•    Exeter Festival Chorus, ready to sing together Open or Close
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    The photograph shows EFC in 2016, just before a concert at Dartington Hall – happy days! Despite the sad circumstances that prevail now, since April the choir members have maintained a series of weekly rehearsals from home, directed online by our Music Director, Nigel Perrin. We hope to resume limited ‘in-person’ rehearsals as soon as we are allowed by the evolving public health regulations for the coronavirus pandemic. Because of concern for the safety of singers and audience, we have regretfully postponed a concert that was planned for November 2020, but we are keeping our options open for some smaller events as we approach Christmas – details will be posted here on our website.

    We invite potential new singers to get in touch during the summer and autumn – please see the details under the ‘Join’ tab.

    We have definite plans (to be announced soon) for spring and summer 2021, when we hope to welcome our friends, patrons, and audience to sparkling choral programmes in Exeter and Devon.

    In the meantime, you may like to read Reviews of our recent concerts, or to consult 'What Was On', the archive list of all concerts since the Chorus was founded in 1993.

    Booking for our workshop has been suspended until we can announce a new date in 2021- we want to offer everyone the chance to sing the parts of 'Messiah' that other choral societies do not reach, to have fun with other singers and to learn about Handel's best-known work.

    Please keep in touch.
    Liz Carrey
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  •    Choral Workshop 2021: Handel Messiah POSTPONED Open or Close
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    Date to be confirmed
    Choral Workshop
    Handel: Messiah
    Belmont Chapel Exeter, 9.30am - 5.00pm

    Nigel Perrin director

    Peter Adcock accompanist

    Our annual choral workshop is an open invitation for singers from far and wide to join us in a day’s exploration and cameo performance of a masterwork in the choral repertoire. In 2021 we are tackling Handel's Messiah.

    We have never chosen Messiah for a choral workshop until now, partly because the work is so well-known; there are so many ‘scratch’ performances; and many, if not most, of the singers at the workshop will have it firmly in their repertoire. However, we aim to get right to the core of this celebrated piece of music in the 2021 workshop, working on some of the choruses which are less familiar or not often performed, together, of course, with the favourites. We will also all be having a crack at tackling the wonderful arias usually performed by soloists!

    The work is rightly considered to be one of the great masterpieces of choral composition, and is by far the most celebrated of Handel’s oratorios. The sheer physical pleasure of the music, together with its sense of joy combined with reverence, has truly stood the test of time. Come and explore its hidden depths with us!

    Price: registration fee £20 (£5 for children under 18 years and students)
    Score: New Novello Watkins Shaw edition
    Score hire is £3, payable at the time of booking.
    We ask for a £10 returnable deposit on the day.
    When booking online, please select the price for your voice part with or without score as appropriate.

    Bookings for this event will open when a revised date has been confirmed with Belmont Chapel.
    Tickets may also be booked by phone through TicketSource: 0333 666 3366. Lines are open 9am-7pm weekdays (excluding bank holidays) and 9am-5pm Saturdays. Calls are charged at national rate and are included in free minutes.
    There is a fee of £1.75 per transaction for this service.
    Tickets are also available in person or by phone from Exeter Tickets, Dix’s Field, Exeter: 01392 665 885.

    Venue: Belmont Chapel, Western Way, Exeter EX1 2DB

    About the day:

    09.30 Registration opens.
    10.00 We start the day with a selection of warm-ups before we turn to the work itself. The proceedings will be interspersed with practice of vocal technique and a plentiful supply of Nigel’s anecdotes.
    11.20 A break for complimentary refreshments, followed by further study.
    13.00 We break for lunch. You’re welcome to enjoy a packed lunch at the venue or forage in the many catering options in the nearby city centre.
    14.15 We resume our study.
    15.40 A break for further complimentary refreshments.
    16.00 Our cameo performance starts.
    17.00 Our day ends.

    Click to see a short video from our 2013 Choral Workshop.

    The Chapel is in the centre of the city. There is no parking at the Chapel itself, but paid public parking is available at Triangle Car Park EX1 2BL behind the Chapel or at Summerland Gate EX1 2LB opposite it. There are Park & Ride services; details are available here.

    Further details:
    t 0845 600 5441 (Calls cost 7p per minute plus your phone company’s access charge.)
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  •    Open Rehearsals Open or Close
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    EFC is currently not meeting for rehearsals due to Covid-19 restrictions and guidelines.

    EFC is an auditioning choir, but we invite interested singers to attend Open Rehearsals (or ordinary ones) to get an idea of how we work.

    Dates and details will be published here when rehearsals are resumed.

    For more information about our open rehearsals please see this page.

