Not content with two consecutive musical theatre pit runs, I followed up Calamity Jane by travelling to the further reaches of Lincolnshire (massive vote of thanks to Andrew for driving!) for a Sunday evening choral society concert. I’m never sure why there aren’t more of these by the way – or if everyone wants an early night before work on Monday (those of you normal people that work a set 5 days a week!), start at 6:30 rather than 7:30 or have a Sunday afternoon concert, which I’ve come across a few amateur orchestras doing but hardly anyone else. It surely can’t really be anyone’s interests to concentrate all musical performances on two evenings in seven.
This was my third concert among the ranks of the Lincolnshire Chamber Orchestra. It’s an interesting outfit in its own right – a freelance professional orchestra operating more or less as they usually do, at professional pay scales but with no fixed seats or contracted permanent members; players are fixed for each performance, though mostly from pools of regulars with ever more porous edges if large forces are required, a particular date has competition or people just don’t want to play one particular engagement. However, it has no musical director and as far as I am aware has never put on a concert in its own name. Instead, it exists as an orchestra for hire, doing choral society concerts and big cathedral / church services as requested regionally – and despite costing probably double to triple what could be achieved by hiring good amateurs, instrumental teachers and so on directly at semi-pro rates, it has built up quite a thriving business at it.
The event this time was a concert with Louth Choral Society, and it was an interesting mixture. The forces had clearly largely been dictated by the major work, Fauré’s Requiem, which made up the second half. This was being played in the earlier (more or less original, though the work went through several incarnations under the composer’s direct eye) orchestration; which calls for choir, vocal soloists, organ, French horns, solo violin and sections of violas, cellos and double basses. This is the only concert I have played (and there are not likely to be many others, certainly unless they are swayed by the same repertoire) at which viola players outnumbered violins 8 to 1!
I was surprised to find that this version has only been available for general performance since something like the 1970s, when John Rutter edited it from manuscript for Oxford University Press (Fauré produced a more conventionally orchestrated version once the piece’s reputation became sufficient to justify publication) – surprised because it now bids fair to overtake the full orchestra arrangement as the standard performing version. Even with a fairly small body of strings (we were 8 violas, 4 cellos and 1 bass), the effect is of course a darkness of timbre relative to a normal string section that is appropriately sombre – and perhaps curious given in general Fauré’s Requiem is renowned as one filled with hope, approaching death far more with heaven in mind than judgment or damnation.
The musical language of Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine is often commented on as similar to the Requiem, despite its composition being decades earlier. It does not seem coincidental that John Rutter had arranged and OUP published the version we were using, for almost exactly the same forces as the Requiem! Both were also notable for involving navigating truly heroic quantities of flats – the ‘black notes’ tendency of some organists and pianists being here apparently illustrated by a tendency to about six (especially in the home key of the Cantique). This is of course most difficult to keep track of, not in passages in the home key, but in chromatic sections where there may be so many naturals, or sharps, and changes within a bar back to the flats of the key signature that you lose track of what should be flat when there is not an accidental in front of it …
There were two pieces in this programme derived from musical material better known in its original form. One constituted the only other contribution of the strings as a body (including myself) to the concert – an Agnus Dei for children’s choir and SATB constructed by Bizet out of the popular Intermezzo from his L’Arlesienne music, which had for this event been orchestrated for the forces otherwise available. The other was a particularly peculiar piece of work – an Ave Maria Massenet derived from the Meditation from his opera Thais (the only work of his almost anyone, including myself, can name). The original piece is of course a violin solo, originally with orchestra but very often played with a piano reduction as a recital piece. Here, the solo soprano took over parts of the original violin line, with organ and harp providing accompaniment; a solo violin sometimes provided accompanying material, and sometimes the original violin line while the soprano had rests or a new melody wrapped around the original. The overall music is more or less bar for bar identical to the Meditation. It is evidently a challenge to the singer (here a teenage girl from the church’s choral foundation, singing it admirably) and probably highly effective if approached in ignorance of the violin piece; unfortunately listening to it as someone who knows the Meditation well (I regularly play it when busking) all too easily tends to become a sort of musicological parlour game of tracing what has been changed or not!
One other chamber piece allowed the choir some rest (they needed it – I do not think I have seen a choral society put themselves through as extensive and demanding a programme!); Howells’ early setting of Psalm 137 (By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, etc), written while he was prevented by poor health from active service in WW1 and scored for baritone, violin, cello and organ. This was completely new to me, and remarkable. To say one exactly enjoys a work of profound pain and anger is perhaps both oversimplified and misdirected; but I found it an excellent piece, retaining enough accessibility to not end up in the dustbin of gratuitous experimentalism while using the expanded possibilities of modernist (in)harmony and (a)tonalism to push expressiveness beyond conventional limits. Well worth looking up.
The final piece of the first half was in many ways the key element of the concert, and one in strikingly positive contrast to the (all too frequently accurate) image of choral societies as ageing groups of singers with slowly declining voices, treading a gradually shrinking circuit of warhorse repertoire with constantly diminishing vigour. At some point previously, a long-serving contralto in the choir had died, leaving in her will a sum of money to commission a new piece for the choir (and by the sounds of it some substantial notes on the desired characteristics of the piece). The society had considered and approached a recent Cambridge organ scholar who had performed at the church with the commission – one Owain Park, whose website reveals him to be all of 25.
The result, with much consideration for the bequeather’s known personality, is a substantial set of six songs for choir and piano, texts selected by the composer, and two piano interludes, which the composer conducted as an almost continuous musical experience. I was struck by not just the assurance (which could, carpingly, be thought to mean arrogance – not here) but also the taste and judgment of Park’s writing, direction and indeed spoken introduction (something I think ‘classical’ concerts would still benefit from more of – especially if it reduces the audience’s temptation to read printed programme notes during the music!). Certainly this could only have been written in the postmodern era, if there is such a thing. The pianist had clearly worked closely with the composer, and had to navigate some technically demanding as well as witty and sensitive writing. The choir were put through work that is rarely required of large amateur choirs, notably singing against some very non-triadic chromatic clusters and entering from silence, as well as some solos from within the choir and extremes of dynamics – and coped admirably. Compositionally, there was a great deal of ‘non-traditional’ musical language – but it remained language, used coherently and systematically rather than at random, and with caution enough to be non-aggressive to the listener (at least a reasonably open-minded and musically wide-ranging one such as myself!), appropriately to a set of texts weighted towards nature poetry and a work seeming particularly shadowed by the remarkable poet Emily Dickinson, while being in no danger of the somewhat saccharine streak of sentimentalism that bedevils a significant amount of lesser contemporary choral music. All power to Owain Park’s elbow, say I – but next time, write something the violas can join in with!