What people think of Viva la Musica...
Viva la Musica’s fine performance of a programme of Mozart and Haydn at Stoneygate Baptist Church, Leicester on 5th October was further evidence of their pre-eminence among local chamber choirs and their ability to delight an appreciative and growing audience.
The first half of their programme opened with the relatively short Insanae et vanae curae which Haydn took from his first oratorio, The Return of Tobias. Initially, the organ felt rather dominant, if masterfully wielded by Michael Overbury, and it was difficult to hear the male voices in particular. However, the choir warmed to the second, gentler section and their customary excellent diction and balance made for a good beginning to the concert. Mozart was then given a snippet of an introduction in Quia quem meruisti from his Regina Coeli and Nicky Bouckley’s powerful soprano solo here worked well, although in later parts of the concert she dominated the sound in quartets with the other soloists.
The choir’s forces easily came through and worked more with the organ in the confident and familiar The heavens are telling from Haydn’s Creation. We also heard here from the fine young tenor and baritone soloists Robin Morton and Andrey Kushchinsky. It was a delight to see young local talents being promoted.
Mozart’s Ave Verum, although such a familiar choral piece, was not treated by the choir with any casual approach, but with the intensity and restraint its context requires. The first half of the performance was rounded off with Haydn’s Te Deum in C. For me, this was a highlight of the evening: the sturm und drang of the piece’s cheering verve and drama was a ‘big sing’ for the choir but they maintained its energy effectively with clear direction as ever from Simon Lumby, despite losing his spectacles in his efforts to increase the tempi of the faster sections even more!
The second part of the evening gave us the Mozart that was the programme’s headline draw, his Requiem in D minor. From the outset, I found myself wanting more tenor, although the confident and reliable bass opening was effective and had the same conviction later in, for example, the Quantus tremor of the Dies Irae. Michael Overbury was joined by Philip Robinson for Czerny’s double piano arrangement of Mozart’s orchestration; their twenty fingers sounded like far more at times. Each of our soloists was also given ample room to shine and the three of the first half were joined by Catherine Griffiths as alto, whose voice blended beautifully and sensitively in the quartets. The Requiem also allowed all parts of the choir to sparkle, from the conversational bass-tenor sections being angelically comforted by sopranos and altos in Confutatis, to the contrasts and tender singing this choir is known for in other sections.
My favourite notes of the concert have to be Quam olim Abrahae… which powerfully offered a sense of appealing to the Almighty to ensure that the promise of salvation should be fulfilled. If you are looking for an early Christmas treat, you should get your tickets for 15th December now!
Rejoice in the Lamb - a concert of 20th Century British Choral Music
Ok, cards on the table. This reviewer is no great fan of Benjamin Britten. Now that heretical confession is out of the way, what a pleasure it was to hear the latest concert by the excellent Viva La Musica choir on their ‘home’ territory of Trinity Methodist Church, Loughborough, under the title of Britten’s well-known composition “Rejoice in the Lamb”.
It would be pedantic to argue with the strapline “a concert of 20th century British Choral Music” on the basis that certainly one and possibly two of the eight items were written more recently. Their composers were at least born in the 20th century. If there was any slight disappointment in the programme it was that only one of the other six items was written after 1944 and that five of the eight items were by Britten or Herbert Howells, with Vaughan Williams being the only other composer getting so much as a look in.
The programme opened beautifully with one of the nods to the contemporary generation with erstwhile local composer Charles Paterson’s setting of George Herbert’s poem “Virtue”. This gave the choir the opportunity to demonstrate its ability to manage dynamic contrasts with a smooth fluency which was characteristic of its performance throughout the evening. This was followed by “Take him earth for cherishing” by Howells for which
his choice of ancient funerial poetry for a commission to mark the assassination of John F Kennedy allowed the composer to reflect haunting echoes of his own family tragedy. This contrasted with his more lilting setting of Psalm 42 “Like as the Hart” which featured in the second half but, with the exception of a stray top note at the end of the latter, Viva performed those very different pieces with pleasing clarity and precision.
Almost all the choral items were preceded by detailed introductions by conductor Simon Lumby, who coaxed an impressive performance by the choir with his customary verve and panache. It was a little puzzling therefore to find an exception for the second recent piece by Tom Davoren (born 1986), with whom many of the audience were not familiar, and which received no introduction at all. Google tells me he is better known as a composer for brass bands, but his short setting of the first verse of Wilfred Owen’s poem “Music” was a little gem of a piece which the choir sang to great effect.
The choral contribution of Vaughan Williams to the evening was his “Five Mystical Songs” for which baritone John Thawley stepped from the ranks of the choir to deliver a solo tour de force. John’s mastery of his art is well-known to many of us, and he delivered the lyrical simplicities and complexities of the earlier passages and the triumphal crescendo of the climax with equal assuredness. He was sensitively accompanied both by the choir, and by organist Michael Overbury who also performed solo interludes in each half of the evening. Those also featured pieces by Vaughan Williams (Prelude on Rhosymedre) and from Howells (Country Pageant and Lambert’s Clavichord). I am in awe of the skills of organists, but no judge of them. However my ignorant feeling that these sounded rather good was confirmed by an organ aficionado sitting next to me who sighed quietly with satisfaction and murmured “absolutely perfect” as the former drew to its close.
