November 2013: Autumn Reflections

Britten: St Nicolas and Hymn to St Cecilia
Whitacre: Her Sacred Spirit Soars
Dove: The Passing of the Year

St Peter's Church, Budleigh Salterton, Saturday 9 November 2013

Source: Mary Ellis

In their Autumn Reflections concert, Exeter Festival Chorus marked various anniversaries on Saturday evening at Budleigh Salterton. In Britten’s centenary year, Nigel Perrin chose to contrast his works, which some audience members may think of as modern, with choral works which are a generation more modern still.

To celebrate St Cecilia’s day (November 22) we heard Her Sacred Sprit Soars by Eric Whitacre, setting an acrostic sonnet. These highly structured lyrics inspired Whitacre to challenge the second 5-part choir to sing identical music a bar later than the first choir, often additionally employing close imitation within each choir. The Festival Chorus members were not fazed by these demands, tackling the soaring scale passages with a sense of progression that kept our interest.

Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia sets words by Auden which could be considered rather obscure. However, Britten responded to them with some memorably lyrical music. The soprano line was again divided into two parts: this was no problem for a strong cohort at the top of the choir. When Britten contrasted the cantus firmus from the men with the lighter, fast-moving singing above, both sounded suitably secure.

After these two unaccompanied works, the chorus was joined by piano and percussion for Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year. The settings and instrumentation were very varied, sometimes homophonic but frequently employing such a welter of different rhythms simultaneously as to disguise their subtleties. The singers navigated their way through all this with aplomb.

After the interval we were treated to Britten’s Saint Nicolas. Daniel Joy showed his operatic strength as the tenor soloist, taking us clearly through the story with conviction, and the audience was charmed by the three choirboys who performed with complete assurance. The body language of the Festival Chorus showed that they enjoyed the energetic tuneful lines, although having only one conductor meant that they were not able to separate the semi-chorus to another part of the building. As proposed by Britten, the audience joined in two hymns, with the varied harmonisations and vigorous percussion accompaniment ensuring that we all left with a smile on our faces.