in quieter passages, the choir produced a lovely warm sound and clearly had a lot of fun singing about “a Pig that sat alone”, during the light and lively setting of a tragic-comic poem by Lewis Carroll. The small professional orchestra – in which Elaine Patience proved an excellent leader – supported the choir superbly throughout, added to which were some finely executed and exciting flourishes of its own. Significantly, the instrumentation for ‘Favourite Poets’ was the same as that originally used by Gabriel Fauré in his ‘Requiem’, ably performed here after the interval as an effective contrast to the magnificent opening half of the concert. Enhanced by the forces used, both works also benefited enormously by the beautiful building in which the concert took place.
Michael Finnissy cleverly set the words of seven ‘Favourite Poets’, including Edward Carpenter, William McGonagall and Vladimir Smolenskii, across 9 structurally imaginative sections, the first eight of which were all sung by the choir.
The very first setting had some magically shifting melodic lines for choir with off stage interjections from solo horn and viola. There was some ravishing choral writing (and singing) in the opening lines of the fifth section (a setting of an Arthur Rimbaud poem) with plain organ accompaniment, delicate harp arpeggios and gentle string pizzicatos. This elided into section 6, a poem about death by Matthias Claudius, where, although the music descended into gloomy depths, the composer also took time to aurally paint over each word of “lifting up his heavy hammer” using a gradually ascending scale.
The singing from the soprano, Lesley-Jane Rogers, was utterly focused and a joy to the ear, with incredibly dramatic and vocally acrobatic lines beautifully rendered by the soloist.
Finally and eventually, in section 9, the soprano soloist surprisingly and poignantly entered holding a low middle C on the word ‘Proud’, melodically rising enchantingly to sing ‘music’ (from Proud music of the storm) The singing from the soprano, Lesley-Jane Rogers, was utterly focused and a joy to the ear, with incredibly dramatic and vocally acrobatic lines beautifully rendered by the soloist, whilst the choir mostly muttered and sang their own quiet thing – until, at the captivating climax, everyone filled the church with a magnificent unified sound. The lovely Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra must perform this work again – and soon.
In his programme note, the composer wrote passionately of the selected verses as being “designed to mirror the lives of ordinary people and events”. The participants, through their hardworking endeavours and the insightful skill of the composer, lifted the occasion to an extraordinary level of experience. ‘Favourite Poets’ is also about cultural and collective memory. Certainly, this celebratory anniversary performance will be remembered. The lovely Chanctonbury Chorus and Orchestra must perform this work again – and soon. It is in their blood (repertoire) now, should remain so and be sung by many other choirs.
Mass in C
This year’s summer concert sung by the Chanctonbury Chorus at the St. Andrew’s Church, Steyning’ comprised four works; two well known and two completely unknown to me.
The concert began with ‘Come Ye Sons of Art’ by Henry Purcell. The choir sang this work with its customary well-rehearsed polish but it was also during this performance that Roy Rashbrook who had stepped into the tenor part’s shoes at the very last moment, first impressed the audience with his part in the duet sung with the counter-tenor Sandy Chenery. Purcell’s vigorous writing of this music makes it a work of celebration and this aspect was particularly well portrayed by these two singers during their duet.
The current Master of the Queen’s Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies was commissioned by a group of choirs including the Chanctonbury Chorus, to write a piece to celebrate Sir Peter’s 70th birthday. The Kestrel Road as this is called, uses words taken a cycle of poems by George Mackay Brown and it was particularly work helpful to discover that we were able to follow the text in the programme notes.
In Sir Peter’s own notes about the Kestrel Road, he describes the music as ‘…being challenging for both chorus and pianist…’. For my part I would add ‘audience’ to that list but perhaps the music grows on you – one person’s discord is another’s harmony so I am told. No matter my personal feelings about the music itself, I commend the members of the Chanctonbury Chorus and their Leader and Conductor Miss Siobhan Denning for the time and energy that must have gone into the preparation of this short work with the result that it was sung with impressive dedication by the choir who enunciated every mood to great effect. The demanding piano accompaniment was played by Philip Adams.
The second unknown piece of the evening was ‘Kullervo’s Message’ by Veljo Tormis who was born in Estonia in 1930. The text for this work was taken from the Finnish epos ‘Kalevala’ and this too was helpfully reproduced in the programme notes. Paul Robinson the Deputy Conductor of the Chanctonbury Chorus took over the baton for this work. I found much of this music bright and jolly sounding with pleasing harmonies which I thought, was in stark contrast to the words which seem to deal very much with battles and death. The Chanctonbury Chorus showed its depth of ability and versatility by producing a confident and interesting performance of the work. Here again Philip Adams played the piano accompaniment.
The final work of the evening was one of Mozart’s classics; his Mass in C, K257 and as in the Purcell composition, the choir was joined by the 20 members of the ‘scratch’ orchestra Leader Elaine Patience and the four soloists. The confident and well-balanced performance of this ‘Credo Mass’ was much appreciated by the audience. Stephen Faulkes bass solo gave a powerful performance in his usual relaxed style, whilst Lesley Jane Rogers who, happily, is a regular in the soprano solo roll at the Chanctonbury Chorus concerts, gave her usual professional performance. It was during some short duet pieces with Miss Rogers that the stand-in tenor Roy Rashbrook impressed. Their voices matched superbly and I for one would like to hear more of Mr. Rashbrook.
Review by John Tarry
“It started off really well and simply got better,” was how I heard one delighted member of the capacity audience in St. Andrew’s Church, Steyning, describe the Chanctonbury Chorus’ Saturday evening’s performance of Handel’s Messiah. I, for one, would not argue with that sentiment.
From the first chords of the overture, played by the twenty piece orchestra led by Elaine Patience and the recitative ‘Comfort ye’, sung so competently by the tenor soloist for the evening Nicholas Keay, to the final Amen of Handel’s popular oratorio when the rafters struggled to stop the roof lifting off this 12th century Church, the performers kept the audience entertained in a magnificent fashion.
Siobhan Denning, the conductor and leader of the Chanctonbury Chorus, in a short introduction of the work, told the audience that one of the reasons Handel wrote the Messiah was because he enjoyed writing opera but in the eighteenth century when Handel was writing his music, opera was banned during Lent. Wanting to keep himself in the public eye, Handel decided to write a work based on the scriptures, which could be performed during the period when operas were taboo.
The mention of opera was not lost on the regular soprano soloist at these Chanctonbury Chorus’ concerts, Lesley Jane Rogers. It seemed to me that in addition to her usual very professional and enjoyable singing, her performance included actions and facial expressions indicating that she was actually acting her part.
The Alto solos were sung by the counter tenor Sandy Chenery, whose rendition of the aria ‘He was despised’ moved one member of the audience to turn to her companion and to whisper “Beautiful!”.
Perhaps in keeping with the opera theme, Miss Denning had put a little more light and shade into the music than is perhaps often the case with this work. Although this worked really well for most of the time, I did feel that the choir had a tendency on occasions, to lose its vocal balance during some of the quieter passages due, it appeared to me, to the men making extra effort to keep their voices down.
There could not have been a single member of the audience who was not impressed by the powerful voice of the bass soloist, Stephen Foulkes. His first recitative ‘Thus saith the Lord’ made the audience sit up and take notice but his singing of ‘The trumpet shall sound’ with Simon Saville on Trumpet, was the highlight of a very enjoyable evening for me.
Review by John Tarry