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Reviews

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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

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Saturday 13 July 2019
Exeter Cathedral

Rhiannon Llewellyn - soprano
Anna Sideris - soprano
Catherine King - contralto
Kieran White - tenor
Rob Clark - baritone
Nigel Perrin - conductor

Two choral classics were presented to a full Cathedral by Exeter Festival Chorus on a balmy summer’s evening. Accompanied with flair and spritely precision by the Southern Sinfonia and joined by a fine array of exciting young soloists, whose clear high notes and vocal dexterity brought the music to life, this was a very polished performance with every nuance and phrase considered and shaped.

It is hard to imagine the 200 years when the Vivaldi Gloria lay forgotten and unperformed, such is its current popularity. With the choir choosing to perform many movements from memory the piece was given added freshness and we were treated to a performance with direct communication. There were many highlights – crisp dotted rhythms maintained throughout ‘Domine, Fili unigenite’, confident soprano entries in ‘Qui Tollis’ and silky smooth oboe playing in ‘Domine Deus’.

Described in the programme as a ‘stirringly beautiful work’, the choir’s performance of Mozart’s Mass in C minor had it all. The solemnity of the opening movement contrasted with a brightly toned ‘Gloria’ and the virtuosic semi-quaver runs of the ‘Credo’ and confident contrapuntal sections (with a particular well done to the basses at the start of ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’) brought this choral classic to life. The choir really shone in the central ‘Qui Tollis’ movement with a rich tone and fine dynamic shaping. With the added delight of woodwind playing of breath-taking beauty and impressive vocal soloists this was a highly enjoyable concert and fully deserving of the hearty final applause.

Angela Blackwell
14 July 2019

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Saturday 6 April 2019
St Michael's Church, Exeter

It was encouraging to see St Michael’s church well-filled for this Exeter Festival Chorus concert, a programme of music for Lent entitled “Miserere”.

The evening began with “Morning Prayer” by the London-based Russian composer Alexander Levine, sung from the back of the church with great confidence and wide dynamic contrasts. This was a demanding opening, unaccompanied (as was most of the programme) and very effective.

Conductor Nigel Perrin introduced the items, and took time to explain the construction of the second item, Roderick Williams’ re-imagining of Byrd’s well-known motet “Ave Verum Corpus”. A section of the chorus sang the Byrd original as a preface before the whole choir, divided into three four-part groups, performed the 21st century version most effectively. In this and the opening item the church’s resonant acoustic added atmosphere.

The ladies of the chorus then took charge for a haunting performance of Poulenc’s “Litanies à la Vierge Noire”, with Peter Adcock a skilful organ accompanist. The tone was well-blended and the composer’s harmonic idiom clearly delineated. The first half ended with Samuel Barber’s familiar “Agnus Dei”, the choral version of his famous “Adagio” for string orchestra.

The second half opened with Allegri’s famous “Miserere”, using different areas of the church for the three separate groups of performers – plainsong verses from the west end by an excellent baritone soloist, Chris Droop, main choir in the crossing and the 4-voice solo group beginning out of sight in the vestry and moving into the chancel between verses. Congratulations to the soprano soloists, Kate Hurley and Melanie Shaw, on their effortless top C in each verse!

The final item was Domenico Scarlatti’s surprisingly cheerful setting of the “Stabat Mater”, written in 10 voice parts, in a number of short contrasting movements, alternating solos and full choir sections. It brought the evening to an effective conclusion.

EFC are well-known for their splendid performances of large-scale works with orchestra. On this occasion they showed themselves equally at home with chamber choir repertoire.

Stephen Bell
7 April 2019

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Saturday 15 December 2018
Exeter Cathedral

This concert, given in aid of the Lord Mayor’s Appeal for the armed forces charity SSAFA, aimed to bring together three disparate themes: World War I, Christmas, and the choir’s own 25th anniversary. That it largely succeeded is due to the imaginative planning of its conductor, Nigel Perrin.
 
The anniversary was celebrated by two pieces specially composed by the choir’s founder, Paul Patterson, an antiphonal brass fanfare and an a capella setting of When Music Sounds (Walter de la Mare), impressively sung from memory. Christmas and World War I were brought together by focusing on the spontaneous ceasefire of Christmas Day 1914 in a moving setting of The Christmas Truce (Frederick Niven) by Graham Fitkin.  
 
The Royal Marines Band’s first solo was a stirring performance of Gustav Holst’s Mars, the Bringer of War (composed in 1914). The first half ended with a group of movements from Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man – A Mass for Peace. This focuses on the themes of war and peace and two movements in particular gave an opportunity for the choir to shine: Torches, where the clarity of the words was exemplary and the end of Better is Peace which made a poignant ending to the first half of the concert.
 
After the interval the band opened with an exhilarating selection which included A Life on the Ocean Wave and produced the evening’s virtuoso moment – an electrifying drum static, as mesmerising for its visuals as for its music. Their accompanying of singers presented more of a challenge; balance with both choir and baritone soloist was a problem and the assorted arrangements of familiar music met with varying success. Indeed, the high points of the evening were unquestionably the choir’s unaccompanied singing: The Three Kings, by Peter Cornelius (the artistic high point) with the golden voice of Roderick Williams, followed by Philip Stopford’s Lully, Lulla. The encore generated the emotional culmination of the concert; Silent Night, sung macaronically in English and German, returning us with the final sounds of the evening to the Christmas Day Truce of 1914. The prolonged silence which followed was testimony to its effect. 

