Jubilate! The Froxfield Choir and West Forest Sinfonia, Holy Trinity Privett, Saturday 18th June 2022
I was invited by the Froxfield Choir to attend their 50th anniversary concert, Jubilate!, at Holy Trinity Privett. What a wonderful, celebratory event it was, although it coincided with a single cold, windy and wet day in the middle of a heatwave. On arrival we were serenaded by the Senior Jazz Trio from Churcher’s College (who had grown to become a quartet). It was a full house at Privett Church, with money being raised for Hampshire & IOW Air Ambulance.
The choir was founded in 1972 by Elizabeth Gotto who was singing tonight with the altos, and (one hopes), feeling a little bit proud of how her seedling has flourished. After the period of Covid restrictions which laid waste to many musical endeavours, the choir has consolidated its forces and boasts more than forty singers and an especially string showing of tenors. Celebrated, the Silver Jubilee well and truly was, with a crown doffed in the direction of Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. Proceedings were opened with a marvellously measured rendition of Handel’s Zadok the Priest, written for the coronation of George II and Queen Caroline in 1792 and heard many times since, including in 1953. Mozart’s Laudate Dominum followed, sung by Alice Howell, one of four young soloists currently studying or recently graduated from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire.
The Berkshire based West Forest Sinfonia then took centre stage with the Overture La Clemenza di Tito. The opera was one of Mozart’s last, and written in a great hurry, to commission. The West Forest Sinfonia revealed themselves as a tightly knit ensemble playing sensitively and triumphantly as required and with good rapport between orchestra and conductor.
The highlight of the concert was Michael Orchard’s setting of The Darkling Thrush. The result of a long search for suitable words, this poem by Thomas Hardy places the singing of a thrush in a wintry context (When frost was spectre-grey/And winter’s dregs made desolate/The weakening eye of day) and suggests why it would be singing in such circumstances (Some blessed hope/Whereof he knew/And I was unaware). Orchard’s response to the challenge of setting these words to music was well conceived, and constructed (as the best music always is) from simple ideas. It uses an original (slightly folkish) melody which is well-shaped, catchy and built on wide arching musical phrases. It is presented in subtle and appropriate variations for each of the four stanzas. What particularly drew attention was the depiction of birdsong. Many composers have emulated birdsong, notably Clément Janequin, Beethoven, Messiaen and Respighi. Orchard joined this celebrated group, and by removing the orchestral accompaniment at the third stanza, held our attention as the human voices were presented in delicate counterpoint with the avian voices, sensitively constructed and beautifully played by piccolo, flute and oboe. It was a wonderfully expressive musical portrait of the bright spot of hope in a bleak and frosty landscape. The fourth stanza, presenting the human hypothesis of why birds sing, was set to a recapitulation of the music from the first stanza. Rapturous applause ensued from audience and performers alike for Froxfield’s ‘composer laureate’. One is confident this will not be the last we hear from Mr. Orchard’s musical pen and I for one would have been happy if the piece had been encored immediately…
More Orchard followed with a re-scoring of Parry’s anthem I Was Glad for small orchestra. This was a highly successful reduction of forces with little resulting loss of impact. This is another Coronation piece (Edward VII in 1902) and provided a triumphant finale to the first half. The audience went out for refreshment, stepping bravely into the icy blast which greeted them.
Beethoven’s Mass in C followed. The Mass was commissioned by Prince Esterházy. Haydn had written several Masses for him and was a hard act to follow. Esterházy apparently described the work as ‘ unbearably ridiculous and detestable’ – one could possibly understand that verdict in the context of Haydn’s great success, but it was grossly unfair to Beethoven. His life’s work involved great musical leaps as he pushed the bounds of structure and harmony. We glimpse this in the Mass, but it is possible that setting words may have inhibited innovation. A more objective judgment would be that work acknowledges the old norms for setting text, whilst incorporating the dramatic and expressive elements of Beethoven’s rapidly developing musical language. Three soloists joined Alice Howell for the performance of this intriguing piece. They were Rhian Davies (mezzo soprano), Alexander White (tenor) and Johannes Gerges (bass baritone), all studying, or graduated from, Trinity Laban. Michael Servant had clearly done a good job bringing the forces together to prepare for the performance earlier in the day. He was calmly and efficiently in control of the whole thing, with an obviously warm relationship with the musicians. The resulting performance was cohesive and expressive. A few moments of uncertainty on the part of the soloists no doubt came from the compressed timescale for rehearsing the performance in the afternoon. Again, there was enthusiastic applause from the full house for this most worthy celebration of fifty years of choral endeavour in Froxfield. Here’s to the next 50!