Saturday 11 December 2021
Southernhay United Reformed Church, Exeter

What an inspirational evening! The excellence of Exeter Festival Chorus is well-known, and tonight was no exception. After an absence of almost two years, and following the retirement of the remarkable and cherished Nigel Perrin (guest of honour at this concert), On this Shining Night heralded a new dawn with newly appointed musical director, Andrea Brown.

On this Shining Night set out ‘to explore experiences of being drawn from and across darkness into light’. This formed the basis of an exciting, varied and well-balanced programme. The audience was treated to exquisite, luscious, subtle singing and energetic, warm, joyous, and sometimes humorous delights. The placing of quartets and soloists throughout the concert was imaginative and added to the whole experience. Andrea Brown and Exeter Festival Chorus’s relationship is off to a fantastic start. The choir hung on her every move, and communicating through her warmth and vitality she managed to draw the best from them. Diction was excellent and the frequent sensitive singing was a real credit to all involved.

The first half focused on works exploring the mysteries of nature, prophecy and birth. There were many soloists from within the chorus whose voices shone out and were a highlight of the evening, notably in Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat and Benjamin Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin. Peter Adcock provided supportive accompaniment on both piano and organ, but he transfixed audience and choir alike with his rendition ofhe second movement from J S Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4 in E minor, BWV 528, arranged for Piano solo by August Stradal.

After the tight, rhythmical performance of Mathias’ A Babe is Born and Cecilia McDowell’s Now may we singen came the undoubted highlight of the first half: Stars by Latvian composer Ёriks Ešenvalds. The lights were dimmed, the chorus sang exquisitely with great warmth, and six water-tuned glasses came shining through. A great, and atmospheric, performance of a beautiful piece.

The second half introduced the hope that is to come – the light; with coloured scarves and ties providing a visual enhancement of the turn to joy. Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols began with a procession, which was highly effective. There was much well-honed harmony singing as well as a mesmerising soprano solo in Balulalow, and a powerful, resonant Recessional. Unfortunately, harpist Ruth Faber was unable to be present, but the very experienced Jane Lister stood in providing a melodious and delightful accompaniment.

There were many wonderful features in the concluding carols including strong upper then lower voices in Errollyn Wallen’s Peace on Earth, luscious and sensitive singing in Howells’ Here is the little door and the humour and wide variety of styles in Bob Chilcott’s The Twelve Days of Christmas. It was evident that the choir absolutely enjoyed singing that for us.

Part of Andrea Brown’s vision is to develop and explore diverse repertoire, which was victoriously showcased at this first concert. The new musical director and Exeter Festival Chorus should be delighted with the success of On this Shining Night; an excellent beginning to a new era.

Paul Stock


Review of Exeter Festival Chorus Christmas Concert 11 December 2021.

Bravo Exeter Festival Chorus! 

It is now two years since EFC’s last concert.  18 months’ worth of Zoom sessions (which do little to nurture ensemble singing) and the retirement of longstanding Music Director Nigel Perrin could all have been legitimate reasons to make allowances. But there was absolutely no need.  Back they bounced with a sparkle in their eyes and joy in their voices, closely attentive to their new Music Director Andrea Brown, who conducted with clarity and sensitivity.

True, the evening began rather hesitantly.  It was brave to start the concert with such a sustained and quiet work as Jan Sandström’s re-working of Praetorius’ Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming, but confidence soon built through Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat to Britten’s Hymn to the Virgin and Tavener’s soaring God is With Us.

The overall programme – aptly titled On This Shining Night - was skilfully constructed to lead us from darkness into light. It provided plenty of opportunity for singers to demonstrate an impressive range of dynamics and well-controlled intonation, much of it unaccompanied. Entries were clean, articulation clear and changes of rhythm - as in Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium – crisp.

While leading listeners towards the light, the choir produced some impressive contrasts in temperature and tone.  This was especially apparent in the central work of the evening – Britten’s Ceremony of Carols.  Here the choir interpreted the composition’s sharply different weather patterns convincingly, from teeth-chattering icicles to the blithe promise of a warmer spring. Jane Lister, standing in for Ruth Faber as harp soloist, matched the changing moods perfectly.

Speaking of soloists, Peter Adcock’s performance of an arrangement for piano of the Andante from Bach’s Organ Sonata No. 4 created a moment of perfect stillness.  It was as if time stood still. Exquisite!

Ambition and imagination have long been features of EFC’s programming and this evening was no exception.  Of particular delight was the exploration of less familiar repertoire. For example, Errollyn Wallen’s Peace on Earth and Ēriks Ešenvalds' Stars – the latter accompanied by six singers on tuned wine glasses - created a fresh sense of wonder that captured the true essence of Christmas. The programme also reminded us of the richness and variety of 20th and 21st century British choral music, from Howells and Leighton to Matthias and MacDowell. Such variety requires a dextrous choir and EFC members showed that this was well within their grasp.

While hearty congratulations are due to the several vocal soloists, all EFC members, the whole choir is to be commended for the richness of their overall tone.  In some respects the evening was a showcase for the sopranos and altos, whose blending and agility were impressive.  In contrast there were a few times where the tenors and basses lagged; that they also occasionally sounded somewhat underpowered is probably down to fewer numbers in these voice parts.

However, lower voices certainly came up trumps in Chilcott’s The Twelve Days of Christmas.  This was a chunky piece with which to conclude a demanding programme of highly varied styles and textures.  EFC certainly rose to the challenge. If this concert is anything to go by, the future of Exeter Festival Chorus under Andrea Brown is shining brightly.

Diana de la Cour
16 December 2021.