November 2019: Saints and Angels

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Saturday 23 November 2019
St David's Church, Exeter

Kieran White - tenor
Peter King - organ
David Ogden - guest conductor

To perform a concert to such a high standard on only three rehearsals with a guest conductor is an indication of the continuing excellence of the Exeter Festival Chorus.  The basics had been prepared by their music director, Nigel Perrin, and it was then up to the guest conductor, David Ogden, to do the final preparations with the choir in readiness for this celebration of music for St Cecilia and the other 'Saints and Angels' in St David's Church, Exeter.  Joining the choir was the Cygnet Theatre Company who interspersed the music with beautifully articulated poems throughout. Peter King accompanied the choir admirably on the church organ.

The opening three pieces were all dedications to St Cecilia by Herbert Howells, Benjamin Britten and Gerald Finzi respectively, and interwoven with poems: Dryden’s A Song for St. Cecilia 's Day, and William Blake’s The Angel.
In particular, this well-known poem by Blake was read beautifully by one of the Cygnet Theatre Company.  All three musical compositions are the epitome of the rich English choral music tradition of the 20th century at its best. Shut your eyes and you are transported to any of the great English cathedrals with the sounds of sublime singing echoing all around you. The choir excelled at those wonderful soaring phrases of Herbert Howells’ A Hymn for St Cecilia, while the Hymn to St Cecilia by Benjamin Britten -- especially the atmospheric and speedy rendition of  'I cannot grow, I have no shadow to run away from' offset by the bass and alto line  'When it knows it can now do nothing by suffering' -- was proof of the consistently high standard of this choir. Finzi's For St. Cecilia - Ceremonial Ode completed the first half.  Highlights of this work were the lovely lyrical singing of tenor soloist Kieran White and those magnificent Finzi cadences -- a real tour de force.  

The second half opened with the actors’ rendition of Lionel Johnson’s The Dark Angel, complete with accompanying well-choreographed representations of that dark angel itself. Then came Herbert Howells’ Sequence for St Michael.  His son Michael had died from meningitis when only nine, and this work, so powerful and dramatic, must surely have been composed with his son in mind. The choir managed the contrasting piano and forte phrases beautifully, and again, Kieran's voice matched the music perfectly. This was certainly one of the highlights of the evening.

Two most evocative sonnets by Elizabeth Browning followed. Then the music took over once again with William Harris’ Faire is the Heaven, sung further back in the choir stalls of the church. This unaccompanied motet did not feel quite as secure as the rest of the programme, though the overall effect -- in particular the ending -- was lovely.

Eric Whitacre’s Sainte-Chapelle was the only piece not to be sung in English. However, the Cygnet Theatre Company obliged the audience with a semi-staged translation of the Latin text, which was delightfully done. The composition is typical Whitacre with those atmospheric chords (especially in Sanctus) which leave you holding your breath before the music moves on to the next phrase. The sopranos in particular excelled in this piece, as they floated above the other voices. The soft ending was magical. The audience then joined in with the Alleluias in Judith Weir's My Guardian Angel and, to round off a very enjoyable evening, the choir sang David Ogden's own version of Angels from the Realms of Glory, a pleasant change from the traditional version.

Exeter Festival Chorus, as always, excelled itself and the concert was a very enjoyable celebration of St Cecilia's Day and a good pre-cursor to Christmas.  It was a pity, however, that the audience applause and concert were brought rather prematurely to an abrupt end, as the Cygnet Theatre Company and choir were ushered off the stage so quickly.  We hadn't quite finished showing our appreciation!

Prue Tasman
24 November 2019