Wednesday, 06 July 2022

Agony, ecstasy, and everything in between as director bows out

MUSICAL director Ben Goodson’s final concert, after three seasons with Henley Choral Society, absolutely lived up

MUSICAL director Ben Goodson’s final concert, after three seasons with Henley Choral Society, absolutely lived up to expectations.

Elgar’s monumental setting of Cardinal Newman’s poem

The Dream of Gerontius
, an ambitious choice, provided the ultimate proof of Goodson’s dual orchestral and choral credentials.

HCS were joined by the Lea Singers, who handled their own largely separate brief extremely well throughout, along with an orchestra of hand-picked freelance musicians, and three magnificent soloists — Joshua Ellicott (tenor) as Gerontius, Yvonne Howard (soprano) as the Angel and Matthew Brook (bass) as the Priest and Angel of Agony.

In the prelude’s lengthy, elaborate exposition of the main themes, the orchestra played impeccably, while Goodson looked as comfortable as any seasoned conductor in that role.

Elgar’s favoured violas excelled and the principal produced a fine solo.

Part one alternated between agony and ecstasy in an exchange between Gerontius and the Assistants, culminating in Gerontius’s death.

Joshua Ellicott, dominating with his commanding voice, was complemented by the chorus’s well-honed sound quality, while the orchestra was exceptionally sensitive in the “pain” section.

Matthew Brook’s arrival as the Priest marked a mood change as timps pounded ominously and the entire stage gave full throttle to Gerontius’s march to the next world.

Part two opened in a reflective change of mood (Soul of Gerontius) in contrast to the Demons section and, much later, Purgatory itself.

As the chorus rested, Yvonne Howard (Angel) engaged with the Joshua Ellicott (Soul) in a glorious duet, while cellos and violas provided a soothing modicum of calm.

The Demons, a frenetic and complex fugue, interwoven with the chorus, was held brilliantly together. One of several epic climaxes, choreographed with perfect timing by Goodson, occurred at the words “Praise to the Holiest”, where the chorus came into their own.

This was matched further on by the tremendous entry at “Take me away” — a carefully managed moment of silence broken by a massive percussive crash.

Further excellent singing by the chorus in Souls in Purgatory and stunning contributions from Yvonne Howard signalled a gradual winding down to some extraordinary Elgar writing and a serene, optimistic finale.

A plan for total quality had been realised in every detail — much of this down to Henley Choral Society’s gifted, now departing conductor, who will clearly go far. His legacy of significantly improved vocal technique and children’s choirs will hopefully endure.

For details of Henley Choral Society membership and future concerts, go to www.henleychoralsociety.

Review: Trevor Howell

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