Peter King
16 December 2018

 

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Saturday 20 October 2018
Sidmouth Parish Church

It was an imaginative idea to present four of Bach’s wonderful motets in a single programme, interspersed with two of his French Suites. It was also a brave one as these motets are far from easy. On instruments the music is reasonably straightforward, but it is a different story when sung. Florid lines demand clear articulation, and where are singers supposed to breathe? Bach makes few concessions, but it is worth noting that originally the vocal parts could sometimes be doubled by instruments. In this performance the reinforcement was confined to a cello doubling the bass line, otherwise the music was a cappella throughout, and considering the comparatively small size of the chorus on this particular occasion the singers acquitted themselves admirably.

The concert opened with the joyful 4-part motet Lobet den Herrn, alle Heiden. Perhaps this didn’t quite achieve the gusto it needed, but the choir seemed more assured in the next and best-known motet, the 5-part Jesu, meine Freude. One marvelled at the range of textures Bach manages to achieve in this extended setting, not to mention the stamina of the choir!

After the interval there followed another contemplative motet, Komm, Jesu, komm!, a setting for double choir, and the concert ended with the joyful Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, also for double choir.

The Exeter Festival Chorus, now celebrating its 25th anniversary, was ably conducted once again by its conductor, Nigel Perrin, who has done so much to establish the choir as one of the best in this region.  

Peter Adcock is well-known in Devon, active in a variety of musical activities,  particularly as an able and versatile pianist. He presented two of Bach’s delightful French Suites, one in each half of the concert. It is always going to be a moot point when it comes to playing on the piano works written for harpsichord, but there are good grounds for doing so, such as dynamic variation and greater sustaining power. Peter gave a colourful rendition of the suites, and showed considerable skill in some of his extempore embellishments. There was exuberance in the fast movements, but also a delicacy of touch in the two Sarabandes, moments of tranquillity.

Nicholas Marshall
21 October 2018

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I thought this concert was absolutely SUPERB! In fact, it honestly ranks as one of the best performances of anything that I have ever heard. I thought the choir's sound was beautifully mellow and filled the cathedral perfectly. It really showed what a talented, masterful, and experienced group they are, singing in a wonderfully blended way and putting their hearts into it.

It was an evening of glorious music in a beautiful setting.

The choir was on really good form. There was lots of energy coming from the singers and it was very expressive.

 … a wonderful and extremely uplifting musical experience.

Congratulations on a really first-class performance. It was the first time I had been to one of your concerts and I will definitely go to more.

What a memorable evening ... superb choral production, as always.

A truly wonderful concert in a beautiful setting.

The concert was a delight.

Don't know how Nigel P gets such distinct differentiation of parts, animation, force and life force from the choir.

We thought the concert was your best ever. Absolutely perfect and fabulous in every way, and even better than the first time you performed it years ago. Stupendous!

Very many congratulations on a really stunning evening of music.

It was a truly fabulous evening!

 

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Saturday 14 July 2018
Exeter Cathedral

It was with a sense of excited anticipation that I sat in a very warm Exeter Cathedral awaiting the start of one of the greatest choral works ever written, confident that Nigel Perrin and the EFC would deliver a credible performance.

I was not disappointed! The performance was stunning; bright, energetic choral singing, crystal clear soloists blending well together with a dynamic instrumental group.

I have heard several performances of Monteverdi Vespers, both amateur and professional, but none to compare with the outstanding, brilliant and dynamic rendition we enjoyed at Exeter Cathedral.

‘Brilliance’ applied to the singing as well. The music requires clear and lively voices and this was achieved throughout, by the soloists and both choirs. The EFC performed with great energy and enthusiasm, but could switch to clear, quiet melody as required. Pitch and diction were superb.

Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin comprises Responses and Psalms from the liturgy of 'Vespers' (the Catholic office of Evening Prayer), interspersed with motets (other texts set to music), and concluding with a setting of Magnificat. The motets are generally quieter and more contemplative, and mostly sung by the seven soloists. There is also Sancta Maria. The Sancta Maria is an extended, largely instrumental section where a simple theme is taken and developed, over which the children’s choir sings what seems to be a simple theme, but which has complex subtleties in the rhythm.

Schola Exe (the Devon County Senior Choir for girls, and boys with unchanged voices, from age 13) sang with the choir for some items, provided the distant echo for others, but had a prominent role in Sancta Maria and Magnificat.

