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St. John’s College Choir in Nijmegen

You’ve heard about the Night before Christmas. Well, this year I got to experience the Weekend before Christmas. Because basically Christmas started one weekend before the actual date, with the singing of O Come All Ye Faithful in a packed Stevenskerk in Nijmegen with the St. John’s College Choir! 🙂

The renowned St. John’s Choir gave a splendid Christmas themed concert, in what director Andrew Nethsinga considers his favourite church in the Netherlands, because of the wonderful acoustics. And wonderful it did indeed sound – and look too, with a life size nativity scene in the background, trees glowing with starlike lights and candles burning in the chandeliers above our heads.

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A great atmosphere for a night I’d been looking forward to. Earlier this year, I witnessed the King’s College Choir live in concert and now it was time to get a taste of their neighbouring ‘rivals’.

Without any introduction the choristers filed onto the stage and a solo tenor voice started the Gaude, gaude, gaude, Maria by John Sheppard, a gorgeous and elegant polyphonic piece with bits of old plainchant still intact. I find I quite like these old pieces which have the original plainchant melodies still in them, like the way you can sometimes see original wall paintings in a church that’s been around for ages. Luckily, some ideas change along with the development in music, as the rather dubious sentence, sung in plainchant, about Jews who do not believe in the divine nature of Christ, proved. It was amazing to hear how tight and controlled the choir sounded, like Nethsingha was just manipulating dials on a machine, rather than making calm and concentrated gestures in front of human beings. The trebles seemed to roll and shine on top of the lower voices, and were almost singing as one, while the distinction of the adult voices (countertenors, tenors and basses) served to adorn the fabric on which the high notes were woven. This long first piece was followed by an organ solo, a Prelude and Fugue in C by Bach. I wasn’t always fond of the heavier sounds coming from the organ but loved the more flute- and brasslike sounds in the joyful fugue.

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Up next was the Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten, accompanied on a harp with a beautifully adorned gold column. The boys and men filed in procession to the stage whilst singing. Because they were at first invisible, and we could see the life size nativity scene in the background (which was part of a small exhibition of nativity scenes), the ilusion was created of angels coming down to sing the praises of the newborn Jesus. Very moving.

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Tonight’s arrangement of the Ceremony by Julius Harrison included the lower voices, which was cleverly done, but for me took away some of the unique charm of Britten’s work. Nevertheless, the dramatic impact of This little babe was undeniable. The choir performed it with an almost military force, in concordance with the lyrics, and left at least myself and the lady in front of me breathless. The interlude for harp solo which followed could not have been more perfectly timed. A lovely, enchanting, tender piece, that had the boys and men crowded around the harp player with rapt attention, as if they were crowded around the crib in the stable in Bethlehem.
In freezing winter night, the next piece, had a beautiful solo, though at the final two words (“doth bring”) the boy’s voice sounded a bit rumbling. But perhaps the boy will one day grow up to become one of the choir’s hallmark roaring basses 😉 (some of which, by the way, were pretty handsome lads ;)). The Ceremony ended with the same piece it started with, and the boys and men had to make sure they formed a neat procession again, which for some of the younger ones was a bit difficult 😉 The choir continued singing all the way in the back of wherever they disappeared to, until the absolute faintest “Alleluia” could be heard, truly fading into silence. Magnificent.

During the interval it was time for coffee and a visit to the merchandise stand, where we bought, how appropriate, the album “On Christmas Night”.

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Looking forward to listening to it in the coming days! We also wandered around and enjoyed the church interior and some of the nativity scenes on exhibition.

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What a nice treat to add to a wonderful concert!

In theatres you have bells that ring to tell you it’s time to get back to your seat again, in churches you just let the organ play a few notes 🙂 So back in our seats we were for the second half which began with a piece that I was really looking forward to, and which – I think – I had never heard live before: Allegri’s famous setting of Psalm 51, Miserere mei. Truth be told, it did not have the impact I had expected but perhaps that was due to my feelings of anticipation. Nevertheless I got goosebumps when they started. It was interesting to experience it live, as it added more dynamics to the different parts in regard to where the sound came from: the plainchant tenor part, the bits with high and low voices together and ofcourse the famous treble solo line. Nethsingha employed two boys for this, alternating one another: one older boy with a ‘thinner’ voice who had to make some effort to get the job done, and a younger, smaller boy with a rounder voice, who sang it with just as much intensity as if he were ordering a loaf of bread at the bakery – in other words, I couldn’t believe how well he sang it with such little emphasis 🙂 Again the choir departed, and two organ pieces by Bach followed: Gottes Sohn ist kommen and Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. The first one contrasted dry low sounds with a high melody, the second piece was again very joyful.

