On Friday 29th November, after attending a PRUsAP.org.uk committee meeting held at the London Institute of Education, my wife and I were taken to a concert at Saint Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square. It was a treat from a good friend and her husband for my birthday.
The concert was part of the Britten 100 celebrations and was by the Vasari Singers conducted by Jeremy Backhouse.
On the programme were the Hymn to St Cecilia, A Ceremony of Carols, the Te Deum in C and, to top the evening, St Nicholas.
I was immediately impressed by the warm, intimate atmosphere in the church that felt more like a local parish church and its regular choristers. During the interval the choir met and chatted with their family and friends before continuing the programme. However, when the performance resumed the one thing that you could be certain of was that this was no amateur performance.
The concert started with the Hymn to Saint Cecelia, and what a polished performance it was. The rich tonal qualities of the choir blended perfectly with Auden’s words and Britten’s music. The balance was immaculate and the speed of the fugal section was mind-blowing but precise and crisp.
The ladies of the choir shone in the Ceremony of Carols where they processed in and out to the ‘Hodie’ sections giving what can sometimes be a disjointed piece of music shape and meaning. The harp playing of Vicky Lester completed a memorable performance.
The Te Deum in C disappointed me somewhat. Not from the vocal side, as the choir maintained the highest of standards, but the choice of having the accompaniment of the string orchestra and harp rather than the original setting for organ. There were problems of balance in some sections when the strings of the Brandenburg Sinfonia were just too loud, at one point literally drowning out the soprano soloist and yet just not punchy enough in some of the fortissimo parts. So why, when there was a perfectly good organ in the church, did they decide to perform it that way?
Saint Nicholas did not disappoint. Ben Johnson was perfect in the part of Nicholas and the soloists from Tiffin Boys’ Choir and the Chamber Choir of Burntwood School augmented the whole performance. A perfect end to a memorable concert.
When I was first told we would be going to this concert I was unaware of the programme, but when I discovered what was being performed I realised just how nostalgic it would be for me.
I can remember the first ever LP that I bought when I was about 13. My favourite piece on it, and one of the reasons I made a decision to follow music as a career was the Te Deum in C.
When I was in the sixth form at school I joined a local chamber choir and one of our regular ‘party pieces’ was the Hymn to Saint Cecelia.
Whilst doing my degree we did a performance of Saint Nicholas with Peter Peers singing the solo and James Blades playing percussion. The college orchestra and choir and, believe it or not, me on the organ, completed the ensemble. So yes, I can name-drop and say that I have accompanied Peter Peers, even if it was only for a few chords.
At the end of my first teaching practice I was roped in to accompany the girls choir in the Ceremony of Carols. No I’m not a harpist. I had to pretend that I was, making the best of a rather ropey old baby grand.
A final comment on the Vasari Singers.
It was lovely to see a choir that was so diverse in age, and who were all so committed to choral singing rather than a group of solo singers trying to sound like a choir. The mixture of experience and youth I am sure enhanced the tone and conformed brilliantly to Britten’s ethos of ‘music for the people’.
So last night was a mixture of nostalgia and bliss at a very enjoyable concert.
Thank you Sharon and Charlie.