July 15: Much Ado About Shakespeare

From the first note of Vaughan Williams’  ‘Serenade to Music’ it was clear that we were in for an evening of musical treats. The whole concept of interspersing quotations from Shakespeare’s writing with songs from, or about, the plays worked well: for each play featured, the narrator, Gerald Dickens, read a short extract before the choir performed settings of texts by composers with widely differing styles. The result was an excitingly varied concert performed to the exceptionally high standard one has come to expect of the Exeter Festival Chorus.

Gerald Dickens opened proceedings with a short quotation from the ‘The Merchant of Venice’, followed by Vaughan Williams’  Serenade to Music. The sound was magical – bright, clear and perfectly balanced with clear diction. Two more songs with texts from ‘The Merchant of Venice’ followed: Music to Hear by George Shearing - a complete contrast with a gentle jazzy style – and Tell me where is fancy bred by Matthew Harris, a more gentle unaccompanied piece.

In two solos by Roger Quilter from ‘Twelfth Night’, Dominic Rousseau (Bass) and Ouvrielle Holmes (Soprano) gave outstanding performances - relaxed and tuneful with very clear words.

Two more songs by George Shearing and one by John Rutter brought the first half to a close.

More composers with their individual styles were introduced in the second half, which opened with a lullaby by the Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntijärvi. This was the most beautiful sound with a tuneful melody set against a quiet choral and slightly dissonant backing. By contrast, later in the programme, Mäntijärvi’s Double, double, toil and trouble was very scary, and made use of spoken as well as sung lyrics.

The distinctive English sound of Vaughan Williams, the more boisterous, jazzy feel of George Shearing and inimitable style of John Rutter featured again as did a choral arrangement by Goff Richards of Schubert’s lovely song Who is Sylvia, and the sad 16th century Willow Song brought a complete change of mood.

Kate Somerby (Alto) gave an expressive and moving performance of the solo Fear no more the heat of the sun by Gerald Finzi, and it seemed no time at all before narrator and choir returned to ‘The Tempest’ and the music of Vaughan Williams with Prospero’s speech ‘Our revels now are ended….’ Enthusiastic applause was rewarded with the encore Hey, ho the wind and the rain to conclude a very enjoyable evening.

Written by Colin Ashby