On 16 November I attended a concert by Bristol Choral Society, who asked me to write a review of their performance. This is what I wrote about the evening:
Bristol Choral Society’s latest performance at Bristol Cathedral was the third of their concerts that I have attended. Having previously heard them tackle perennially popular large-scale works by Handel and Mozart, I was pleased to see them stepping outside of the classical canon in this programme and performing material by living composers. Having said that, the programme did feature several names who have managed to establish themselves as staple features in the choral repertoire.
The concert began with British Composer Award winner Cecilia MacDowell’s cantata A Time for All Seasons, which set a well-known text from the book of Ecclesiastes (‘to everything there is a season…’) alongside a contemporary reflection by Kevin Crossley-Holland. The piece created effective contrasts between the biblical text, which inhabited a brighter sound world, and the modern insertions, which explored darker themes and occasional dissonant harmonies. These were paired with knotty, often jazz-influenced writing for the piano accompaniment, ably performed here by Ian Tindale, and occasional percussion flourishes. The younger voices of Bristol Youth Choir provided commentary on the text and allowed the exploration of spatial effects within the resonant acoustic of the cathedral, while soprano Nina Bennet handled the more intimate moments for solo voice. These varied forces were well coordinated by conductor Hilary Campbell, and some of the most engaging sections of the piece were those that explored the interaction between the different groups of voices and instruments.
The programme then moved on to a composer who has become a minor celebrity in the choral music world. Eric Whitacre has become well-known both for his use of closely spaced ‘cluster’ harmonies and for his flowing mane of blonde hair. We first heard two short percussion pieces of his (performed by Oliver Butterworth and Oliver Pooley), before two of his best-known choral works, Water Night and Cloudburst, which both set texts by Mexican poet Octavio Paz. These two pieces provided the best opportunities of the evening to hear Bristol Choral Society’s sound largely unadorned by instrumental accompaniment or other supplementary voices (although the use of piano and percussion, including handbells and body percussion played by the members of the choir, in the finale of the latter work was rather evocative). They exhibited a warm, well-balanced choral sound, well-suited to Whitacre’s dense, sustained sonorities and the cathedral’s acoustic. They made effective use of a wide range of dynamics, which helped to give the works a sense of direction and shape.
The second half of the concert opened with a short performance (by Ian Tindale and Annabel Thwaite) of a work for four hands piano by nineteenth-century American composer Edward MacDowell, before the evening concluded with Bob Chilcott’s The Songs and Cries of London Town. This work featured traditional tunes from various historical eras arranged for the choir, accompanied by chiming piano ostinatos and driving percussion. Bristol Youth Choir also returned to the stage to sing the familiar London Bells (‘oranges and lemons ring the bells of St Clemens…’) for the third movement. I found the most effective sections of this piece to be in the more reflective second and fourth movements, as the driving percussion of the first and final movements occasionally became a bit blurred in the reverberation of the cathedral. The pairing of folksy tunes with bell-like piano writing created an almost Christmassy atmosphere that may have had some audience members looking forward to upcoming carol concerts!
Bristol Choral Society’s effective handling of this contemporary repertoire bodes well for their upcoming performance of Stravinsky’s magnificent Symphony of Psalms and Fauré’s much-loved Requiem in March, to which I am very much looking forward. However, if you would like to hear them before then, they will also be performing excerpts from Handel’s Messiah at Redmaids School on 21 December – details can of course be found on their website (www.bristolchoral.co.uk).