Petersfield 4th March, 2017
I Was Glad
I might have heard the choir sing better, but that is just a tribute to how far they have come in three short years under Steve Sargent’s tutelage and how well they navigate some pretty challenging music.
The first half consisted of Handel’s Utrecht Te Deum. This is challenging in the extreme. Short pieces, a lot of fiddly detail, a fair bit of spikiness, changes of pace and mood aplenty. But by and large they met the challenge with aplomb, even using soloists from among their number, something brave in an amateur choir, but a risk not just worth taking, but well delivered. The finale of In the Lord have I trusted, was especially joyous.
The second half though was when the choir found its form. If you don’t enjoy singing Zadok the Priest you should perhaps pack up, go home and give up. The enjoyment of every member of the choir was writ large on each and every face, from the moment they sucked out all the air in the vicinity in preparation for the big opening chord. That enjoyment translating into a bold, big and bouncy sound and an absolutely cracking Amen, which showed the choir at the top of their game. Tremendous stuff.
Then we were treated to a rather wonderful surprise, Hymn to the Word by local composer, Clive Osgood – a meditation on the opening of John’s Gospel: In the beginning was the Word. I had my doubts as to whether it was possible to add anything to the majesty of the Evangelist’s prose. But how wrong I was. This piece is a delight – and evidently a delight to the choir, as they bathed with obvious pleasure in the warm bath of its lush, sinuous chords. The ending – a meditation on the commandment to love one another, as Christ loves us – was a triumph.
This left them in fine voice and mood for the lovely melodies of Mawby’s Ave Verum, delivered with a huge blossoming sound, and the considerable challenge of William Harris’s Faire is the Heaven. This is a piece I feel very proprietorial towards, as I remember singing it in my School Chapel one Sunday morning in 1982 and it was one of those rare occasions when everything went right. So I came with high expectations. One of the choir told me after the concert on after Saturday that she said she felt they went a little flat. Maybe so, but this is a pig of a piece in which to stay in tune. But more importantly than any finessing of technique or tuning was the fervour with which the choir sung it. They really got under its skin – and created something beautiful.
We then came to a showstopping finale: Parry’s I Was Glad. Here the choir nearly took the roof off. Indeed, so wide were the choir’s mouths that they would have formed part of the Hindhead Tunnel, while the sound would not have disgraced any of the royal weddings at which this has been sung. Steve, in one of the best traditions of the choir, then gave us a little bonus; the chance for everybody to sing Parry’s English spectacular, Jerusalem, from William Blake’s poem. Choir and audience together nearly blew St Peter’s 900 year old walls down. And as the choir piled into the pub for a very well merited snifter, I was left reflecting on the irony that we had ended by singing something so associated with a particular view of Englishness, but which is in fact a radical poet’s paean to social justice - and which followed a programme largely made up of music from an Anglicised German. An interesting thought on which to end a splendid, beautiful evening.
Petersfield, 20th February, 2016
When I joined a choir after not picking up a piece of music for 18 years, I thought I knew it all. I could pitch a note, pick up a part quickly and follow the conductor. I was in for a rude awakening – an awakening that began when I was told by an irate choirmaster – and I quote – “Don't be so b***** choral! If I want to hear a cathedral choir, I'll go to a cathedral!”
And he was dead right. My voice had tone, my singing was accurate – but it was all completely lifeless, an academic exercise. Yes, he wanted us to get it right. But far more, he wanted us to sing from the heart, to use music as a means of telling our story, our pain, our triumphs. The results were often quite staggering – and often meant members of the choir didn't sleep for a week after concerts, so deep was the emotional impact of our singing, on ourselves on our audiences.
That robust injunction – and its consequences came back to me as I listened to the Petersfield Choir's volcanic performance on Saturday. And I'm willing to bet there were a few sleepless nights in our town on Saturday night. Yes, they were accurate. Yes, they sung to a remarkably high standard, especially considering they'd only been practising since the new year. But more, because of the sheer passion and intensity with which they invested their music-making. I was frankly blown away – as I am sure was a packed house at St Peter's – and at times could hardly recognise choir members, so transformed were they by their efforts.
It was also a pleasure to make the acquaintance of some new musical friends. We were privileged to witness nothing less than a world premiere – of the Stabat Mater by Clive Osgood, who I assume is no relation of Peter Osgood, flamboyant flaneur of the 1970s Chelsea forward line. But this was music with the same richness and individuality of his footballing namesake's play. It was also – as footballer's say – a big ask, a truly demanding piece, with the lushness of the melodies and harmonies often balanced by dissonance. The greatest compliment I can pay to composer and choir is that a friend of mine said it made her go away and find out more about the poem from which it is taken, the lament of Mary, as she witnesses the crucifixion of her son.
