Saturday 23 March 2024 
St. Peter’s Church, Tiverton

Where, one might ask, could you go to learn a lot about Leonardo da Vinci and choral music old and new in one hit? The answer is St, Peter’s Church, Tiverton last Saturday evening. In a cleverly-constructed programme entitled Of Music and Invention, Exeter Festival Chorus presented an appreciative audience with the answer. 

This beautiful church has strangely unforgiving acoustics, and it wasn’t really until the third item in the programme that the choir seemed to get the measure of performing in these conditions. Creating a fine blend in the sound – a uniformly bright amalgam of top and bottom lines – might have been easier in a more resonant space, but this excellent choir did all they could to rise to the challenge and gave us much to enjoy. 

I will not be the first reviewer to praise the programme notes by Diana de la Cour which, in this particular case, provided the thematic musical and contextual framework for this unusual programme, such that no further introduction from the conductor Andrea Brown was required. This mattered, because the programme was combining several different musical and intellectual concepts, and so a guide of some kind was needed. 

An introductory quote from Leonardo was the starting point Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return. However, we soon realised, especially in the first half, that we were dealing with a very sombre form of longing. 

Hildegard of Bingen’s ethereal praise to wisdom O Virtus Sapientiae was followed by Thomas Weelkes’s rather weird, unsettling Thule, the Period of Cosmography. Then came Lotti’s famous Crucifixus motet in eight parts, followed by Henry Purcell’s equally famous Hear my Prayer. Both are searing evocations of pain and longing, though neither rendering really had the clarity we needed, nor quite managed to let go of the notes, so as to propel the passionate move skyward where the music is wanting to drive us. 

Perhaps the choir was keeping in store their performance of the central work in the programme, Cecilia McDowall’s Da Vinci Requiem. It is a testament to EFC that they chose to perform this piece, commissioned by another choir (Wimbledon Choral Society) and premièred with glittering soloists in the Royal Festival Hall in 2019 – a sign that the English choral tradition is very much alive. 

Settings which intersperse new words with those of the Latin Mass or Requiem have become common – think Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem or Karl Jenkins’s Mass for Peace The Armed Man - both of which EFC have performed. In this case, McDowall incorporates words from Da Vinci’s notebooks and a poem by Dante Gabriel Rosetti into a seven-movement Requiem Mass designed to reveal Da Vinci’s reflections on a well-used life, our inability to control our end, and the relationship between sleep and death. 

It’s a rather uneven work, as though the composer is not quite sure what idiom she is settling into. That said, we were given a performance fully worthy of its many fine and beautiful moments. The opening Kyrie did full justice to its lilting tempo, and later baritone Frederick Long sang the rather troubling movement O you who are asleep with great poise and dignity. Along the way, in the rather jolly Sanctus, the sopranos and altos effectively emulated the sound of bells. (It’s hard not to think McDowall stole that idea from Rachmaninov’s Vespers!) There was lovely singing from the soprano soloist Amy Carson in the second movement’s setting of Rossetti’s The Virgin of the Rocks. When it later came to the Agnus Dei, she was to perform, for me, the standout moment of the whole evening, with the chorus in imploring accompaniment. 

Also special was the ending. The simpler textures of the Lux Aeterna were as though tailor-made for the excellent upper voices of this choir, who pulled off beautifully the rise and rise allusion to Da Vinci’s concept of the Perspective of Disappearance which McDowall’s music magically creates. 

In answer to a question from an amateur conductor as to how to perform a particularly fiendish symphony, Simon Rattle once famously responded “Strong drink helps!” 

One is not to know how the performers refreshed themselves during the interval, but there was a palpable sense of relaxation when it came to the items in the second half. It wasn’t quite enough to deal with the muddy textures of Sven-David Sandstrøm’s re-imagining of Purcell’s Hear My Prayer, though it ended well. But by the time we got to Jessica Curry’s nicely-shaped The Light We Cast, the choir had got into the swing of things. This piece was an inspired choice – not least as an antidote to the thick harmonies on either side of it. It was followed by Cecilia 
McDowall’s clever re-imagining of Lotti’s Crucifixus which, streets ahead of the Sandstrøm, was lovely to hear. 

To finish we had Eric Whitacre’s Leonardo Dreams of his Flying Machine. This is a virtuoso piece which got off to a terrific flying start and was executed with a real sense of panache. The vocal special effects at the end came across well, although there was an unexplained absence of the percussion which Whitacre calls for. Nevertheless, the Flying Machine brought performers and audience full circle in what was, musically and conceptually, a concert in the best tradition of Exeter Festival Chorus. 

This was an ambitious programme by any standards, covering a wide range of musical styles, each requiring challenging vocal techniques. The choir responded well to their conductor, with careful attention to changes in dynamics, tempo, diction and mood. However, the point of a concert is to convey the life and soul of the music to the audience, and there were times when these seemed to be rather swallowed up in the effort of performing the music, - especially by those choir members who were sometimes not making eye contact with us. 
Special mention should be made of a beautifully played organ solo from Peter Adcock. This too was in the re-imagining theme which ran as a thread through the whole programme (this time, for Marcello, read Bach), though I wondered whether something truly loud, a contemporary piece perhaps, might have provided a useful contrast at that point. 

That relaxation really helps was fully demonstrated when we were happily sent home with an encore of Pearsall’s gorgeous Lay a Garland, showing what the choir is capable of even after a long and demanding programme.