The soloists were excellent. So often one attends a concert where the soloists, though good on their own, have never worked together and this is evident. In a work requiring seven soloists, it worked extremely well to use a vocal ensemble, VOCES8, as the soloists. Not only was the quality of their voices in keeping with the style of the music, the way their voices blended together was indicative of singers who are used to working together.

The English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble provided a lively and exciting instrumental contribution. I cannot use the term ‘accompaniment’ as it is not. The instrumental part is of equal importance to the choral, providing vigorous and energetic counter melodies and cross-rhythms to the vocal parts. About fifty years prior to the publication of Vespers The Council of Trent had outlawed the contrapuntal singing of words in the liturgy - where different voices were singing different words at the same time – as this was deemed to make the liturgy incomprehensible. So composers of church music made the choirs sing the same words at the same time to comply, but added interest both by adding fiendishly complex instrumental parts, and by adding lengthy melodies on a single word. Both techniques are used extensively in Vespers.

Exeter Cathedral lacks the vastness of St Mark’s in Venice, for which the music was composed, but Nigel Perrin’s imaginative use of the space enhanced the music. Some of the motets were sung by soloists, accompanied by the Theorbo, from the West End of the Cathedral, where in others echo voices came from somewhere well behind the choir.

From the solo plainsong introduction, sung from the pulpit, to the final Amen of the Magnificat, the audience enjoyed an amazing and exhilarating performance.

Congratulations to Nigel Perrin and the Exeter Festival Chorus, with VOCES8, Schola Exe and the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble for another memorable concert.

Colin Ashby
16 July 2018

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Saturday 17 March 2018

Exeter Cathedral

Exeter Festival Chorus started the celebrations for their 25th anniversary in style in Exeter Cathedral last night. Every possible detail had gone into producing an evening of outstanding music-making. Even the weather played along, with the ‘mini beast from the East’ producing snow flurries as we exited the incense-filled building, after a night of mighty choral music from the East.

This was an evening where music, religion and theatre all came together in mesmeric fashion. With lights dimmed and candles flickering, and no sign of the choir, their warm sonority appeared in the air. Throughout the evening the choir moved seamlessly around the building (no mean feat in the dark, keeping together and singing in Russian!) and we were enveloped in their sound. Nigel Perrin expertly balanced the choir and drew out the important lines. Dynamics rose and fell beautifully together and the music was performed with real love, devotion and care.

The choir were joined by three excellent soloists, Nina Alupii-Morton (mezzo-soprano), Ralph Penny (tenor) and Jeremy Birchall (bass). All three had the perfect tone quality required with warmth, authority and sensitivity towards the text.

Not only was the choral singing and sense of ensemble of the highest quality but the consideration to lighting, staging and dress all added to the atmosphere of awe and worship. If the choir can produce an evening of such high quality at the start of their season, I can’t wait to hear what else they have in store for us!

 

Angela Blackwell

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Saturday 9 December 2017

Buckfast Abbey

Planning a Christmas Concert programme with any degree of originality is a tough call for a choir director, but Exeter Festival Chorus, under the direction of Nigel Perrin, achieved this with a selection of music and quality of performance that were absolutely magical.

The choir made use of the Abbey’s fine acoustic by moving around the church, singing the different works in different areas to match the acoustic to the composition style.

Although comprising different works of contrasting styles, the programme was conceived as a single entity, with each new piece following seamlessly. When a physical move was involved, this took place at the end of a piece so the choir were in their new location for the start of the next item. This really worked, giving a feeling of unity to the performance.

Most of the music was sung ‘a cappella’ and the diction and tuning were superb – from my seat in the centre of the Nave I could hear every word, even when the choir was positioned beyond the choir stalls.

A steady drum beat from the West End of the church heralded the choir singing John Tavener’s Christmas Procession as they processed through the Nave and Quire, taking up a position in the Transept where the music progressed seamlessly into Tavener’s Ikon of the Nativity. The ethereal sound of this work was enhanced by the choir’s distance from the audience.

The choir moved to the chancel steps to sing the ancient carol In dulci jubilo in a setting by Michael Praetorius, and Bob Chilcott’s Advent Antiphons. Bob Chilcott is one of today’s most popular and versatile choral composers, and this set of the seven Advent antiphons made full use of the spacious acoustic of the Abbey Church. The antiphons, all based on the plainsong melody Veni Immanuel, but in contrasting styles, gave this versatile choir a chance to show off their virtuosity.

Moving again to the area beyond the choir stalls, the choir and harpist, Ruth Faber, took up a position under the tower, and gave a memorable performance of Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. The singing was dynamic and precise, with every word clearly audible. Particularly noteworthy were the soloists from the choir who sang That Yongë Childe and Balulalow. The interlude for solo harp was brilliantly executed, and much enhanced by the distant positioning of the instrument. Ceremony of Carols was written for boys’ voices, but arranged for SATB a year later by Julius Harrison. The inclusion of men’s voices, as in the EFC’s performance, gives added depth and vitality to the work.