This agonised drama was followed by the calmer waters of the SouthDowns Camerata's delightful rendition of Bach’s Air on the G String, best known to those of a certain age as the music from the Hamlet cigar adverts. Now I have not smoked for nearly twenty years, but so rich, resonant and relaxing that I found myself reliving the glories of tobacco. It was lovely.
Then we were back to some serious choral pyrotechnics – and I use the word advisedly, since Handel's Dixit Dominus is the musical equivalent of fireworks, especially the Gloria, which is a most remarkable rocket indeed. It demands a fierce concentration from each and every choir member and a willingness not to breathe at all. Mr Handel appears to have considered that such fripperies as taking in air should be sacrificed for the greater goal of making the biggest, most joyful noise possible. I don't how the choir managed the breathing – but it was truly big and truly joyful.
We even had the good fortune to have that Gloria twice - with Steve Sargent inviting some brave singers from the audience to join the choir on stage. The results were somewhat akin to the adrenaline rush I understand is felt when participating in extreme sports. It also led to my favourite moment of an evening of happy moments - seeing the tiny daughter of the excellent soprano soloist, Jo Latter, joining her mum for the encore – and positively bouncing with every bar.
One of the most bittersweet moments of music-making is when you turn the page, realise you have come to the last few bars – and feel a peculiar grief that something so intense is coming to an end. I bet most of the Choir felt this at the end of the evening – I know one of the altos did, because she told me the next morning after Church. This was a cracking evening, impressively led by Steve Sargent. I couldn't decide whether his conducting was a particularly expressive form of charades or whether he was, like the choir, living every beat of every bar. We were also privileged to hear lovely sensitive soloists: take a bow, Ella DeJongh, Jo Latter, Timothy Clifford Hill, Edward Williamson, Edward Roberts. This concert showcased what amateur music making is all about: not being so b***** choral! Bravo one and all!
Petersfield, 28th November, 2015.
One of my favourite films is a brief, unsophisticated documentary, made in 1940, called Britain Can Take It!
In its way it is a small masterpiece, showing ordinary people going about their lives, despite the chaos of war, with a grim determination – while still holding onto their most treasured beliefs. Its culmination sees a huge choral society belting out the Hallelujah Chorus – with the voiceover stating that “people who sing like that in times like these cannot be beaten.”
It is a hymn to community, compassion and commitment. And in times like our own, when the world and its prospects can look rather bleak, those are still things we too should hold onto – and applaud people, like that wartime choir, whose singing captures something good and true about our communities and our country.
And an enthusiastic audience saw those fine qualities in abundance on Saturday night, as The Petersfield Choir led us through the first section of the Messiah – and then gave the Hallelujah Chorus some serious welly as their encore.
This was a performance with some moments of real grandeur – and you could see how much the choir enjoyed themselves. And all from a choir that has come a long way from a standing start a couple of years ago. It might still be a work in progress – some of the unaccompanied works of the first half were solid and careful, but perhaps a little tentative. But this Choir is very much finding its feet – and showing passion, precision – and the promise of much more to come.
They were joined by the excellent SouthDowns Camerata – who added some real light and shade to the Messiah. They also wowed the audience with the Bach Concerto for Two Violins – in which the two soloists showed real empathy with one another. I could have sworn at one point that the sound from the two violins almost detached itself from the players, soaring above the orchestra. The same was true of the counter tenor, Tim Clifford Hill, whose purity of voice captured delicacy and devotion in articulating the Old Testament promise of the Messiah and what his arrival might mean. The moment when he landed on the huge line “And shall call his name, Emmanuel” brought a tear to my eye. Perhaps that is what moments of real art are all about; creating something pure, ethereal – but nonetheless intense.
One of the reasons I moved to Petersfield was that I sensed that it was a place where community thrived and enthusiasm was cherished. The Petersfield Choir ticks those boxes – and we owe Steve Sargent our thanks for his pluck and commitment to taking it so far so quickly. We are lucky to have them amongst us. Hallelujah indeed!
The Petersfield Choir
Saturday 11 July, 2015
Holy Trinity Church, Privett
It was standing room only for the latest concert by The Petersfield Choir, where conductor Steve Sargent could be seen, just before taking up the baton, busily wheeling trolleys of chairs for latecomers. The size of the audience was gratifying but not surprising, given the choir’s rising reputation, an attractive programme and the presence of the Southdowns Camerata to accompany a choir that has hitherto proved its worth in a capella concerts.
