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Review of November Concert 2017

Choral on fine form

Dumfries Choral Society is in a good place. This is due, one thinks, largely to the fine work by Ed Taylor, a young conductor of prodigious musicianship. Saturday night’s concert to a packed house demonstrated what can be achieved by a rural choir finely tuned. Help, cues and encouragement are rarely given so generously. The concert opened with an arresting and breath-taking delivery of the word “Maria!” in Gorecki’s ever popular Totus Tuus (Completely Yours). The tension held splendidly before dying away in resignation and acceptance. The piquant harmonies were delicately wrought and attention to dynamic detail was fastidious, thus moving. Faure’s Cantique received similar treatment with excellent French, fine singing from the men and beautiful phrasing with swelling and dying in the tuttis moulded chiefly by the passionate (and lucid) gestures of the conductor. Margaret Harvie’s delicate, harp-like piano accompaniment rippled along beautifully. As a short break from the singing (in a programme making huge demands on the choir), we were treated to Faure’s mysterious and absorbing Pavane played by organist John Kitchen. Extraordinary playing from this masterful musician who brought out textures in the piece I somehow missed in the orchestral version. Throughout the concert his accompaniments were a virtuosic display of support and balance. Delius once suggested to Elgar that he would be a great composer if he “ditched all the religious paraphernalia”, but we would be bereft of gems like his Ave Verum, here delivered with child-like beauty by the sopranos. Elgar certainly could knock out popular tunes and we all fell for it. His wonderful descending chromatic phrases in the bass lending weight and authority to an otherwise lightweight piece. Franck’s Panis Angelicus was sung as well as I’ve ever heard it. The thrill of the canon was well realised and the effect well managed with, again, some fine musical phrasing from all singers swelling and dying without shame. My sense was that the choir were now really warming up and ready to tackle Tavener’s challenging piece that saw the egress of Princess Diana’s coffin from Westminster Abbey. Both Gorecki’s and Tavener’s music has faded a little in recent years (since they both died) but Tavener’s name will forever be etched on the nation’s consciousness because of his Song for Athene. It was a difficult piece to bring off in the slightly dry interior of St. John’s church without the glorious all-enveloping acoustics of a huge abbey and Ed Taylor’s decision to take the work at a slightly faster tempo paid dividends. The sustained giant blocks of chords were hugely impressive and the climax superbly well-handled before the basses bravely faced the terrifying coda that fades away to virtually nothing. A most satisfying ending to a delightful first part. A fellow listener opined to me “This is one of the best concerts the choral has given in years”. I heartily agree. Part two was reserved for one work – the Requiem in C Minor by Cherubini. Poor Cherubini. On the one hand he was lambasted by Napoleon for creating music that was “too noisy” and on the other by Beethoven who “loved and honoured” him. The requiem is a curious mixture of fresh, original music of its time but there’s also much harking back to the styles of Mozart and Haydn. The opening Introit eerily evokes coffins, candles and dark cathedrals and was very obviously a model for Verdi in his later masterpiece. This was exciting in its restraint and atmosphere with, again, some excellent and effective swelling and dying. In such circumstances diction always needs attention but having a splendid programme to hand with all the text certainly helps. After a beautiful graduale the only dramatic episode of the evening – the Dies Irae (Day of wrath) called us to account. After a chilling fanfare (sadly without a large gong!) the choir launched into the exciting canon that builds ominously. Its wholly operatic language was well gauged by the singers and led to some thrilling climaxes thrashed out with relish by Ed Taylor. Too many facial expressions and eyes (downward) stayed fixed making me less terrified by the thought of Hell, but this was still a gripping performance. There was more of the same in the Confutatis and in the Lacrymosa (tears), the tricky vocal sforzandos were extremely effective. After the Dies Irae, for me at any rate, Cherubini’s inspiration faded and the work then loses its way a little. The movements become more classical and formulaic and therefore less absorbing. Not even the colossal double fugue at Quam Olim, though deftly managed here, held the interest for long. The final dying phrases with their repeated single notes proved hypnotic and a very satisfying performance came to rest. Commendable singing from a well-rounded, well-balanced choir. Dumfries is fortunate to have them and surely with Maestro Ed Taylor at the helm, future concerts hold much promise.

