June 2008: Will Todd Mass in Blue

Barnfield Theatre, 7 June 2008

South West premiere of contemporary composer and jazz pianist Will Todd's 'exuberant and electrifying' jazz mass for jazz ensemble, soprano and choir. This uplifting and innovative work is one of celebration, and combines the powerful forces of choir, soprano soloist and jazz ensemble in a weave of 12 bar blues and up-beat grooves. Will Todd's love of a wide range of jazz music is reflected in the setting - from ballad to gospel and beyond in a hybrid style that might be described as 'religious doctrine meets funk!'

Heavenly Harmony

Source: Arnold Kanarek, jazz musician and formerly tutor in Jazz Studies at evening classes in Exeter, Exmouth and Sidmouth.

A packed Barnfield Theatre reacted with thunderous applause and foot stamping at the end of a truly joyous and uplifting evening of music. The first half featured Will Todd and his Trio. Will, at only 38,is a self-taught pianist who went on to get musical degrees at Bristol University. He has written operas, musicals and orchestral works. Gareth Huw Davies, Bass, and Jim Fleeman, Percussion, made up the Trio. They worked as a tight-knit unit and started with a jazz improvisation of "Personent Hodie", a fifteenth century plainsong piece set in 5/4 tempo. They continued with "Guiting Power", a hymn named after a Cotswold Village in 6/8 tempo. It was obvious that Will is addicted to unusual tempos. Then came an unrehearsed improvisation on "Morning Is Broken". Jim Fleeman's brushwork was sensitive and perfectly complemented the brilliant piano improvisation. The trio were joined by soprano Bethany Halliday who sang "Cheelo Cheelo", a South African song, and several George Gershwin songs. "You go to my head" was especially successful as she laid back on the beat in a rising crescendo for the finale. In "Summertime", the bowed (Arco) Bass by Gareth Huw Davies was an apt moody accompaniment.

After the interval the stage completely filled with our own Exeter Festival Chorus, 64 singers in all, with the men behind and the women in front. They performed the Exeter premiere of Will Todd's acclaimed "Mass in Blue". The Trio accompanied the work and Bethany Halliday sang the lead Soprano part. The performance was conducted by Nigel Perrin, originally one of The King’s Singers and now Musical Director of five choirs in the South West and a vocal teacher at Wells Cathedral School. Nigel has been Musical Director of Exeter Festival Chorus for nine years and somehow managed to make this complex work look easy and effortless.

The seven movements were: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei and Credo reprise. The chorus were magnificent. It is difficult for large choirs to sing jazz-based works. They often sound stilted. But the Exeter Chorus really SWUNG! It was a joy to see the feet tapping, the hips swaying, and the eyes shining as they sang their hearts out. Will's difficult score was cunningly constructed: varying tempos and changes of key ensured that the audience had to try to keep up with the swift changes and never had time to get bored.

The Kyrie was set in Latin, with a rubato tempo and was joyous. The Gloria bustled and ended on a discord. The Credo was a slow Blues and employed the "call and answer" of the roots of jazz, based on the American "Deep South" work songs. The flattened thirds and sevenths of the Blues were interpreted in a minor key by the choir. In the Sanctus, the disciplined section work of the choir was evident as the women’s harmonies were contrasted with the deeper tone colours of the men. This gentle and moving slow movement created "Heavenly Harmony" and was greeted by the audience at its ending with a stunned silence. The Benedictus started with a "walking" double bass line, the use of counterpoint emphasising the contrast between the men’s and women’s voices. The Agnus Dei had Bethany Halliday in full voice soaring above shimmering harmonies. The choir were swaying as they reached the thrilling finale, the tempo quickening through rising key changes to a climactic finish accompanied by bowed bass and tremolo piano. The ecstatic audience were enthralled.

A special mention is due to percussionist Jim Fleeman who tastefully drove the whole evening, never taking his gaze from piano or conductor.

I was puzzled as to how the Exeter Festival Chorus was able to sing this difficult inspirational work with such apparent ease and swing. It was confessed they had a secret weapon: a whole day's training with Scott Stroman, teacher of jazz singing at the Guildhall School of Music in London. A trombonist, arranger and bandleader, Scott is famous in the jazz world for his vocal coaching. It really showed!

This performance of "Mass in Blue" was a resounding success and the Exeter Festival Chorus can feel proud of their spirited and joyous rendition. I have rarely seen an audience go home so moved, so excited and so happy.