Francis Poulenc’s Quatre Motets pour le Temps de Noël - these four motets in contrasting styles are known to be amongst the most difficult in the choral repertoire. As we have come to expect from this choir, directed by Nigel Perrin, the performance of these motets was precise, tuneful and most enjoyable.

The concert concluded with four well known carols sung in unfamiliar arrangements, the highlight being Bob Chilcott’s new setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem In the bleak mid-winter - a worthy addition to the familiar versions by Gustav Holst and Harold Darke.

Another outstanding and memorable performance by one of the region’s foremost choirs.

Colin Ashby

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Saturday 18 November 2017

Exeter Cathedral

The twinned cities of Exeter and Bad Homburg came together on Saturday evening for an excellent choral concert, given by the Exeter Festival Chorus and the Erlöserkirche Bachchor, directed by Nigel Perrin. The programme, comprising Duruflé’s Requiem and Dvořák’s Mass in D, was performed using the original versions of both works, accompanied by Andrew Millington on the cathedral organ.

Maurice Duruflé based much of his Requiem on Gregorian plainchant, using the well-known work by Fauré as a model in terms of its restraint. It is not an easy work to bring off, but the combined choirs did so, demonstrating purity of tone and excellent blend, with confident entries and, when required, considerable dynamic contrasts. The build-up in the Kyrie and the sudden eruption of full choir in the Libera me indicated careful preparation and a thorough understanding of the work, supported by strong but balanced organ accompaniment throughout.

We were treated to sensitive, dramatic solos from Rebecca Smith (mezzo-soprano) in the central Pie Jesu and Julian Rippon (baritone) in the Domine Jesu Christe and Libera me movements, both conveying convincingly the nuances of the Latin text.

The last two movements, Libera me and In Paradisum showed vividly what a large choir can do in terms of contrasts of volume and tone-colour, notably the violent Dies Irae and the ethereal end of the work, the final unresolved chord followed by silence.

Dvořák’s Mass in D is an uneven work, with some moments of brilliance amongst quite a lot of rather uninspired writing. The trick is to emphasise the strengths and gloss over the weaknesses by performing the whole with maximum conviction; Nigel Perrin and the combined choirs managed it well, vividly dramatising the contrasts of volume and tempo, and supported by magisterial organ volume whenever possible. 

The opening Kyrie swung along in the manner of a lullaby, a little too quickly perhaps, but it settled on the reprise.

The Gloria was exciting from the start, with well-handled contrasts in the quieter sections, forthright fugal passages, and a stirring ending with huge organ back-up. The Credo, with its rather folksy melodic style, showed off the contrast between quiet soli melodies from the confident alto section and answering forte ­passages from the rest of the choir. The dramatic Crucifixus chords provided a dramatic wake-up call for the audience. The Sanctus again showed how the large and well-trained chorus managed the dynamic contrasts of the opening sections. The Benedictus ­in Mass settings is generally given to four solo voices; here the full choir gave it a sotto voce, gentle performance, suddenly galvanised by the final Hosannas.  

In some ways Dvořák left his best till the end; the final Agnus Dei is a beautiful, restrained movement, ending quietly but positively in the home key.

Congratulations to all involved in an uplifting concert. The combined choirs showed great unity of style and purpose, very good blend, and vivid dynamic range. Andrew Millington proved how well he knows the cathedral organ; Nigel Perrin’s direction was expressive and inspirational. A pity then that the audience was smaller than hoped; the absentees missed a treat!

Stephen Bell

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Sunday 25 June 2017
Exeter Phoenix

Africa can mean bright colours, and insistent drum beats with complex cross-rhythms. So we started well with the chorus appearing in brightly-coloured T-shirts, and photographs taken by composer David Fanshawe on his travels projected behind the performers. Perhaps the traditional feathered head-dress of an African who was also sporting sunglasses said much about two cultures meeting.

The challenges of presenting African Sanctus are formidable, as the live choir and percussion have to integrate with recordings of African sounds. The Festival Chorus had no problem with this, to the credit of Nigel Perrin conducting and the professionalism of the percussion group BackBeat, who would pick up the rhythm from the tape and bring it into the auditorium. The Phoenix provides an intimate space, with the advantage that the exciting array of percussion instruments could be clearly seen, adding to the visual impact. However, the dry acoustic made it hard to balance the various sections; the accompaniment sometimes overpowered the singers.

Insistent drum beats got the whole off to a rousing start with the music of the Sanctus. The chorus mostly got in the mood with bobbing bodies matching the exuberance of the music; the complex rhythms presented no problems, and the taped singing fitted neatly with the live music. Moving into the Kyrie, the quieter mood redressed the balance between singers and accompaniment, and the chorus showed their experience in some mellifluous singing. The fabulous soprano voice of Maureen Brathwaite soared over the muttering crowds in ‘Tu solus’, and the Agnus Dei created an apparently timeless sound field.