Review of Spring Concert 2017

Music-making of a high order

Review in Dumfries and Galloway Standard by Brian York

The Spring concert from Dumfries Music Society was held in St.John`s Church, Dumfries, on Saturday evening, 1st. April. We have become accustomed to interesting and challenging, but well-balanced programmes from this group; this concert was no exception. This time around, they showcased two English composers, more or less contemporaries, one well-known, the other not known to me at all. These were Ralph Vaughan Williams, and George Dyson.

The evening got off to a good beginning with a crisp performance of a short choral piece by Dyson, “O Praise God in His Holiness”.  Not being familiar with the piece, I am unable to comment, except to say that it fell happily on my ear. Perhaps the male voices struggled a little here, but this has been mentioned before and need attract no further comment.
Next came a delightful choral piece by Vaughan Williams, “O Taste and See”, receiving a balanced performance by the Choral, and a well-sung solo by Lesley Creamer. Good part-singing was in evidence, and this has been remarked in previous concerts.
Dyson`s “Three Songs to Julia” were altogether charming things – reminding us that so many composers of merit fall into unjust neglect. Bass, Michael Deakin had a bit of work to do here, and got better as the songs progressed, (at first I detected some insecurity in intonation, and a bit of harshness in tonal quality.)
But, for me, the most delightful music of the first half were the lovely “Five Mystical Songs” by Vaughan Williams. Here the Choral really rose to the spirit of the music, and Tenor Jonathan Millican sang with faultless intonation and great beauty of voice quality. This was evocative music of a very high order. I loved it.

If we had got into an English pastoral comfort-zone before the interval, we were quickly ejected out of it afterwards. Dyson`s “Nebuchadnezzar” a short oratorio or extended cantata, in four parts, occupied the entire second half. This was exceedingly complex, challenging music, both melodically and harmonically. It is altogether to everybody`s credit that they managed to prepare this to such a high level of performance in but a few weeks` rehearsal time. Bravo, I say.

This was a most successful evening; there was not a capacity audience, but those who were there were treated to music-making of a high order. The Choral were vigorous and responsive, achieving some truly powerful moments in “Nebuchadnezzar”. Both soloists had a lot of difficult work of which they acquitted themselves remarkably. Organist Jordan English had his work cut out as well, and both he and Margaret Harvie provided faultless accompaniment - a bedrock - in this most challenging, difficult programme.

Thanks, finally, are due to Edward Taylor, musical director, whose infectious enthusiasm was apparent throughout the evening.

Review of November Concert 2015

Triumph for Dumfries Choral Society

Review in Dumfries & Galloway Standard, published Friday 18 December 2015 

A performance of Handel’s Messiah is frequently a first sign of the Christmas Season.  This well known Oratorio, first performed in Dublin in April 1754 was originally intended as a piece for Lent and indeed the whole of the second half relates to Christ’s suffering and eventual death and resurrection.  However the  familiar choruses especially “The Hallelujah” and  solos such as “I know that my Redeemer Liveth” have given the work universal popularity.  We have not heard it here in Dumfries in its entirety for some years and I believe that this increased the anticipation of the prospective audience and led to the almost more than capacity audience,  packed in to St John’s Church on Saturday evening.

Those present on this occasion were most certainly not disappointed, as the tumultuous applause at the end of the performance signified.  Orchestra, Choir, Soloists and Conductor all deserve high praise for their various contributions. 

It was a  real pleasure to have the accompaniment of a small but competent group of players, ably led by Susan Smyth.  The ensemble  worked well together and minor flaws  were quickly forgotten They are especially to be praised as only a few play together regularly and this was their first meeting with Conductor and Choir.   While the trumpet playing was not perfect it is always an exhilarating sound!

The Choral Society appears to have recruited about twenty new members this season, many of them younger voices and their presence noticeably improved the general tone of the choir, in particular the tenor section is now on equal footing with the basses.  Very well disciplined and paying careful attention to the conductor, the singers performed splendidly.  The diction was good and the dynamics very effective.   Perhaps an occasional lapse in intonation could be observed and while on the whole the parts were well balanced,  just sometimes the sopranos dominated and individual voices could be heard.   Edward Taylor,  the Choir’s new, young conductor, however,  had very firm control and his musicality has made a strong impression already in this his first outing with the Society. 

