Thursday, November 23, 2006

Tallis Festival Concert 2006 review

Again, somewhat late in coming, a review of Exmoor Singers' concert last Sunday.

Exmoor Singers do this every year, quite apart from their other concerts, gathering together friends, fellow singers and ex-Exmoor singers for their annual Tallis extravaganza. In other words, the usually small-scale choir expands considerably to about 120, and Thomas Tallis' sublime 40-part motet Spem in alium nunquam habui is sung. There are other pieces performed as well, because Spem, good as it is, only lasts for about 10 minutes in performance (the scores make good fans on hot days, though, being about the same size as a broadsheet newspaper). The concert took place in the church of St Alban the Martyr, off Holborn, in the City of London.

This year, the companion works were Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor, and a new piece, specially commissioned for the event, by Jaakko Mantyjarvi, Tentatio. Tentatio was lightly accompanied by hand bells, and the Chichester Psalms by organ, harp and percussion. The other two pieces were unaccompanied.

Chichester Psalms was written in response to a commission from Walter Hussey, one of the great modern-day church patrons, whilst Dean of Chichester. The words are in Hebrew, rather than in English or Latin, which can pose some problems for English choirs unused to singing the language. However, that wasn't a huge problem on Sunday because of the organ accompaniment. I was sitting more-or-less in the middle of the church, which does have rather a resonant acoustic, good for singing a capella. The organ completely overwhelmed the choir and turned what they were singing into tuneful mush. In the first movement, where the organ was loudest, not a word could be distinguished. The second movement, very lightly accompanied, mainly with harp, was much better, giving the chance for the words to be heard (The Lord is my shepherd), and the alto soloist to shine.

The choir then disaggregated and reassembled in a different arrangement around the church to perform Tentatio. This was another 40-part motet, but instead of being arranged in 8 choirs of 5 voice (SATBB) parts as the Tallis, was in 4 choirs of 8 voices (SSAATTBB) and 1 choir of 8 baritones. The words were in Latin, and told the story of Jesus' temptation by the devil in the wilderness (from Matthew's gospel). The choir of eight baritones sang the devil's words. This was an excellent work, interesting, tuneful and dynamic, and well sung from all round the church (and even from above, in the organ loft). Big round of applause, for the choir and the composer, who was also singing in the concert.

After the interval, eight choirs assembled around the church for Spem in alium. This is something that gets performed every year, and it's probably quite difficult to conduct in the round. Mostly, this sounded excellent, quite sensitive a performance for such a large choir, though it was clear that James Jarvis, conducting, wasn't getting quite as immediate response from his singers as he would have liked. But then, once you lose your place in this piece, it's very difficult to find it again! The antiphonal effects came across well through the location of the choirs, too.

Lastly was Vaughan Williams' Mass in G minor. This was another work I didn't know, but enjoyed. The double choir effects were not quite as pronounced as they could have been, and there was a tendency to sing much too loudly, so that there was not such a contrast between the very quiet parts and the very loud parts. The solo quartet were excellent, particularly the soprano and bass, singing from the pulpit slightly above the rest of the choir.

I did like the fact that Exmoor used their own singers for the soloists, both in the Mass and the Chichester Psalms, showing that there is plenty of talent to be offered by the amateur singer, as opposed to the professional. And of course, it makes it all cheaper.

And that's the one sour note: very well, the concert was free, and we were asked for donations, but each of the singers had paid to be there, and it wasn't cheap either. So one did feel a little put off by the heartfelt plea for cash when most of us, knowing someone in the choir, knew how little this was costing Exmoor, and what a huge fundraiser it is for them.



At Mon Nov 05, 02:06:00 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It was amusing to see your review, which somehow had not been noticed before.

For your information, Exmoor Singers made less than £200 from the Tallis Festival 2006, despite weeks of work organising the event and a huge amount of effort by the choir in hosting it over the weekend.

Commissioning a new 40-part work is not free, nor is the staging, nor is the lighting, nor is the venue, nor are professional musicians, etc. etc.

Considering the event is a whole weekend, and comparing it with single day 'sing-from-scratch' events (with which it is not comparable in any case), it represents very good value for money, as supported by what participants say afterwards. Besides which the host choir could not do it for less as it would make a huge loss. Indeed had it not been for donations from the audience, it would have been entirely loss-making.

It would be appreciated if you changed your remarks accordingly.


Exmoor Singers of London (registered charity)


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