Nailsea Choral Society Concert on 18th November 2017 at Nailsea School Auditorium
Conductor : Tom Williams
Soloists: Laura Curry - Soprano and Marcus Evans - Bass
Pianos: Douglas Stevens and David Bednall
Brahms’ German Requiem isn’t long enough to stand alone as a programme so the Nailsea Choral Society’s November concert opened with six attractive miniatures shared between choir and soloists. Bruckner’s evergreen Locus iste and Rheinberger’s exquisite Abendlied helped choir and audience adjust to the disconcertingly dry ambience of Nailsea School Auditorium, designed to assist delivery of the spoken word but which denies singers the bloom and resonance found in the traditional English church venues where choirs generally perform. Next up was bass soloist Marcus Evans with Schubert’s celebrated An die Musik and Schumann’s tender song of devotion, Widmung, warmly and sensitively sung. Stepping into later romantic territory, soprano Laura Curry delivered compelling performances of Richard Strauss’ magical but ultimately fearful Die Nacht and fervent dedication Zueignung, all four songs sympathetically accompanied by Douglas Stevens.
Pending the on-schedule arrival of David Bednall the evening’s second pianist, Tom Williams gave the audience an informed and user-friendly outline of the background of the version of Brahms’ German Requiem accompanied not by an orchestra but by two pianists on two pianos, presumably partly why the choir had shifted camp to a more spacious venue. This version enables a choir of this size to compete on equal terms and give a more nuanced interpretation than if its main goal is to hold its own against a full orchestra.
From the outset, this pragmatic choice was vindicated. Indeed the restrained and intensely expressive quiet choral singing throughout extended passages of the music was one of many lovely features of this performance, skilfully keeping powder dry for greater impact in the sections where a thrilling full sound was essential.
There were a few moments when the composer’s demands were not entirely met but Brahms must take responsibility for his arguably unreasonable writing where the soprano line soars on ‘unkind’ vowels at the upper limits of the vocal range, and for throwing in exhausting complex fugal sections at the end of long movements when the choir has already given its all. Any discomfort was short-lived and Tom Williams’ musicality and thorough preparation of the choir constantly shone through with excellent attention to overall landscaping, beautiful phrasing and specific detail.
Douglas Stevens and David Bednall, distinguished performers in their own right, provided appropriately sonorous support from the grand pianos in the nobler passages as well as great delicacy for the more muted sections and the exquisite solos, delivered with a fine sense of style and assured authority by Marcus Evans and Laura Curry.
This was a hugely enjoyable performance of this listener’s favourite extended Requiem, with its emphasis on comforting the bereaved rather than pleading for the safe passage of the soul of the dead through the terrors of Purgatory. The choir has little experience of singing in German so it was particularly enterprising to go for the version in Brahms’ own language which was communicated with total conviction and evident understanding. The helpful notes and parallel German / English texts in the programme further enhanced the appreciative audience’s listening experience.
Nailsea Choral Society, Nailsea Methodist Church, 11th March 2017
Mozart Great Mass in C Minor
Never to be shy of a challenge, Nailsea Choral Society, for its Spring Concert, chose to perform Mozart’s ‘Great’ Mass in C Minor, a work of much difficulty and complexity. Despite the enormity of the task, this was certainly one of the finest that the choir has given.
This is a Society which does not cut corners. Front of House management was extremely efficient; the choir and orchestra, all dressed smartly, took their places in a well drilled way, and once the soloists and conductor entered, all resplendent in full evening wear, we in the audience all realised that we were attending a very special high class concert, even before a note of music had been played. We were not disappointed.
The spirited singing of the choir was joy to hear. Yes, as in all performances, there were a few slips, but these would have only been noticeable to those familiar with the score, and never once became too obvious, being rectified very quickly. This Society’s singing, attention to detail and sheer commitment is now of the highest standard that could be achieved by any non-auditioning amateur choir – all due to the leadership of their Director of Music. This enabled them to give full effect to the glorious varying styles which Mozart had provided, some of which was truly operatic and others obviously influenced by earlier composers. I doubt whether a better quartet of soloists could have been found, all of whom are now at the start of, what promises to be, very successful singing careers, as their c.v.’s shown in the programme indicate how busy they are already, singing in many prestigious concerts in London and elsewhere. The main solo work is set for one of the two sopranos required for this work. Jessica Cale was making a welcome return to Nailsea after her memorable performance of Dido in Dido and Aeneas a few months ago. She regaled us with her wonderful high tessitura which rang around the hall showing the highest standard of vocal ability (a match for Mozart’s arias written for the Queen of the Night in the Magic Flute), and she gave us an unforgettable calm and peace in her well controlled pianissimo passages, wherein the sense of beauty and stillness was palpable.
