Assembly Hall – 10th April 2011
Largo from New World Symphony and Stabat Mater
Conducted by Richard Jenkinson
We offer two reviews – one by Christopher Harris and another by Helen MacNab (previously General Secretary and Chairman of RTWCS).
The weather outside was unseasonably warm. The temperature inside the Assembly Hall Theatre was even warmer. The audience had gathered to hear two works by Antonin Dvořák, the famous Largo from his New World Symphony and the substantial Stabat Mater for chorus and orchestra.
Whichever work Richard Jenkinson, the conductor, had placed first was always going be a challenge for the orchestra since both start with exposed textures requiring good, clean ensemble playing. Quite reasonably it was the Largo which was played first with its resounding opening brass chords and famous cor anglais theme forever in my mind recalling a television advertisement for Hovis bread! The strings, led by Jane Gomm, produced some luscious sounds in their quiet accompanying passages despite there being a slightly reduced number of players throughout the section.The middle section of the Largo moved on with urgency before the main theme re-emerged together with those imposing and harmonically interesting brass chords. Some of the woodwind playing both in this movement and in the Stabat Mater was a little tentative but rehearsal time on these occasions is always very limited.
During the morning rehearsals there had been several technical and staging problems for the conductor to deal with and I was disappointed that in the afternoon so many latecomers were allowed to take their seats during the performance of the opening of the Largo. It is such a beautiful movement that it requires stillness from the audience, not to mention respect for the concentration of the players. In Bayreuth a late arrival means that a seat cannot be taken until an interval – this can be difficult with the works of Wagner!
The Stabat Mater consists of ten separate movements setting the text of a religious poem whose theme is the sorrow of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. It could so easily have become a depressing piece of music particularly as part way through its composition Dvořák lost his own daughter. Yet the comments heard from people who attended the concert invariably referred to the lyrical nature of the music as if beyond the suffering and anguish there is hope. Indeed the music starts solemnly with repeated F sharps suggesting the key of F sharp minor but by the time we reach the tenth and final movement the music not only recapitulates that opening but also moves towards the key centre of D major to create that feeling of “something better”.
The conductor controlled the moods and internal speed changes of the ten movements carefully shaping the tempi to reflect the meaning of the words. He also harnassed his forces to great effect in the third cortege-like movement, Eja mater, and the lilting fifth movement, Tui nati vulnerati. The chorus articulated their parts clearly though sometimes the release of phrases was less than precise where a final word ended with an “s” sound. The sound of the chorus was slightly enhanced of necessity by discrete amplification given the nature of the acoustic in the theatre. Interestingly the effect varied immensely in different parts of the hall being more effective in the circle rather than downstairs where most of the audience were seated. Despite the heaviness of some of Dvořák’s orchestration in the more excitable sections the chorus was never drowned out and managed to rise above the orchestral tuttis. Anyone who has sung his Te Deum setting will know that competing with Dvořák’s orchestra can be a problem! Having said that there were a few occasions when it felt as if the altos and basses could have produced more volume and resonance in their voices.
Of the soloists Erica Eloff, soprano, was especially effective being able to soar over both choir and orchestra with ease. Her covered high notes were especially impressive. Helen Sherman, alto, sang her Inflammatus movement to great effect and blended well in the ensemble items. Tyler Clarke was a late substitute for the indisposed Nathan Vale. His voice seemed to be on a slightly smaller scale than the other soloists. In the louder sections of the sixth movement where he sang with choir and orchestra it was sometimes difficult to hear his line. The quieter sections though were beautiful. Hakan Vramsmo, the Swedish bass, has a rich and powerful voice; it is no surprise that he has sung Schubert’s Winterreise.
It was good to see Royal Tunbridge Wells Choral Society tackling a work which had last been sung in Tunbridge Wells in May 1906 just the second concert that the choir had performed since its formation. Maybe the work with its somewhat penitential nature is not a great crowd puller- the audience was somewhat modest in size – but the Society need to be congratulated for presenting this work to us. It deserves to be heard more often.