The final part of the programme was made up of different shorter Christmas pieces from all parts of the globe and from many different eras. My favourite carol of all, Silent Night, was probably THE highlight for me. I closed my eyes and dreamed away, to my memories of the shepherd’s fields in Bethlehem that I visited in February this year, mingled with memories of Christmas celebrations as a child. During the concert I often enjoyed watching the choir sing, their expressions etc, but for this piece I just wanted to revel in the sound alone. Very, very moving.
The peace and calm of Silent Night was paired with the bouncing energy of Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, employing the rich contrast between the bell-like trebles and sturdy men, followed by a boisterous power piece for the men, Riu, riu chiu. Each verse was sung completely a cappella by a different singer, and it was amazing to hear them sing so many words in Spanish in such a rigorous tempo and with such conviction. Bravo!

Two completely different settings of the same text followed: Bogoroditse Dyevo (‘Hail, Mother of God’) by Pärt and Rachmaninoff. The Pärt version was another amazing example of this choir’s control of volume and intensity at the most detailed level, again as if Nethsingha was operating a machine, though there was nothing detached in this warm and convincing performance. For the Rachmaninoff piece I once again closed my eyes and bathed in the voices, which gave the typical St. John’s intensity at the full-on climax near the end. Again the church showed its great acoustics, with all the voices kept clear and tight and the echo ringing just long enough. The same trademark intensity was showcased in Peter Wishart’s Alleluya, a new work is come on hand, which sounded just as festive as the title suggests and fit the choir like a glove. And then it was already time to rise and stand for the final piece and to sing with full gusto former King’s director Sir David Willcock’s arrangement of the famous Christmas classic O Come All Ye Faithful. Like my boyfriend said afterwards, it’s hard to get back in Advent mood for three remaining days after this!

Receiving a standing ovation, the beaming Nethsingha and his proud choir could not resist two encores: Tavener’s The Lamb, just glowing with dissonances and melody, and a comic barbershop interpretation of Jingle Bells sung by the men, complete with thigh slapping and finger snapping, as Andrew Nethsingha lounged on the side of the stage, enjoying it all, like everyone around him did as well. A wonderful night and a perfect runner-up for the real Christmas celebrations that are coming soon.

I wish everyone, whether you follow my blog or just dropped by, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, filled with joy, love and music! See you in 2013!

Israël 427

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King’s College Choir in Rotterdam

Heavenly skies for heavenly voices. That’s what we got on our train ride to Rotterdam, to hear the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge live in concert. A surprise birthday gift for my boyfriend 🙂 And as you can see, the dramatic late summer skies helped set the mood in advance.

King’s performed in one of the best concert halls in the Netherlands, De Doelen, which not only has great acoustics but looks splendid as well. Check out the artwork in the hallways and the sci-fi organ on stage ^^

But ofcourse we were here for the music. For both of us it was the first time to witness this world renowned choir in the flesh. Not in their natural habitat in Cambridge, but still. We were seated on row 5, which gave perfect view and proximity for listening.

I came with several questions to this concert and all of them have been answered. Firstly, how they would sound in this surroundings, which they are not very familiar with. Well, the answer is: great! It truly was a treat to be able to hear the voices in the space of this hall.

Another question I had was if they could make my heart beat faster for Palestrina. For some reason, Palestrina never got to me. I always think of his pieces as beautiful, but I don’t get a lot of feeling out of them. Would King’s be able to change my opinion? Well, they are! The first two pieces of the evening, Super flumina Babylonis and Stabat Mater, both a cappella, really moved me and also got me to the edge of my seat. The Stabat Mater in particular was exciting from start to finish.

Next up was an organ piece that I didn’t particularly like to be honest, also because of the unexpected sound of the organ which I found pretty strange.
It was interesting to look at the choristers who were listening. Generally they looked like they were given a lecture on some incredibly tedious subject. One boy though was moving his head along to the melody and playing along with his fingers, like he was listening to his favourite hit song ^^ I watched him a bit more from then on and he seemed very much into the notes, also when he wasn’t singing himself. It made me wonder who of the boys in the choir will later continue in music.

Full attention again for the next piece, a favourite of mine, They that go down to the sea in ships by Herbert Sumsion. This I know very well from the Roden Boys Choir so it gave a nice opportunity to compare the two choirs and their sounds. King’s is bigger, so has a fuller sound, especially in the full choir fortissimo parts. Director Stephen Cleobury also opted for a slower pace and an emphasis on colour rather than structure in the dynamics of the piece.

Already one piece left before the interval but it was a long one, The Wilderness by Samuel Wesley. It had hints of The Messiah to my ears and is a long adaptation of words from the prophet Isiah of the wilderness that will bloom. It starts off with a baritone solo that gets picked up by the altos, in a very gentle mood. Halfway through I started to think it was getting a little dull, when suddenly the basses woke everyone up with a thundering part, and fireworks started all round. One boy was so caught up in one of the closing chords near the end that his gaze drifted off all the way to the ceiling and he suddenly had to come back to earth to look at the director again ^^. Some of the young ones had big smiles of joy and relief on their faces as we applauded, and I think Stephen Cleobury himself too showed in his face signs of being very pleased with this performance.