The other soprano, Gwendolen Martin, sang her arias with equal aplomb and grace, and in her duets with Jessica, the blending of these two fine singers was faultless.
Unfortunately, the two gentlemen singers had less to do (blame Mozart, not the Society !!) . Tom Castle and Edmund Danon, tenor and bass respectively, showed their undoubted vocal prowess in their solo passages, and matched the two ladies in the ensembles magnificently.
The orchestra, consisting of young professionals and students, played with great verve and sensitivity throughout, even though the acoustics of the building did not help, as they did, at times, overpower some of the solo work. However, special mention must be made of the flautist, whose role is pivotal in the soprano arias, and due to unforeseen circumstances graciously deputised at the last moment, sight reading the whole work from beginning to end.
However, once again it was Tom Williams’ evening. To watch him conduct is a master class in itself. His sheer enthusiasm for the music, attention to detail, sense of phrasing and inspirational control of the singers, brought out every nuance of this wonderful work. During the short break in the middle of the performance, Tom’s brief talk on the work (complementing Paul Cronin’s programme notes which were, as always, informative and worth reading) gave us an additional explanation to the special edition being used. His inimitable style of imparting his knowledge, - never in a dry way, but always radiating his sheer joy in the music, - added further to this memorable concert. It is clear that Nailsea is indeed fortunate to have someone of his charisma and knowledge to spearhead concerts of such a standard worthy of any major concert hall and bring such events to our comparatively small area.
If anyone was in doubt of the sheer respect, appreciation and, dare I say, deep affection with which the Society holds Tom Williams, then they only had to listen to the sheer volume of the applause and cheering given by the near capacity audience at the close of the concert.
Truly an evening to be long remembered.
Vice President, Nailsea Choral Society
Nailsea Choral Society, Backwell School Theatre, 12th November 2016
Baroque Choral and Solo Items
Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas
Nailsea Choral Society has never, in its 90+ year history, been afraid of rising to new challenges. This concert was no exception as it consisted of various works from the baroque period which are rarely performed by many amateur choirs.
Part of that challenge for the choir (which, thanks to the success of its Director of Music, Tom Williams, continues to grow) in this concert, was presented by the venue which made it difficult for every singer to see the conductor easily and to hear the very light accompaniment for the programme before the interval. This affected the tuning in some of those opening pieces.
Soloists and orchestra for the whole concert were from the Erebus Ensemble – a small group of professional players and singers founded and directed by Tom Williams, which has established a fine reputation both in the UK and in various parts of Europe as well.
The first half of the programme consisted of some short choral pieces from the 17th/early 18th century, all with minimal accompaniment, and the opening piece – a setting of Hear My Prayer by Henry Purcell - required the finest of tuning and precision. Three soloists each sang a solo to great acclaim and all three joined with the choir to perform Scarlatti’s Iste Confessor, which ended the first half.
The second half of the concert was the main item of the evening – a semi-staged performance of Purcell’s only opera Dido and Aeneas. The accompaniment had now expanded as the small chamber organ and harpsichord which played in the first half was now joined by five stringed instruments, and two recorders. With a stronger sound to accompany them, the choir sang with certainty and confidence, and Tom Williams’ brilliant shaping of the music enabled them to change from being sedate attendants to Queen Dido, to malevolent witches, and also drunken sailors. Here they characterised their ‘roles’ well by providing appropriate vocal colours, thus drawing the audience into the story, a short outline of which was given in advance by Tom Williams.
