Spring 2011

Beethoven and Jenkins are unlikely bedfellows

THE Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, Pangbourne College, was the venue for South Chiltern Choral Society’s 2011 spring concert under director Gwyn Arch.  They were joined by the South Chiltern Orchestra, confidently led by Cristian Persinaru, and four young postgraduate opera students: soprano Fiona Howell, mezzo-soprano Laura Kelly, tenor Stuart Jackson and bass Gareth John.

The programme was as contrasting as it could be, coupling Beethoven’s Mass In C with Karl Jenkins’ new Gloria. However, the one thing they have in common, apart from liturgical text, is experimentation and a boldness of approach. Beethoven’s work took time to gain acceptance, while Karl Jenkins’ piece will resonate rapidly with choral societies looking for something at once accessible and different.

The performance of Mass In C was both a surprise and a joy to experience. Unusually for Beethoven, given his limited commitment to opera, this had more of a stage drama about it than a religious celebration. Every one of its substantial five movements had its share of roller-coaster dynamics. Especially memorable was the Quoniams fugue and the totally triumphant Amen at the end of the Gloria.   The soloists scored primarily as a quartet and were as balanced and complementary as any seasoned string quartet. They were particularly strong in Incarnatus Est, the Benedictus and the Gloria, where they posed and answered questions in true operatic conversational style. Controlled, sympathetic and mature, they would have graced any opera stage. The tenor and soprano excelled and were well complemented by the bass and mezzo.   The orchestra deserves credit for handling a busy and taxing role throughout. There were accomplished contributions from the oboes in the Gloria and a lovely woodwind, viola and cello entry to the reflective Sanctus. The choir was also up to the challenges, especially when battling Beethoven’s fugal complexity. Their attention to dynamics was always acute and sensitive.

A real change of century and style was heralded by Karl Jenkins’ Gloria. In contrast to Beethoven, Jenkins has a tendency to eke his works out with material repeated several times over or returned to later. However, what he lacks in Beethoven’s gravitas he makes up for with novelty, surprise, noise and sheer drama. With a single soloist in one piece, the choir and orchestra had much to do, their efforts interspersed with readings in Hindu, Chinese and Arabic.  The Gloria opened with a rousing brass fanfare and complicated passages for the choir. In the Prayer: Laudamus Te the sopranos excelled, while the chorus as a whole sang simply and effectively.  Several fine cello solos added quality to this restful and satisfying interlude.   Both the Psalm: Tehillim — Psalm 150, sung in Hebrew, and the closing Exaltation were frenetic, with complicated rhythms and more than a smattering of trumpet and percussion. They were separated by the work’s elegant centrepiece, The Song: I’ll Make Music.  A further opportunity for calm and reflection, this was sung exquisitely by soprano Fiona Howell and supported sensitively by a yearning orchestral accompaniment.

SCCS continues to impress as a competent group of singers who adjust well to whatever comes their way. And they, together with the audience, are always reassured by Gwyn Arch’s authority and calm direction.

Trevor Howell

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