The words ‘Crucifixus’ and ‘Sepultus est’ inspired a cacophony of sound: African singing and brutal choral parts create something that seems primitive, if neither particularly Western nor African. The Lord’s Prayer provides a calmer interlude: the delivery here was gentle and confident, with the soloist seeming particularly at home with her ‘Sweet Jesus’ interjections.

Fanshawe ends his programme notes with the words ‘Glory to Africa’. This evening’s music brought us something of that glory, so that we could leave feeling excited by the potential of ‘world music’ to bring cultures together.

Mary Ellis

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Saturday 1 April 2017
St Peter's Parish Church, Budleigh Salterton

“Beautiful”, “stunning phrasing” and “amazing” were just some of the comments that my fellow audience members uttered at the end of this memorable concert. There were many reasons why the evening was such a success, apart from the obvious fact that this is a choir and musical director at the very top of their game. The programme included well established, popular repertoire such as Allegri’s Miserere (complete with soaring, crystal clear high Cs) and Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu. This was staged with the two excellent soprano soloists centre stage whilst the choir enveloped and surrounded the audience. This magical effect meant the audience was immersed in the sound and was used to even better effect in Whitacre’s hope, faith, life, love. I cannot speak highly enough of the ensemble skill of the choir in this piece; perfectly balanced, expert pitching, clarity of individual entries and breathing and singing as one.

Alongside these popular choral works we were also introduced to Pizzetti’s Requiem. This continued an underlying link between many of the pieces, the use of Gregorian chant. The moments of stillness and angelic opening of the Sanctus made this a piece worth discovering. However, the dramatic punch of the evening was delivered in MacMillan’s Chorales from St John Passion. I was not fortunate enough to hear the choir give this work its South West première in 2013 but I was bowled over by the dramatic intensity and raw emotion of this performance. This is not a pretty story and MacMillan’s re-telling brought the story to us afresh, with the final poignancy of “My Son, My Boy” suddenly making the work more personal. The choir created a fabulous range of colours (matched by Peter Adcock at the organ) with impressive forte singing and attack balanced by beautifully controlled decrescendi, warm low bass notes contrasting with the wailing at the cross of the altos and tenors and expectant silences following the powerful cries of “Judas”.

One final strand of the evening was the element of dedication: Lloyd Webber’s work dedicated to his father, Whitacre’s to his wife and MacMillan’s to Sir Colin Davis. This concert was dedicated to Norman Babbedge, a founding member of the choir, who had recently passed away. To end with his favourite piece, Bruckner’s Locus Iste, was a wonderful tribute and a fitting end to a superb evening of choral singing.

Angela Blackwell

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Saturday 3 December 2016
Exeter Cathedral

BACH'S CELEBRATION OF CHRISTMAS

J S Bach's six cantatas composed to celebrate Christmas in Leipzig in 1734 make a surprisingly satisfactory whole when presented as his Christmas Oratorio, the work the Exeter Festival Chorus chose to perform on 3 December in Exeter Cathedral as its contribution to the city's festive celebrations.  The work takes us from the birth of Jesus through the adoration of the shepherds to the visit of the Wise Men, the last set against the evil machinations of King Herod.  The onus of this long work is therefore on narration but with a little judicious cutting, as on this occasion, the Oratorio's message can be comfortably accommodated within an evening's performance.

With Music Director Nigel Perrin away for a short sabbatical, the Festival Chorus had turned to Aidan Oliver, Director of London's Philharmonia Voices to conduct it at this concert.  The choir's enjoyment of singing under Mr Oliver's direction was clear from the start in the vivacious opening chorus, 'Jauchzet, frohlocket!'  Aided by flowing tempi emphasising the work's triple time (and aside from some uncertainty in 'Herrscher des Himmels' in part III), both choruses and chorales were delivered with lively confidence and appropriate attention to the German text: the opening chorus and concluding chorale in part VI were memorable examples.

Many of Bach's works benefit from the presence of a period orchestra and the Christmas Oratorio is no exception.  Take the sinfonia which opens part II, for instance.  Here Bach sets the scene for the part in the drama played by the shepherds, and through Devon Baroque's attractively colourful woodwind we heard the very realistic bleating of the sheep in the fields above Bethlehem.  Despite some untidiness at the beginning of part IV, the orchestra provided the performance with a responsive accompaniment; prominent trumpets in the more celebratory choruses and sympathetic solo violin work by Devon Baroque's leader, Persephone Gibbs, were were just two features of the orchestra's enjoyable contribution.

