Tag Archives: utrecht

Choir organ celebration

Today was a festive day in the Roman Catholic St. Catharine cathedral in Utrecht. The new choir organ was welcomed with a special concert, featuring the choirs of both the cathedral and the choir school. For years, it has been a wish of organist Wouter van Belle to have an organ that was suited to accompany the choir during liturgical services. In recent times they were only accompanied by the great organ above the entrance while the choir were located left of the high altar. Now, this is also the place where the newly installed choir organ is placed, above a newly built kind of wooden choir stalls with steps on several levels. The organ was built in 1852 by Daniel Gray (so it’s exactly 160 years old this year :)) and in 1989 bought and restored by Dutch organ builder Feenstra in the province of Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands. After moving from the United Kingdom to the Netherlands it has been in use at a church in the orthodox reformed tradition, and now, as of 2012, it serves the worship at the seat of the Dutch Roman Catholic archbishop.

Though small, the instrument has a lot of colour and depth, with lovely elegant flute sounds and deep sounding pedals. Wouter van Belle demonstrated this in a few pieces, in particular by variations on a theme by Corelli, showing off all the different possibilities of the organ.

The real treat I came for though (ofcourse 😉 was the choir performance. We got to hear the choirs first in the position they normally take during worship, left of the altar and later also in front of it -‘centre stage’, so to speak. During the first part, they sang works by Herman Strategier and moved me especially with a Marian antiphon (Ave Regina coelorum) and a beautiful, radiant setting of the Gloria. Unfortunately, even from our relative good view from our pew, the view of the choir was partly obscured by a large pillar. Which was funny, because at one point I thought, there are so few men in this choir – and then I realised that most of them were simply hidden from view 🙂 The choir is mixed, by the way, so it has boys as well as girls and it was nice to hear their mixed voices, just after having recently changed my viewpoint that the traditional English church choirs should be opened up to girls as well. Maybe I’ll write a separate blog about that sometime.

After the choir moved to the centre, the first piece they sang was Laudate Dominum by Mozart, an exquisetely beautiful piece with a soprano and violinist. I am recently in a Mozart craze so I was delighted to hear this, though I was not overly enthusiastic about the soprano. The organ played really smoothly and tenderly, making it sound like the song was gently rocking on waves or on a mother’s lap. The moment the choir entered for the final part sounded wonderful.

Next up was Elgar’s Ave verum, a piece I love but I thought their performance lacked some strength and focus. That was soon forgotten though when the next piece came: the Jubilate Deo) from the Collegium Regale service by Herbert Howells. Such a dynamic, complex piece which had me glued to my seat when my attention was attracted to a boy soprano and a few girl sopranos on my left side who sang with strong, clear voices. The boy especially sang with unmatched focus and direction, really singing towards the people in the church, not only with his voice but also with his whole expression and body language. He stood out in that respect because as usual (sadly) with the choir of the choir school there is a big variety in concentration and sense of ‘togetherness’. It was so refreshing to see this kid being so into it and he had a great voice to match. At one point, for the text ‘The Lord is gracious’, Howells paints the word ‘gracious’ for the sopranos solo and the final note stays on as the other voices blend, like a small red thread running through the rest of the fabric, and this one boy especially held it just beautifully. Perhaps the best moment of the concert. But the entire piece is, and was, marvelous. (I was actually surprised because I never associate Howells with joyfulness ;)) What was also nice was to see a choir member I praised earlier on this blog still in the choir, though I was surprised he seemed to be singing with the altos and not with the tenors as I would expect. I was seated on the side where he stood and often I could pick out his voice which was very nice to hear.

In order to put the organ once more in the spotlight, cathedral organist Paul Houdijk was helped to the instrument (he is blind, which makes it even more moving to watch him play). He played two lovely elegant pieces, one by Lemmens and one by Lefébure Wely, with soft flutes and a very reverent sound throughout, that were very touching, and two beautiful pieces by César Franck.

If you’re ever in the opportunity to listen to this rather English instrument, do so. You won’t be disappointed.


Peaceful Evensong

While some 7,000 people were making their way to Alexandra Palace in London for a nice singalong, I attended a peaceful Evensong at the Janskerk in Utrecht by the Schola Davidica. A mixed adult choir in deep red robes, led by Lisette Bernt and accompanied on organ by Jan Hage (whose improvisation at the beginning reminded me of Mike Oldfield!). As last Sunday marked the end of international Peace Week, the Introit was Verleih’ uns Frieden by Heinrich Schütz, a setting of words by Martin Luther. The processional hymn was an interesting one: a canon in German (Herr, bleibe bei uns). Musical director Lisette Bernt conducted the congregation in her own particular way – all through the Evensong I often noticed some hand movements imitating a fluttering butterfly.

