Last Saturday (3rd March) saw a slightly unusual and nice freelance job, for a variety of reasons.
One was that it was an excuse to go back to Oxford – and remember how conveniently tiny the place is compared to London’s sprawl, and how spoilt rotten Oxonians are for pocket-sized chapels and churches with excellent acoustics and well-maintained organs, as well as excellent musicians.
The real pleasures though were the musical ones. I was playing viola in a Biber (not Bieber!) Requiem setting. Of itself, this counts as unusual. I for some reason rarely get to combine my loves of viola and fairly authentic early music performance; getting to do so in a one-to-part near-chamber setting with off-the-beaten track repertoire is an extra bonus.
Biber belongs to what might be termed the middle Baroque; several decades later than Monteverdi transitioning out of the Renaissance but a good generation older than the late-Baroque core repertoire of Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Telemann. It’s an era that only fairly rarely crops up in concert programming and stylistically sounds relatively unfamiliar (alongside, to my subjective impressions, late medieval polyphony, the galant / very early Classical transition of the mid-18th century, and most composition from about 1920 to the 1960s). Sacred music, of course, clung to heavily polyphonic textures much more than the secular move to chord-based sounds at the start of the 17th century; the result is that a lot of this setting sounded fairly genuinely halfway between, say, Tallis and Bach. The original scoring is for two violins, continuo, optional trombones doubling the alto, tenor and bass voices, and treble, alto and tenor viols, besides voices; we were using a very light transcription which moved the viol parts over to three violas, and dispensing with the trombones.
The unexpected delight of the day really for me was the choir however. Arcadian Singers are a chamber-sized outfit, numbering 15 on this outing, mostly young though not explicitly a student ensemble. In the first half, when I wasn’t playing and could listen with undivided attention, they sang two Romantic pieces with decidedly non-straightforward twists and turns of chromaticism. Not only did they navigate these apparently completely unfazed, they produced a dependable, confident sound across a dynamic range from a controlled piano to a still-sweet-toned body of volume that would be beyond many choirs several times their size (even if the scale and acoustic of Brasenose College Chapel were in their favour).
The Biber is scored for SSATB soloists plus chorus. The choir shared out the solos among themselves (in general solo or multiple-soloist sections alternate with chorus, rather than the soloists singing over the top of the choir) and again fared admirably. It was particularly notable that the conductor had been at understandable pains to get us instrumentalists (one to a part strings, but on modern instruments, and chamber organ continuo) to play down during rehearsal before the choir joined us. In fact in performance this proved more or less unnecessary, the singers balancing a normal playing volume comfortably.
This appears to be the Lent of Baroque authentic performance. I have seen (and had to pass up, equipment lacking) multiple adverts for period-instrument players, mostly for the Saturday before Holy Week; however, I am managing to join authentic performance, modern instrument group Ashford Baroque Ensemble on 24th March to accompany Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ Mass and d’Astorga’s Stabat Mater.
Meanwhile this week I have been recording band parts and string and mandolin overdubs for the Kindred Spirit album, and playing in the pit (an actual orchestra pit this time!) for half of a run of Oliver! in Chesham. The contrast could hardly be greater – if variety is the spice of life, mine’s a vindaloo …