The members of Froxfield Choir were blessed with a beautiful evening for Saturday’s summer concert in the lovely setting of Holy Trinity, Privett, directed by their conductor, Michael Servant. Birdsong and an open-air drinks table greeted the capacity audience with a garden-party atmosphere. Inside the church, ‘It’s a big orchestra’, commented my neighbour, looking at the players of West Forest Sinfonia as they warmed up – from the bass drum and cymbals by the north wall to the tuba half hidden by a pillar in the south aisle. The orchestra, with a small, hard-working contingent of strings alongside full symphonic woodwind, brass and percussion, was only given six lines in the printed programme, and the players – not even the leader, who took a distinguished solo part in the Vaughan Williams Serenade – were not named. But the size and composition of the orchestra were to prove to be some of the defining elements of the evening.
The concert opened with an arrangement of ‘Two Folksongs and a Shanty’ by Michael Orchard. The choir is indeed fortunate to have in its ranks such a capable and sympathetic composer. In the fine acoustic of Holy Trinity, the orchestral sound itself was a delight, and the sensitive scoring – with the choir introducing itself a capella, and the ladies delicately accompanied by harp – allowed the choral sound plenty of space. Each song conveyed a clear character: the witty courting dialogue of the young man and his girl in ‘Come, Write me Down’; the gentle pastoral atmosphere of ‘It’s a Rosebud in June’ with its atmospheric string introduction and conspicuous tambourine; and a contrastingly rumbustious style in the shanty ‘Roll the Woodpile Down’, where the audience managed a shy response to the invitation to join in the chorus. Only in the fully-scored last verse was it clear how easily the orchestra might overpower the 36-strong choir.
Alice Howells was the impressive soloist in Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music, a unique work that was originally written for 16 individual top-flight singers (each with a solo section as well as joining in the ensemble) and sets some of Shakespeare’s finest lines about the place of music in both the physical and moral spheres. Vaughan Williams’ warm scoring and rich choral textures created a sumptuous effect at the start; Alice took all the soprano and alto solo sections, soaring splendidly over the orchestral colours, in particular in the exalted phrase that closes the work. The men’s solos were sung chorally by the tenor and bass sections of the choir; it’s an option that Vaughan Williams himself proposed, but perhaps one that doesn’t mix comfortably alongside such an accomplished soloist.
The first half ended with Michael Orchard’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, receiving a welcome second performance after its successful premiere at last year’s summer concert. Orchard’s new settings of actual folk songs provided the context for its easy flow and shapely, traditional-sounding melody. The evocation of bird song in the central section was ably handled by woodwind soloists though the section as a whole felt perhaps less secure than the tuneful opening and closing passages.
After the interval came Poulenc’s Gloria, the work that gave the concert its title. Appealing in its unusually cheery approach to the sacred text, there is a degree of risk in this choice: the choral writing is not the sort of ‘good sing’ that amateur choirs thrive on, and the Latin is set with a French accentuation unfamiliar to English singers. The fast movements are full of short, spiky phrases, difficult to pitch for the lower voices; there are few extended passages for full chorus; the orchestration is bright and colourful, with an attack and resonance that a fairly small choir can hardly be expected to match. With tenors and basses at the front, and sopranos and altos spreading out behind, the singers were well arranged to make the most of their numbers, and worked hard, but a degree of impact was often lost, when entries took a note or two before everyone was on board. The slow movements were much more successful; here, the choral writing becomes a dialogue between choir and soloist, and the orchestral scoring is lighter. Alice Howells brought a beautiful, even tone and legato to the sinuous lines of the soprano solo, and the final pages of the work, in particular, created a compelling atmosphere of spirituality.
Sibelius’ Finlandia made an impressive conclusion to the evening, prompting the supportive audience to shouts of ‘encore’ and enthusiastic applause.