In the interval we decided to get something to drink and ended up in a huge line-up. Turned out it was for free coffee and tea, but we wanted Coke and red wine, so we scooted off to another bar nearby where there was hardly anyone waiting in line ^^

As the bell sounded for round two, we finished our drinks and got back to our seats. The first two pieces were again a cappella, and again both by one composer, this time Thomas Tallis. The first one, In iejunio et fletu, was nice but didn’t do much for me, but the second one was the most amazing piece of the evening for me: De lamentatione Jeremiae part 1, sung by only the men.
It was as if the music opened itself up for me. I had heard the piece before, in a recording by the Tallis Scholars, but hearing it sung in front of me, I could really feel what Tallis had wanted to convey in his composition. And that was deeply moving. The basses providing sombre shadows, the altos and tenors full of melancholy and sorrow. Just exquisite. This music fit the King’s men like a glove. Their controlled temperament, the blending of voices… wow.

This and the Palestrina pieces made me think how important it is to realise that this music was written for performance in a certain space by a certain group of performers. We’re so used to recorded music, but tonight I really found out that some music you can only fully experience sung in front of you in great acoustics by great performers. Recordings only give you an idea of how certain music was meant to sound, but it can never fully replace the experience it was intended for.

In hindsight it was telling that the piece that impressed me most excluded the trebles. Overall, the men shone the most and I have to say the King’s trebles kind of disappointed me. When they had to sing mild and elegant, like in the Wesley piece, they were great, but when they had to deliver more gusto and focus, they held back, to my ears and taste at least (and it was as if after the interval Stephen Cleobury had to work harder to get them to deliver the force he was looking for). Perhaps it was the tension and fatigue that went with the concert setting, who knows. Or maybe I already know so many powerhouse trebles, I’m a little hard to impress ^^
But really, the men shone the most. There were three altos that I just couldn’t tell apart, it was as if they were singing with one voice. King’s is champion in this traditional British style of singing and apart from matters of taste, it’s something to respect and admire when you have managed to uphold such a tradition. In the train ride back, my boyfriend and I discussed this and I said, if you want to know how a piece was meant to sound, find a King’s performance. There, you will find no frills or fancies, but the most solid classic interpretation of a choral piece.

Following the sublime Lamentationes was a very florid, jumpy organ piece, highly contrasting the solemnity of what we just heard. In fact, I often had to re-tune my ears during the concert since it was such a varied programme in styles and eras. By the way, I quite liked this organ piece but I’ve no idea by who it was or what it was called, since there was no concert programme, only a brochure of the entire Gergiev festival that this concert was a part of, which only had the words of the songs, not the names of the instrumental works.

Howells next, with his setting of Psalm 42, Like as the hart. A dark but subtle piece, balancing between awe and sorrow. Very longing. The trebles let me down in this one, but the final part was beautiful. In general, King’s closing chords are just amazing. Often very long, in keeping with the rather slow tempo that Cleobury adopts, and beautifully sustained. Marvelous.

Like I said it was a varied night. After the introverted longing of Howells came the full-on power dynamics of Elgar‘s Give unto the Lord, that was just riveting. Everyone sang to their best, and it sounded just like it deserved, boisterous, flaming, and wonderfully gentle in the calm parts. I didn’t realise how much I love this piece (and how well I know it, as I was practically playbacking!) until now. Wow.

A standing ovation followed, and we were even treated to an encore. Stephen Cleobury turned to the audience and said: ‘I have tried very hard to choose pieces that were in keeping with the festival’s theme of sea and water. This last piece is by William Walton, called Drop, drop, slow tears [laughter from the audience]. It was written when Walton was only fifteen years old. Not much older than some of the choristers on the platform this evenig’. A round of applause followed for those hard-working talented kids 🙂 (hey, despite my criticism, they’re still heroes to me :))
And I must say, it was a great choice for an encore. I had never heard it, but fell in love with it immediately. It got me the way a pop song can get you on a first listen. Apart from this immediate charm, it has some in-your-face dissonances and nice musical tricks, like when they sang a word forte and immediately softer, a detail that made me think: wow, what amazing breath control, and so tight! Often an encore is sung without any of the previous tension that you have during the official part of a concert, and I could really hear that ease and relief in the way they performed this piece. Too bad it was a short one and this wonderful choral experience was already over.

As it was already late we didn’t stay for the signing session but I’m sure other Dutch choral fans, young and old (we weren’t the youngest ones present!) gave them a very warm reception. It was a great night, and a great opportunity to witness a wide range of King’s qualities. In the meantime we already have plans to attend a concert of their historic ‘rivals’ from St. John’s College. For now, it’s time to savour the memories of this great King’s concert, and I hope they do too.