Concert Reviews

Review of Christmas Concerts 2018

The Choir’s chairman, Dotty Watkins, set the mood with her warm and witty welcome to the audience at the start of the evening. She and the choir then launched into Handel’s rousing And the Glory of the Lord from his Messiah. And we were off! Lots of contrasting items, some gentle, others boisterous, kept everyone’s attention, so that when it was the audience’s turn, there was a great crescendo of sound. The temptation simply to offer up the usual round of well-known Christmas hymns, carols and other seasonal pieces is something the Choir resists. The familiar is leavened by the new or not so familiar. Hence items which were either very little known (such as Charpentier’s Salve Puerule) or completely new (as with the first performance of Michael Coe’s delightful Thou little tiny Child ). Towards the end of the concert there was another unfamiliar item: a jolly medley of popular American songs arranged by the late (and very English) Goff Richards.

The sound of a brass band is hugely evocative for those, like your reviewer, who spend much of their time in the south: it is the warm and reassuring call of the north. This musical magic was provided by Essentially Brass, newcomers to these concerts. Comprising two trumpets, a trombone, a French horn, a tuba and percussion, this talented sextet entertained with a variety of songs covering a range of styles. No matter the piece the result was unmistakably and splendidly brass. Particularly striking and very contrasting in tone and mood were an arrangement of a late medieval song called Gaudate Natus Christus Est, a lively medley of tunes in an arrangement (by one of the sextet) entitled The Many Sounds of Christmas, and a delightful rendition of Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer (with spoken contributions by the two trumpeters and appropriate sound effects from the percussionist). It was all joyously entertaining. They will surely make a return visit one day.

The cheerful theme set by Dotty in her opening remarks was echoed by jokey comments by trombonist Rich Walker between the items he and his colleagues had chosen to play. It all added to the fun. Not to be outdone, the Choir’s quick-witted musical director, Andrew Marples, laced his informative introductory remarks on what we were about to hear with his own brand of light-hearted banter including a witticism about the importance of watching the conductor. Clever and experienced musician that he is, Andrew knows the importance of keeping his singers relaxed and in good humour as well as keeping them on their toes musically and attentive to his directions. He more than succeeded in this and the result was a happy evening of festive music-making. Despite absences on account of coughs, colds and other seasonal ailments, the Choir gave a good account of themselves. You would not have known that there were any gaps in their ranks as they opened their lungs to “…wish [us] a merry Christmas” as the evening came to a close.

No review is complete without a word about the two accompanists, Bob Girdler on the organ and Carol Reid on the piano (when not singing as part of the Choir). In some of the pieces they do much more than set the key and provide some backing. They have major parts requiring very considerable technical skill. The Choir is fortunate to have two such accomplished musicians to add their contributions.

Bill Blackburn

Review of Spring Concert: 21 April 2018

Elgar, Puccini, Doyle

Supported by The Elgar Society

It had been a day of brilliant Spring sunshine. It was the Queen’s 92nd birthday and the setting was suitably majestic: the intimate, yet expansive and wonderfully illuminated nave of Sheffield Cathedral. There was a packed audience and the scene was set for an ambitious programme comprising two major and very contrasting choral works, flanked by a stirring introduction and a no less stirring conclusion. It fell to the combined forces - about 100 choristers - of the Baslow Choir and the Holymoorside Choral Society under the baton of their joint director, Andrew Marples, to deliver this musical feast. They were joined by three superb young soloists (what a coup to have secured their services!) and by Andrew Cummings at the organ and the 40 or so strong Hallam Sinfonia led by Alastair Wood.

The Music Makers which took up most of the first half is choral Elgar at his best, a match, many say, for his better known Gerontius. First performed only months before the start of the Great War, it is as if the composer presages the awfulness of what is to come, yet yearns for new beginnings. With its echoes from earlier compositions this demanding work is a series of linked musical essays into which the composer opens his soul. Sometimes the sound is reduced almost to a gentle hush and at others it rises to a glorious crescendo. It sets to music Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s mystical poem the overall mood of which is best captured by its opening words “We are the dream makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams….” The music requires large forces and much subtlety of tone. The combined choirs were equal to the task, as was the striking mezzo, Leeds-born Beth Moxon, whose strong voice and clear diction enabled her to rise above the tremendous wave of sound from choir and orchestra at her back. With a cathedral acoustic which seemed designed for the performance the audience caught its breath as the last words died away and all that was left was the dream.

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria, written when the composer was only 21, could not be more different. It is an operatic curtain raiser to the fabulous operas that were still some way off. More Verdi than later Puccini the work revels in melody and choral flights of fancy. Despite it solemn setting - the catholic mass - there are moments when the mood seems almost playful. The main focus of the work are a lengthy Gloria (which gives the work its name) and the Credo. The Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei are very brief by comparison but full of charm. “Charm” is not what one normally associates with the mass but this is Puccini, conscious of his skills and eager to show his audience of what he is capable. The two choirs seemed to revel in their participation in this joyous work and are to be congratulated for bringing it to our attention. In this they were assisted by two superbly self-confident soloists, with voices which seemed designed for the part: the bel canto tones of the tenor Andrew Henley and the rich and powerful baritone of Edmund Damon. This very early work deserves more outings.

The concert began and ended in ways that, although musically very different, were strangely, perhaps deliberately, connected. The Hallam Sinfonia ushered in the evening with a suitably sonorous rendition of Elgar’s intensely moving and ever-popular Nimrod - almost a national hymn these days - from his celebrated Enigma Variations. It is music that never fails to stir the soul. The evening ended with a joyful performance of a short contemporary work: Doyle’s Non Nobis Domine - celebrating the victory at Agincourt - from the 1989 film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The two magnificent tenor and baritone soloists were in almost boisterous mood as, in a wonderfully balanced duet, with orchestra and massed choirs, they danced their way musically to a rousing climax of a truly memorable concert. The evening had started with solemnity; it ended with some joyous fizz. Your reviewer cannot wait for another such concert. Well done to all involved!

Bill Blackburn