© Christopher Harris
As a singing member of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Choral Society anything I may write is bound to have an element of bias. I would much rather be up on stage singing with the sopranos, but a nasty bug has attacked me during the week and removed my singing voice – temporarily I hope.
This concert of music by Dvořák opened with the slow movement from his Symphony from the New World. I shall probably be put down as a musical elitist but I find picking out an individual movement from a symphony uncomfortable. My brain keeps wondering ‘Where’s the rest of it?’ Having said that, the Largo is a very attractive and popular piece with a somewhat melancholy air. On this occasion it felt a bit too slow – Molto Largo rather than just Largo. It was certainly testing for the wind instruments which have a prominent part in this work, as they do in the choral work, STABAT MATER, that followed.
And what a choral work! And what a performance! As far as I was concerned the only advantage of not being able to sing was that I could sit in the audience and listen to a live performance of this rarely heard piece. The RTWCS has not performed it since 1906. This must be in part because it is suitable for singing on only a very few days in the year. Strictly speaking, in view of its subject, it should be sung only on Good Friday. Even those not particularly religious and interested solely in the music, might consider it inappropriate for a date outside Lent. It is a beautiful work, rhythmic and melodic, and there are some glorious combinations of chorus, soloists and orchestra.
The chorus’s hard work of the last weeks paid dividends. They sounded terrific. In this work the altos have an interesting and melodic line, instead of getting all the boring bits, and they took full advantage of their opportunity. The tenors have many important leads, especially in the first movement, and all the men excelled themselves in their movement with the solo tenor. The sopranos, so often the butt of jokes, justified or not, sang their hearts out, producing in the appropriate places a very sweet and tender tone. The movements in which soloists and chorus combine are much harder to bring off than it may appear. This is because of the unavoidable distance between them and the fact that the choir can properly hear very little of what is going on at the front. This is where the conductor comes in specially handy ! Richard Jenkinson, the society’s Musical Director, is to be congratulated on producing a great result throughout this relatively unknown piece.
The four young and gifted soloists were a bonus. Håkan Vramso, has a lovely deep baritone voice which will no doubt increase in power as his career continues. Tyler Clarke, tenor, who was a last minute substitute because of illness, gave a very creditable performance in a daunting situation. Helen Sherman, mezzo soprano, has a warm alto voice, her diction is good and she sang with feeling. These soloists, alone or in combination, came over very well most of the time, though there were a few occasions when they were overpowered by the orchestra – Dvořák’s fault in the orchestration or were the brass a decibel too loud ? The palm for the soloists must go to soprano Erica Eloff. She has a glorious voice, true and strong, controlled and carefully graduated from pianissimo to the most powerful forte. Even in the last Amen, with everyone and everything joining in, her last F# could be heard shining out through the chord. We wish all these young singers the very best of fortune in their future careers.
Our orchestra, most ably led, as always, by Jane Gomm, demonstrated their quality. There were prominent parts for the woodwind and the horns, and the strings gave us some fine disciplined playing.
The Lullaby movement ‘Tui nati vulnerati’, amongst others, is still ringing in my head. Let us hope that we don’t have to wait another 95 years before we hear it again in Tunbridge Wells.
© Helen MacNab
12th December 2010
St Mary’s Church, Goudhurst
JS Bach Christmas Oratorio (part)
Karl Jenkins – A Ceremony of Christmas
Choir carols included:
Head – The little road to Bethlehem, Joubert – There is no rose of such virtue
A Somerset Carol (Traditional), Joy to the World (arr. W. Llewellyn.)
RTWCS Choir & the Mayfield Band
No review available – click on image to view detailed programme.
13th November 2010 – in St John’s Church
Benjamin Britten – St Nicolas and Simple Symphony
Handel – Zadok the Priest, Bach – Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring
Merrill & Styne – Don’t Rain On My Parade
Chilcott – Irish Blessing, Mozart – Ave Verum
RTWCS Choir & Orchestra with the Choir of Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar School. Click on image to view programme.