The four soloists, all sometime  graduates of the Royal Scottish Conservatoire,  performed with distinction.  The Contralto, Taylor Wilson,  sang with great feeling particularly in  “He was despised” and was a valuable member of the group.  Tenor, Ronan Busfield sang with the Choral Society a few years ago with distinction as the Evangelist in the St. John Passion and his “Comfort Ye my People” was delightful.  His voice however seemed to tire in his final aria.  He was probably suffering from the all prevalent cold!  It was a pleasure to welcome back a former Choral conductor in Nicola Junor.   Her voice was clear, pure and effortless and her breath control amazing.  Her singing of both her major arias, “ Rejoice Greatly” and “I know that My Redeemer Liveth” was a sheer delight.  To the same degree Andrew McTaggart delighted the audience with his dramatic, operatic performance making the audience take instant notice on his first appearance.  He has a voice of such power and yet capable of gentleness that he is bound to be in great demand.  His diction too was beyond praise making “The Trumpet Shall Sound” a final solo of great beauty.

Finally in charge of the whole performance was Musical Director, Edward Taylor.  Appointed to the Choral Society in August,  he showed that he has already made his mark for good on the singers.  Diction has improved, eye contact much  more apparent and small but noticeable changes in style observed.  All this added to the success of the performance but it was his complete mastery of choir, orchestra, soloists that made the evening such a resounding success.

We, therefore,  look forward with considerable expectation to the Christmas Concert in St John’s Church on 19th December and further ahead to the Easter concert on 18th March 2016, also in St John’s, where works by John Rutter,  Andrew Carter and George Shearing will be performed.

Once again congratulations to all concerned for a memorable evening made all the more poignant in contrast with the evil deeds being perpetrated round the world at this time in Mali, Syria and Paris.

Review of Spring Concert 2015

Spring in the step after Choral Concert

Review in Dumfries and Galloway Standard by Brian York

Those with long memories will recall, on the occasion of the Queen’s 60th birthday in 1986, a ditty performed by an army of Cockney kids belting out before the poor lady`s very bedroom “ Appy birfday Marm, Gawd bless ya ...” Now this was a serious lapse of taste which has haunted me ever since and which I had always ascribed to Malcolm Williamson. However, I was wrong as it turned out, so that I was, thankfully, able to approach the Society’s Spring concert in St. John’s Church, Dumfries, with an open mind, at least. 

As we have now come to expect, a strong start was made and the choir continued to produce a unified and taut account of Williamson’s “Procession of Palms”.
There were many commendable moments in this short work. I appreciated the well- disciplined control of the terraced dynamics near the start, noting also the soprano, Emma Versteeg’s powerful and grateful voice and the tenor, Paul Featherstone, with his equally powerful contribution, well-modulated voice control and excellent diction. Both managed to adjust to the acoustic of the space and far-from-capacity audience. 

This was a pleasing start.
Next came a work unknown to me – Carl Nielsen’s “Springtime on Funen”. This is an entirely pleasant piece, full of appropriate seasonal joie-de-vivre and conceived in a relatively unchallenging musical idiom. It was given an equally satisfying account, to my ears. This is not, of course, to claim that it was ‘easy’ because all had a lot of work to do. The baritone, Anders Ostberg, was, everywhere, quite superb and I loved the interplay between soloists and choir in the delightful “See, apple blossoms falling ....” involving all three soloists. This joyful music was made to sound just that.
The second half consisted of two movements, “Spring” and “Summer” from Haydn`s great Oratorio “The Seasons”. Although the musical idiom is, of course, entirely Viennese Classical, it is nonetheless an ambitious and challenging sing. Less well known than Haydn’s other masterpiece, “The Creation”, it received a buoyant performance which at times was quite moving and managed to convey Haydn’s innocent delight as he beholds the miracle of Spring. Some people have problems with what they regard as a slightly gauche text – but I love it. If you worry about these things you should keep clear of Mozart’s operas as the libretti often make no sense at all. It is the music that is the glory of it and everybody rose to this producing a sympathetic, if not flawless, performance. 

An evening of many delights. Especial thanks are due to all three soloists and to John Kitchen, whose very demanding organ part throughout the Haydn was accomplished with his usual aplomb, which we have come to regard as axiomatic. Likewise, Margaret Harvie’s piano accompaniment in the Nielsen was, as usual, polished and proficient. 

Lastly, our enormous gratitude is due to Ian Hare who is, sadly, stepping down from his post as Musical Director of this Society. Everybody will, I am sure, extend their sincere thanks and best wishes to him. 

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