Power and might, yet delicacy and detail

Our thanks to Philip Sanderson for allowing the publication of this crit of our concert on Saturday December 2nd 2017, which was prepared for publication in the Sunderland Echo :

“Despite it was the Saturday evening following the most wintry of weeks, there was not a single spare seat and a very eager turn out in Sunderland Minster for Bishopwearmouth Choral Society’s concert entitled “On Christmas Night.” The concert, featuring music by Benjamin Britten, Bob Chilcott, John Rutter and Will Todd was led by David Murray, one of the North East’s most outstanding musicians. The Bishopwearmouth Young Singers also featured, along with soprano Jessica Holmes who also teamed up with Murray to add another dimension to this already varied programme.

The concert began with two contrasting modern carols: Rutter’s “What Sweeter Music” and Todd’s “My Lord Has Come”. The latter was a fabulous contemporary carol by local composer Will Todd. The performances set the tone for the rest of the evening. The choir was excellent: there was perfect clarity and voices absolutely well balanced and blended. All parts of the choir were strong: many choirs are good, but still run the risk of having unequal competence on all the parts. And Bishopwearmouth Choral Society certainly did have the expertise in all areas of the choir to present beauty, detail, shape and colour to these modern carols.

A tranquil wintery harp solo, “Au Bord du Ruisseau,” sensitively performed by Venera Bojkova seemed to almost act as a prelude to the first half of this concert’s substantial item, Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols”. This was a significant change in direction to the start of the concert. Texts taken mainly from the 14th Century are set to the unique 20th Century style of Benjamin Britten. For anyone who knows anything about choral writing, or indeed choral singing, they will appreciate that this set, of 11 short carols, is not easy .

So how did the choir handle this work? The short answer is incredibly well. They did a marvellous job. From the outset every word could be heard: the diction was pristine. The choral sound was fantastic. It came across, I’m sure to everyone in the minster, as complicated yet impressive. The choir had the power in, for example, “Welcome Yole,” but this did not compromise the clarity and the diction. The control and confidence prevailed throughout making remarkable work of the very rhythmically challenging sections, which, without the music, are tongue twisters in themselves at the best of times. In “This Little Babe” and “Deo Gracias!” the ‘imagery’ created by the choral sound was vivid. The carols were fast enough to ensure excitement and brilliance, but remained rigorously controlled. All of this energy was charmingly contrasted in “Balulalow” by the clear and pure sonority of the soprano solo by Jessica Holmes. And the whole piece was accompanied carefully by the harp.

The second half opened with a complete contrast: Murray’s “Oh, Ebenezer”. A fun bit of swing fabulously performed by Bishopwearmouth Young Singers. This was then followed by two fine solos from Holmes, which, just like in the first half were a perfect precursor to the main work: Chilcott’s “On Christmas Night”.

The Choir’s performance, including the contribution to certain sections by Bishopwearmouth Young Singers, did not disappoint either. Like “A Ceremony of Carols,” Chilcott’s work is based on a series of old texts. The moving opening was extremely well blended: the choir really showed off rich vocal textures that Chilcott creates. Again, the rhythmic nature of, for example, “Adam lay ybounden” was vibrantly communicated, contrasted with, say, “The Cherry Tree Carol” that was light, crisp and articulate. What this whole performance showed was a three-way understanding of singing and choral music: Chilcott’s (the composer), Murray’s (the conductor) and the performers (the choir and instrumentalists). The readings in between the carols were clear and well read by both young people and adults.

This concert not only had power and might yet delicacy and detail, but also it had a somewhat rustically modern feel. The applause at the end said it all. This was a wonderful evening packed with a lot of music. Unreserved congratulations must go to everyone involved.”

Philip Sanderson