The evening started with Mozart’s Missa Brevis in B flat. We may think of Mozart as safe, but familiarity conceals many a pitfall; in 1777, when it was written, this work was not safe at all, but dangerously modern. There was much to enjoy in the performance – a brisk opening ‘Kyrie’, a lively ‘Osanna’ and dramatic attack in the ‘Agnus Dei’. Soprano Ella de Jongh shone in the ‘Benedictus’ and was joined by contralto Hannah Davidson, tenor Edward Williamson and bass Edward Roberts in a well-integrated solo quartet. In less convincing moments, some choral entries lacked bite and the men seemed underpowered.
The sound that opened Clive Osgood’s Dixit Dominus (first performed only last autumn) had conviction in abundance. The choir’s forceful entry fairly made the audience sit up, and soon the ringing tone of the sopranos’ top A was resounding round the church. This was new music to relish, with driving orchestral rhythms under a united choir in ‘Dominus a dextris’, and gentler moments such as the lyrical ‘Tecum principatus’ for sopranos and altos. Only in the second movement, with its tricky Latin cross-rhythms, was there a hint that choir and orchestra could have done with more rehearsal time together. This work certainly deserves more performances.
After a convivial interval in the evening sunshine, Vivaldi’s Gloria made a splendid conclusion. The orchestra played with fine vigour and expression, brightened by the tone of trumpet and oboe – but surprisingly without keyboard continuo. The choir gave tremendous attack to the fast movements and clearly shaped phrasing in the expressive ‘Et in terra’, where the conductor coaxed a warm tone from the altos. Jo Latter joined Ella de Jongh for the famous soprano duet, and later the expressive exchanges between alto soloist and chorus were beautifully handled.
At the end, Steve Sargent pulled a trick out of his sleeve in the shape of a dozen copies and an invitation to the audience for singers to join an encore of the final movement. Happily, there were volunteers and the enlarged choir brought the evening to a rousing finish.
The Petersfield Choir
St Laurence’s Church
Sunday 29 March 2015
Just a year old, Steve Sargent’s Petersfield Choir has already shown ambition and imagination, a commitment to music in a wide variety of styles and the courage to evolve and experiment. All these features were evident again in their concert last Sunday at St Laurence’s Church.
With some new members strengthening the mix, Sargent took the bold step of placing the men in front of the ladies – with the advantage not only of adjusting the balance more in favour of the lower voices, but of putting the tenors and basses in closer touch with the conductor. The benefits of this were felt most in the renaissance music in the programme – such as Victoria’s solemn, darkly-coloured motet Caligaverunt Oculi Mei – where all the voices share the melodic interest. Its drawback was felt occasionally, at moments when brilliance from the sopranos is key to the texture, as in the wordless trumpet calls of Tippett’s setting of Steal Away.
If one aspect of interpretation stood out during the concert, it was the control of dynamics, evident from the first in the climax of Purcell’s Hear my prayer. The choir showed reserves of power that could carry the sound from a hushed piano through a comfortable mezzo forte to a forte that filled the church with glowing sound. They exploited this effect both on a small scale, as in the ‘Amen’ of Robert Parsons’ Ave Maria and on a large scale in the build-up of Frank Martin’s mesmerising and chorally challenging Agnus Dei.
In a programme tied in with Holy Week, its theme emphasised by readings of Easter poems, the message was very much in the words as well as in the music. In the polyphonic pieces, the singers’ handling of the text sometimes felt a little mechanical, but in Purcell’s homophonic Thou Knowest, Lord the choir showed just how sensitively it can follow the conductor’s shaping.
This was an interestingly interwoven programme, in which several pieces by a single composer, which might often be performed as a group, were spread through the concert. So we heard anthems by Purcell at the start and near the end, and three of Tippett’s arrangements of spirituals from A Child of Our Time spread through the concert, mingled with single works by composers ranging from the sixteenth to the twenty-first centuries.
It proved to be a successful scheme that gave equal weight to each item, and allowed a contour from prayer and expectation, through the darkness of Good Friday towards the celebration of Easter. With the tone brightening towards the end, Tippett’s version of Nobody Knows brought a welcome sense of energy, particularly successful after the repeats in the music had given the choir several runs at its nimble syncopations. After farewells from Steve Sargent and Rev Peter Hollins, Eric Lutkin’s The Lord Bless You served both as a congregational blessing and a concert encore.
The choir’s next concert is at Privett Church on 11 July, when they will joining forces with the Southdowns Camerata in Vivaldi’s Gloria and an exciting new setting of Dixit Dominus.