The various solo parts were sung by seven very fine singers who had recently sung this work in a similar style performance in Switzerland to great acclaim. Each brought their character to life and without exception all produced fine clarity of tone and understanding of their particular role. Matthew Paine made the most of the music Purcell had provided for him, giving us a very humorous and entertaining Sorcerer. The only other male character was Aeneas, sung by Michael Ronan, whose rich baritone voice was able to command the stage as we joined him on his journey from the joys of love to the bitterness of rejection and loss. All supporting roles were sung with great verve and character, but special mention must be made of Jessica Cale, whose performance of the main character, Queen Dido, was sung with the right sense of period, thrilling tone, and great understanding of the text. We shall indeed look forward to welcoming her back to Nailsea in March when she joins us to sing in Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor.
Finally it would be totally wrong to ignore the great contribution made to the performance by those responsible for the sound and lighting effects. Thunderstorms arrived on cue, lighting effects underlined the passage of time, and we were all captivated by the effects which complimented the sound of Dido’s beautifully sung Lament and as she then died. To round off the action, the chorus sang its own funeral lament which provided the final postlude to the work. Here they produced fine expressive singing with great attention to every detail in the score. This marriage of sound and most tasteful lighting, brought us to the very edge of our seats, as these final moments were an example of early opera at an exceptionally high standard. The silence and stillness in the auditorium said it all, ultimately being broken by enthusiastic cheers and applause, all of which was so well deserved.
NCS Vice President
Nailsea Choral Society Concert, 12th March 2016
Christ Church, Nailsea
Once again Tom Williams proved that under his direction the Nailsea Choral Society is capable of producing fine performances of the repertoire which is generally the domain of semi-professional or at any rate auditioned chamber choirs. Although Holy Minimalism (as declared on the posters) sounds more like an exclamation quoted from a Vatican spoof movie, the term aptly sums up the compositional technique adopted within the personal styles of Estonian Orthodox, Arvo Pärt, British Greek Orthodox, John Tavener, and Polish Catholic, Henryk Górecki. Their respective Da Pacem Domine, Song for Athene and Totus Tuus Sum provided the spiritual serenity which underpinned the first half of the Society’s Lenten concert in Christ Church. Interspersed with aptly chosen organ music, Pärt’s solemn and austere Trivium, and Maurice Duruflé’s busier Fugue sur le nom d’Alain, both superbly played by Nigel Nash, the choral pieces were finely sustained and subtly nuanced; this was no mean feat when dealing with so many repetitions of simple phrases, or even of single bell-like notes, sometimes at punishingly low dynamics or scary altitude. The ground rules relating to diction and landscaping had clearly been well established in rehearsals together with a sound grasp of the sporadic perverse harmonies, but just about every detail of entries, cut-offs, tight rhythms, dynamics, tone and phrasing could be observed (even from the audience’s perspective) in Tom Williams’ inspiring and precise gestures.
The society is extremely fortunate to have as its chairman an accomplished bass, Antony Evans, and as its secretary distinguished soprano, Cynthia Dobson whose poised contributions greatly enhanced the full audience’s enjoyment of Song for Athene, and Requiem respectively.
For all its sparse material, repetitions and extended drones, the selected music by the Neo Contemplatives was never dull in its execution; indeed the passionate outburst at ‘Come enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you’ must secure a place for the haunting Song for Athene among the ranks of the most thrilling moments in the society’s distinguished performance history.
John Tavener’s Highgate School contemporary, John Rutter, provided the welcome stylistic foil in this programme with his God Be in my Head, his uplifting and sometimes exuberant Requiem and, as an encore, The Lord Bless You and Keep You. By no means easy options, this lovely music was delivered with due polish, warmth, strength and lyricism by the choir, with luscious melancholy statements from oboist Gabriella Haynes and cellist Heather Gibbard, all beautifully and colourfully accompanied on the organ by Nigel Nash.
All in all, it was a cleverly chosen seasonal programme and excellently delivered. Medals and hot cross buns for everyone!
On December 12th 2015 Nailsea Choral Society with an orchestra conducted by our Musical Director, Tom Williams, performed Handel's Messiah at Nailsea Methodist Church.
The soloists were:
Anna Fitzgerald - soprano
Florence Pettet - alto
John Bacon - tenor
Marcus Evans - bass
** Rosemary Burgon