MUSIC TO SAVOUR
From Handel to Britten, calling in on Bach, Mozart and somewhat lesser luminaries on the way, is a subtle device for ensuring as wide a programme appeal as a provincial town like Tunbridge Wells can provide – and the town’s Choral Society did this as well as anybody could on Saturday evening in St. John’s Church.
The venue itself was almost tailor-made for the occasion. Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas is quite uncompromising in its demand that a semi-chorus be located in a gallery – and that is precisely what St. John’s is able to provide. The wide space at the front of the building accommodated close on 100 singers, though the distance between the extreme wings of the phalanx meant that entries, particularly from the sopranos, were on occasions not unanimous. The twenty-or-so members of the orchestra, strategically-placed in front of the choir, provided sterling support throughout the evening’s music. They were a particular joy in Britten’s light (for him) but attractive Simple Symphony, maintaining a vigorous pulse throughout the piece, without sacrificing tonal sensitivity; the pizzicato passages were especially effective. The violas sang seductively, while the cellos and double bass provided the unobtrusive but firm foundation on which the other strings were able to build.
Handel’s Zadok the Priest is not often presented as an opening sweetener; it was sung with a verve and passion not always demonstrated by refined, smaller groups – and it was all the more enjoyable for that. What can be said about Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, one of Bach’s most wearisome efforts? It was negotiated competently, but with no discernible impact on the hearers – or even the performers.
It was an inspiration to provide a platform for young singers; the members of Tunbridge Wells Girls’ Grammar School and Skinners School Choirs, under the energetic baton of Sue Waddington, intruded some 20th century music into the programme. Their words were not always clear, and there could with advantage have been wider dynamic light and shade; but their singing provided a welcome variation to the full-throated contributions of the adult Choral Society.
“Anthony Zerpa-Falcon and Jessica Zhu exhibited quite breath-taking technique”And then we came to Benjamin Britten’s Saint Nicolas – or rather, it came to us, full face on. Jane Gomm’s violin solo instantly caught and held our attention, and was only further high-lighted by the sometimes over-hearty explosions of music from the tutti. For a pp marking, the choir’s first entry was remarkably robust; but it served to brace us for the veritable onslaught of sound that recurred regularly, and with huge dramatic effect, throughout the cantata. The Society was splendidly served by the soloists, and the audience were fortunate indeed to be treated to the magnificent voice of Jon English in the title role; his dynamic range was truly impressive, and had us on the edge of our seats every time the tenor lead was featured. He displayed much more than mere technical competence, breathtaking though that was; sensitivity, conviction, commitment to the character he was portraying – all were demonstrated with patent sincerity, and swept his hearers along to believe in him – and with him. The 12-year-old James Tweedy, in the role of the Saint as a young boy, was the very epitome of what is expected of a pure-voiced treble, though his first ‘God be glorified’ wobbled slightly pitch-wise; however, this was corrected subsequently. Natasha Smith, Beth Wright and Eleanor Van Der Zanden, made a convincing trio of ‘pickled boys’, looking the part, as well as sounding it, as they moved slowly up the church – a nice touch to symbolise their return to life. Anthony Zerpa-Falcon and Jessica Zhu (pianos ) exhibited quite breath-taking technique – fully up to the standard on the 1970’s EMI recording of the work in your reviewer’s opinion. It was a major disappointment that the church’s fine organ could not be utilised because of pitch incompatibility; but that did not inhibit the incomparable Christopher Harris from producing music by turns alluring and thrilling from the poor substitute available to him.
“ a memorable experience of very high-quality live music-making ”The Society is extremely fortunate in Richard Jenkinson, its conductor. He took the forces under his command with consummate skill through dauntingly difficult intervals and seriously challenging time values to such good effect, that the audience were only too willing to respond to his artless but skilful leading of us in the two congregational pieces ordained by Britten for us to participate in, sending us home with real satisfaction at having been part of a memorable experience of very high-quality live music-making.
© David Gurney