Much of the responsibility for the narrative element of this work falls on the four soloists through numerous recitatives, with associated arias to reflect further on the story.  A confident, if not perfectly matched, quartet had been assembled of which, as the Evangelist, much responsibility falls on the solo tenor.  With his light voice, David Webb brought welcome clarity to the role – perhaps the text suggested a little more dramatic emphasis at times, but elsewhere the several tricky runs in the tenor arias were admirably well met.  The alto soloist is sometimes required to represent Mary's sentiments, to which Kate Symonds responded sympathetically; her delivery of 'Schliesse, mein Herze' in part III had much reflective feeling.  Enhancing the impact of the work, the solo team was completed by Anna Patalong (soprano) and Benedict Nelson (bass) – the latter brought much colour to his delivery of 'Grosser Herr' in part I.

Well received by the gratifyingly large attendance in the Cathedral, the Exeter Festival Chorus can be very pleased with this performance.  Perhaps we could see Aidan Oliver in Exeter again – his direction certainly brought much evident pleasure to both participants and audience.

 David Batty

 

 

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Saturday 12 November 2016
Crediton Parish Church

Gathering in Crediton Parish Church on the eve of Remembrance Sunday, Exeter Festival Chorus could not have presented a more poignant and appropriate evening of music. There were moments of desolation, loss, reassurance and affirmation.

Under the guest conductorship of Andrew Millington and accompanied sensitively by organ, brass and percussion, the concert began with the solemn pomp of Purcell’s ‘Funeral Sentences’. Marion Wood’s a cappella miniature, ‘Futility’, provided a suitably contrasting view of ‘darkness’ before the choir rose to the substantial vocal challenges of Jonathan Willcocks’ ‘From Darkness to Light’. Juxtaposing the text of the Latin mass with the poetry of a US Korean veteran this work was a piece of pure drama, from the dark colours of the opening to the sudden emergence of the Last Post and the purity of the high, sustained sopranos towards the end. The choir gave a masterful performance, giving energy to the exciting syncopations of the Dies Irae and lyricism to the lullaby qualities of the Lacrymosa. A most moving interpretation.

The second half began with Eric Whitacre’s ‘When David Heard’. Performed at the high altar, the rich 18-part harmony and warm sonorities were a little lost in the distance between the choir and audience. Thankfully the sense of intimacy returned with Howard Goodall’s ‘Lacrymosa’ and the reappearance of Julian Rippon’s fine baritone voice.

Due to the nature of the programme, the audience had been muted in their applause, reflecting the contemplative mood that the music had created throughout the concert. All this changed however in Rutter’s ‘Gloria’, where the sheer joy and exuberance of the choir’s performance led to spontaneous applause at the end of the first movement. The church truly burst with light in the second movement and the jaunty rhythmic writing and bright wall of sound of the finale were glorious indeed.

This was an evening with music-making of an exceptionally high standard, coupled with an imaginative and thought-provoking programme; something the supporters of Exeter Festival Chorus have grown accustomed to!

Angela Blackwell

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Sunday 3 July, 2016.
Dartington Great Hall

How exciting and refreshing to hear rarely performed music sung with panache and assurance by the fine voices of the Exeter Festival Chorus, under the direction of Nigel Perrin. We were treated to a “pot pourri” of pieces which gave the choir a chance to shine, show off their lighter side and work with an array of instrumental colours.

Stanford’s anthemic ‘Songs of the Fleet’ called us to attention. Sung with bright conviction, the choir were joined by baritone Julian Rippon whose warm tone and commanding presence perfectly suited this Imperialist piece. This was followed by Chilcott’s ‘The Making of the Drum’, celebrating how the living spirit of the drum is brought alive. The choir’s rhythmic precision and drive invited us to listen to their story and the percussion accompaniment and vocal sound effects further added to the atmosphere. How nice too to hear a piece where the altos were given a chance to shine!

The stillness and calm of ‘God is dumb until the drum speaks’ led perfectly in to Tučapsky’s setting of the Ted Hughes poem The Seven Sorrows. Having moved, to integrate and blend the voices further, the choir were joined by the sumptuous playing of internationally acclaimed violinist, Madeleine Mitchell. This elegiac work fused Czech and English music to create an emotive pastorale and the performance was of the very highest calibre.

Rutter’s ‘Wind in the Willows’ was introduced as “an entertainment” and it certainly made the audience smile with its remarkably convincing car noises, saucy gaoler’s daughter, debonair Toad and carol-singing field-mice (the sopranos exploiting their character to the full). The choir’s diction was to be applauded in the very rapid patter songs and the finale, ‘Home is a special kind of feeling’, was like a warm embrace. A final treat came in the form of an arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘I got rhythm’, with accents giving the syncopation added punch. This also gave an opportunity for an unsung hero of the evening, Peter Adcock, a chance to shine with some truly dazzling piano playing.

The programme may have been billed as ‘Wind in the Willows’ but it was an evening of respite from the dreary British summer weather with an entertaining and original programme in the beautiful setting of Dartington’s Great Hall.

