Saturday, 21 April 2018

Brace of choral spectaculars were worthy of a Victorian Christmas

Henley Choral Society Christmas concerts | St Mary’s Church, Henley | Saturday December 9

WHEN one thinks of the great English tradition of choral singing the immediate reaction is usually to dwell on the magnificence of the northern massed choirs of Victorian times — such as the famous Huddersfield Choral Society.

But this easily ignores the considerable and well-established choral activities we have in the south of the country, not least in Henley, where the Henley Choral Society fielded three choirs, no less, in two sold-out Christmas concerts given in one day.

The Onyx Brass quintet made a major contribution, adding well integrated colour and weight to the choral accompaniments. This talented ensemble, on its own behalf, gave dazzling performances at both concerts of a Carol Fantasy and virtuoso arrangements from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite — immaculate playing that would have Salvation Army Bands in Christmassy town squares up and down the land melting down their instruments in despair.

This musical gorge-fest got off to an excellent start with O Come All Ye Faithful, the first of three carols sung during the afternoon concert by the congregation together with all three choirs, full organ and elaborate brass accompaniments.

The well-trained junior youth choir — 30-plus talented youngsters aged seven to 11 — sang two songs, Shoshone Love Song and Lean On Me, accurately pitched and in perfect unison.

A little later in the programme, this choir also fielded a soloist from their midst, little Lucy Beesley. Her clear and confident performance of the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City left many of the audience holding back tears whilst struggling to provide the remaining four verses themselves.

It’s a Christmas tradition that never fails to move!

The senior youth choir was not to be outdone. They contributed Herbert Howells’s lyrical Irish Wren Song and produced two soloists of their own, Thomas Harding and Zosia Lewis, for an enthusiastic rendition of Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town. Being at 12 to 17 years of age, they were all probably too old to believe a word of what they were singing about, but their performance was nevertheless very convincing and sung from memory with enthusiasm.

The Henley Choral Society (adult choir) also made three contributions, notable for their consistently clear diction, excellent balance between the voices and the close attention they paid to the conductor.

The afternoon family event ended with a stirring performance of Hubert Parry’s I Was Glad in which all three choirs sang together — the senior members being positioned around the junior choir as if to nurture and encourage them as they prepare to take over our great English choral tradition in the years to come.

The evening concert followed much the same format as the afternoon event but without the junior choirs and with two more carols thrown in to keep the congregation busy.

A welcome addition came in the form of three organ solos, played with panache by Daniel Moult. In particular his performance of JS Bach’s In Dulci Jubilo was masterful, getting to the heart of Bach’s ability to write music that stirs the soul even though it was written in a time when formality and technical precision ruled the day.

Onyx Brass added several welcome touches of humour to the proceedings, encouraging the audience to join in their performance of Jingle Bells by rattling their house keys on demand to simulate sleigh bells. It all added to the Christmas spirit!

Peter Asprey, the choral society’s very talented and lively musical director, was not above cracking a few jokes himself. He compered both events from the conductor’s podium briskly and with good humour.

At one point he promised that, on hearing the closing notes of Gerald Finzi’s Magnificat, we would be privileged to sample what he considered to be the most beautiful of all Amen endings. The choir rose to the challenge. The closing cadences to this work were indeed stunning and sung truly divinely.

The beginning and end of the evening concert were of particular note, embracing many highlights that are too numerous to describe here individually.

The evening had begun with Hildegard’s poem, O viridissima virga, sung with great purity of tone as a medieval chant by the soprano soloist, Valentine Ford. The antiphonal response came from a small chamber choir in the body of the church. This mystical piece began life over eight centuries ago in the depths of Europe and is still being sung today in all of its simplicity as a cherished part of our English choral tradition.

The evening ended with a glorious and thrilling outpouring of Hubert Parry’s anthem I Was Glad. The sopranos had saved enough energy to soar up to the final climax and fill the church with the perfect ending to a wonderful day.

The congregations had joined in with gusto and been privileged to enjoy a well-chosen selection of music that has sustained us over the centuries, comforting us in times of stress and inspiring us with its beauty and power.

The good people of Henley have every reason to be very proud of their choral society. The tradition of choral music-making here is in very good hands.

John Burleigh

PS Have a Very Merry and Musical Christmas and a Happy and Harmonious New Year.

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