The Schola has a strong, broad sound, which can be impressive at times. Some of the Amens of the Collects (by Humphrey Clucas) were simply glorious. Unfortunately I didn’t think the pronunciation was always great, and in the Psalms I thought they were wavering at times, which is odd as the singing of the Psalms is the main activity of the Schola. Nevertheless, the first Psalm, nr. 86, sung on monastic tone, really grabbed me from the start and got me into a prayerful mood. I was glad for that because, to me, Evensongs tend to feel more like mini-concerts than prayer services, and I sometimes think that’s a pity (although it’s hard to listen to a top class choir and not just marvel at the singing and forget everything else ;)).

The Canticles by Whitlock were very colourful and had a robust doxology (the ‘Glory be to the Father…’ part). I remember some nice word painting, for instance in the Magnificat: “He hath shewed strength with his arm” where the men joined in again and the writing became more dramatic. The Anthem was When David heard by Thomas Weelkes, a stirring, solemn piece, the solemnity of which continued in the closing hymn, Saviour, again to thy dear name we raise by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

It’s good to see the Choral Evensong tradition carried out so close to home, even though services like this make me long for the real thing overseas. The passion of the Schola is obvious, and they took great care to come up with a solid programme. The liturgy booklet had their full year programme until June 2012 at the back and it definitely looks promising.

Introit: Verleih’ uns Frieden (Schütz)
Processional hymn: Herr, bleibe bei uns (Thate)
Preces (Clucas)
Psalms: 86 (monastic tone) & 23 (Oost)
Canticles (Whitlock)
Responses and Collects (Clucas)
Anthem: When David heard (Weelkes)
Closing hymn: Saviour, again to thy dear name we raise (Vaughan Williams)
Organ voluntary (unknown)

St. Michael spectacle

How do you make choir singing interesting for kids? Bring in a storyteller, an angel, a dragon, a fight and floating feathers 🙂 Yesterday I swapped a spot in the wonderful sunshine for a seat in the crowded Dom church in my former hometown Utrecht for a performance of the children’s and youth choirs of the Cathedral Choir School of Utrecht as well as the Cathedral Choir itself. The boys and girls in their Libera-like white robes sang a variety of songs as part of a kind of story/play about meeting the archangel St. Michael in heaven. At first I thought the play-part would be a bit too child-like for grown-ups, but it was great fun 😀 It’s not often you get a fully costumed angel including big white wings, feathers floating from the high dome, and a green dragon in church, amid some beautiful singing. Two of the smallest kids even got to play pupil angels playing tag in heaven 😀

Apart from all this frolicking spectacle, there was mainly some lovely choral singing, the reason I came to the performance in the first place. Like I said, the robes the choir wore reminded me of Libera, so it was almost a shock of recognition to see them entering the church while they were singing Friedrich Kuhlau’s a cappella canon Fra le alte montagne. They did the same as they left, their voices disappearing in the silence, as they disappeared from sight. A moving start and end. Other highlights were the Panis angelicus by Marc-Antoine Charpentier, with a very lovely solo voice at the beginning, from one of the older boys: smooth, elegant, and as I always see colours when I hear certain voices, I would say his was a delicate light-brown one 😉 I would love to hear more from him and hope to find out his name. (EDIT: He introduced himself in the comments 😉 His name is Willem Peek :))

The most impressive though were the youngest kids who sang the Japanese traditional Sakura sakura (which Libera also sang the first time I saw them, in Dublin in 2009, and which I never came across again). They sang it perfectly and you have to admire these kids for singing Japanese by heart! The bigger choirs joined them for the following piece, a pop/spiritual kind of song called Homeward bound by Marta Keen Thompson. A very warm and heartwarming piece, sung splendidly. The choir favourite Joshua fight the battle of Jericho was the backdrop for the spectacular fight between St. Michael and the dragon and I think the musical director Gerard Beemster had a hard time attracting his choristers’ attention fully to him 😉 After the archangel’s victory, white feathers and twirling things came floating down from high in the dome – a magical moment, which had everyone in the church, including the choristers, looking up and pointing and going: aah 🙂

Next was for me the most beautiful and calming piece of the afternoon, a Finnish lullaby called Tuuti, tuuti tumaistanni. Goosebumps all over for me! And I think Libera should absolutely cover this one day.

It’s not often a choir concert can be so solemn and playful in turns, and I would applaud any choir master or musical director or anyone in charge of promoting singing in church for young children, to stay creative and bold in finding new ways of expression of their faith. It was a fun afternoon for young and old! 🙂