 

Angela Blackwell

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Saturday 5 March 2016
Exeter Cathedral

LITURGY AND THEATRE MIX IN MUSIC

The smell of incense welcomed the audience to Exeter Cathedral on Saturday 5 March and an innovative performance by the Exeter Festival Chorus, singing with the Bath Bach Choir under the direction of Nigel Perrin (assisted by Peter Adcock), of Rachmaninov's Vespers (more properly called the All-Night Vigil). With the various movements interspersed with 11 of the same composer's Preludes played by well-known pianist Peter Donohoe, this was no static interpretation. There was movement from the start, when the opening six Vesper pieces were sung in a darkened building lit only by candlelight, the choir's singing of the opening call to worship from the two side aisles giving a striking antiphonal effect to the music. This movement was maintained throughout the performance, with choir members at times occupying different positions around the nave to give maximum effect to the textures and content of the music. (Their movement will at least have counteracted the lack of heat in the Cathedral!)

As might be expected of forces coached by Nigel Perrin, performance standards were gratifyingly high. Enhanced by the authority of Peter Donohoe's performances of the solo Preludes, the choir managed the varied challenges of the Vespers with confidence, accuracy and meaning. The Preludes were carefully chosen with appropriate key relations to the choral music around them, undoubtedly a help to the choir in its pitching of the unaccompanied vocal score. The performances of Khvalite imia Ghospodi and Slava v vishnikh Bogu were particularly striking, but equally impressive, and moving, was the singing of Bogoroditse Devo as the choir retired from the nave of the Cathedral to bring the vesper component of the work to an end. No review of a performance of the Vespers would be complete without some reference to the basses of the choir who have the challenge of singing bottom Cs; yes, they made it, and (almost) successfully reached the bottom B flat in Nine otpushchayeshi (Nunc Dimittis)! A word of praise, too, to Rupert Drury who sang the brief tenor solos – his vocal timbre was ideal for this work. The informative programme notes were provided by Diana de la Cour.

 In his introduction to the performance, Nigel Perrin wrote of presenting a theatrical feast. So, did it work as such? Inevitably, there was a tension between the liturgical content of the Vespers and the virtuoso recital nature of the solo piano Preludes which created some uncertainty in the mind of the listener. Yes, the Vespers are dramatic as well as contemplative and, indeed, their first performance was not in a church. But the Preludes, however carefully chosen generally not to include the overtly stormy and martial numbers, are concert hall pieces and at times, some may have thought they were hearing two different experiences. Others will have undoubtedly thought differently. However, whatever the varied judgements of the audience, how good it is to have in the Exeter Festival Chorus a high-class choir which dares to innovate. We may not always agree, but how stimulating it is to be challenged!

 David Batty

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Saturday 5 December 2015
Great Hall, University of Exeter

Gershwin’s music inhabits a fluid space between classical and pop. At the Great Hall, Exeter University, Exeter Festival Chorus hosted I Got Gershwin, a Christmas Gala concert, with contributions from The Big Buzzard Boogie Band and Andy Williamson, the Exeter Big Noise Chorus with Colin Rea, and soloist Claire Martin. As always, Nigel Perrin was the Conductor of The Exeter Festival Chorus.

This ambitious Christmas Gala attempted to bring together a range of pop songs with ten George and Ira Gershwin classics.

Claire Martin, one of our finest jazz divas, was on hand to add cabaret style interpretations of blues and jazz standards. Accompanying Claire on the piano was the impressively inventive Gareth Williams.

After two colourful jazz instrumental numbers by the lively Big Buzzard Boogie Band with Andy Williamson, the mood of the evening moved to two pop songs by the ‘no-audition’ Exeter Big Noise Chorus, conducted by Colin Rea and accompanied by piano and violin. As if this was a taste of things to come, the Big Noise Chorus was somewhat at odds with the Gershwin Jazz tone of the evening.

The jazz feeling of the concert was shortly and safely returned to the stage by a wonderful set from Claire Martin.

Before the interval, the Exeter Festival Chorus took full control of the imposing venue with three superbly arranged pop and jazz classics. Java Jive in particular was packed full of southern jazz-style harmony and humour. The ice was truly broken, with Nigel Perrin performing a bluesy soulful singing cameo to add to the free spirit of the music. We could have been in the Cotton Club!

The hokum of Java Jive was successfully preceded by the surprisingly soulful Bridge over Troubled Water. Gershwin’s bridge from pop into jazz and blues had been joyfully navigated.

The second part of the Christmas Gala featured the headline work of the evening - I Got Gershwin, Ned Bennett’s ‘Jazz Extravaganza’ featuring ten of George and Ira Gershwin’s best known works. The elegantly rhythmic instrumental skills of the Boogie Band and the silky vocals of Claire Martin were not always matched when both choruses sang together. The introduction of a string quartet for the most part added very little to Gershwin’s love of big brass and large harmonies.

None the less it was a night of great diversity with the arrangements of Ned Bennett pushing the audience into the exciting Jazz age world of America in the 1930s.

John Francis 6 December 2015