Thursday, 24 September 2020

Evening of musical treats was perfect prelude to Christmas

Henley Choral Society presents ‘A Winter’s Night’ | St Mary’s Church | Saturday, December 7

SATURDAY evening saw a packed St Mary’s enjoy a musical prelude to the Christmas season provided by Henley Choral Society.

The choir’s Christmas concert has become a much anticipated and appreciated part of the town’s festive celebrations. This year it was full of sparkle and cheer, with some well-known carols and some less familiar delights.

Sir George Dyson’s joyful Magnificat in D opened the programme. Its single organ chord opening, followed by the choir’s glorious, full-throated wall of sound filled the church.

Later we were to hear Dyson’s Nunc Dimittis, which, with the Magnificat in D, is part of the composer’s Evening Service. This is a much quieter and more reflective piece, though still rich in texture.

Under its musical director, Peter Asprey, the choir sang with great feeling, attack and control.

During the evening the audience was invited to join in singing five carols, which they did with great gusto.

The choir also treated us to more carols — perhaps the outstanding one being Holst’s setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem In the Bleak Midwinter. This was performed with controlled pace, pianissimo, fading to a contemplative last line.

Another choir carol, We Three Kings, had fine contrasting solos from choir members Graham Marsden, David Lewis and Hugh Richardson.

The seniors of the Henley Youth Choir added their pure young voices to the concert, singing Chilcott’s The Three Kings and the traditional Sussex Carol. Their competence, musicality and obvious enjoyment are a tribute to their inspirational musical director, Jessica Norton.

Many youthful, talented professional musicians have performed with Henley Choral Society and on Saturday the audience was treated to the rich, mellow baritone of Dan D’Souza.

He was a last-minute stand-in but gave the appearance of having rehearsed extensively with the choir. He gave an impeccable performance of the Peter Cornelius songs and his voice soared above the choir in the beautiful Drei Könige.

He and the choir obviously enjoyed singing the rollicking Spanish song Riu Riu Chiu, he in the verses, they in the choruses.

Another outstanding performer of the evening was the organist Richard Moore. He gave a stunning performance of Joseph Jongen’s Toccata in Bb, a fast, furious and fiendishly difficult work, which the audience acknowledged with enthusiastic applause.

The evening’s finale was Cecilia McDowall’s A Winter’s Night, sung by both the adult and junior choirs. It must have been both exciting and a little daunting for them to have the composer sitting in the audience.

The piece consists of settings of well-known carols interwoven with delicate part-singing. The composer took a gracious bow at the end, applauding all the performers, as did the audience. The choir has a treat in store, as Cecilia McDowall will compose a piece specially to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

If I have one quibble with Peter Asprey’s otherwise excellent programming, it is with the order of performance. I think it would have been good to end with an audience carol, with everyone in the church being given a last chance to join in.

That said, this was an evening of delights new and old, with the choir in extremely good voice, its enjoyment of the music communicating itself to the audience. This was truly an evening of musical treats.

Ann Ducker

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