This review also cannot pass without reference to the fact that the choir was lacking three of its regular line-up of eighteen singers because of various indispositions. One of the missing singers had been due for a solo part, and commendation must be given to choir member Sue Elliott who stepped into that breach. The fact that anyone not familiar with Viva’s usual personnel would have been hard pushed to pick out the three stand-ins is also testament to the reputations of both the choir and its skilful conductor, which mean it is able to attract and to accommodate such high quality singers for the purpose without any of the rough edges which can be evident even in the regular line-ups of lesser choirs.
The concert ended with the title piece “Rejoice in the Lamb”, but not before the choir had also given us two other familiar Britten standards in “Hymn to the Virgin” and “Hymn to St Cecilia”. In the context of the rest of the programme the first was notable by being the only piece not entirely in English, featuring its second choir responses in Latin. Both of those gave opportunities for short solos to other choir members in which slight hints of nervousness were transmitted. There also appeared to be a couple of minor tuning issues during St Cecilia. However these were not sufficient to detract from the huge enjoyment provided by an otherwise high standard of performance throughout.
This reviewer is still no great fan of Britten. But he is certainly a great fan of Viva La Musica, whether it is singing Britten or any other composer with its customary accuracy, balance and expressiveness. I am looking forward to Viva’s next outing featuring a performance of “Mozart’s Requiem” and other classical favourites on 5th October, and so will be everyone else who knows this excellent choir.
For unto us a child is born..... Christmas Music
Sunday 9th December 2018
I recently heard this choir singing Baroque music accompanied by an authentic orchestra. Happily this challenging and sophisticated Christmas programme demonstrated once again that Viva la Musica is a talented and versatile chamber choir. The choir is directed with verve and sensitivity by Simon Lumby who also provided superb and helpful introductions to the pieces. Coherently organised in groups, the carols were nicely interspersed by appropriate seasonal readings. However it was the dynamic range of the choir and their effective articulation which were the most noticeable of the choir’s skills. Starting with spirited version of “The Sussex Carol” and finishing with “Gloria in excelsis!”, the twelve carols tested the choir’s every voice and, in the main, they were not found wanting. Despite the occasional imbalance in the ensemble, such as in Grieg’s “Ave Maris Stella” and some timbre issues on higher notes, the choir proved expert at negotiating the different styles of the pieces and a couple of the carols were impressively sung by most of the singers from memory.
The joyous pieces came off thrillingly, and this was reflected in the choir’s faces, but it was the quieter pieces which commanded most attention. This applied to Tavener’s touching setting of “The Lamb” and Stopford’s well-crafted melodic lines in his “Ave Maria”. An extra tenor in the latter piece would have helped although the end elicited an audible ‘Mmm’ from the audience at its conclusion. This was just reward for the performance. The greatest contrast was between two adjacent carols: Villette’s scrumptious harmonies in “Hymne à la Vierge” followed by Rutter’s well-crafted melody in “The Nativity Carol”. These carols exemplified the concert as a whole in the attention given to harmonic detail and, unlike many lesser choirs, not sentimentalising the melodies. Two pieces which raised the game for organ and choir were the rhythmic and melodic challenges in both Matthias’ “A babe is born” and Fisher’s “Gloria in excelsis!”.
However, it was the “Gloria” ending the first half of this concert which drew the greatest contrasts. Blazing fortissimos and hushed pianissimos sat side by side and the piece, expertly directed by Simon Lumby, concluded with a celebratory section in which both the choir and the challenging organ part, well executed by Michael Overbury, created a real sense of excitement in their performance.
For the second half of the concert, the choir and much of the audience relocated to the church hall where during a munificent feast, the choir continued to entertain with many more carols which were mostly in a lighter vein. An interesting and innovative celebration which, for all of the audience and performers, proved a positive start for the Christmas season.
MDC December 2108
Eternal Source of Light Divine - Saturday 23rd June 2018
Review by Nicholas Scott-Burt
On Saturday 23rd June an enthusiastic capacity audience at St Aidan's, New Parks, Leicester, was treated to the most exciting and polished performance by an amateur choir that I have heard for a while. Conducted by Simon Lumby, the Loughborough based chamber choir Viva La Musica offered an all Handel programme comprising well-known and lesser-known works: the four Coronation Anthems of 1727 and the birthday ode for Queen Anne Eternal Source of Light Divine, which was also the title of the concert. The choir was accompanied by the Musica Donum Dei chamber orchestra, and the three soloists, soprano Judit Felszeghy, countertenor Tom Williams, and baritone Andrew Ashwin interspersed the anthems with movements from opera and oratorio as well as providing the solo arias in the Ode.
From the choir's first dazzling entry in Zadok the Priest, their brightness and projection of sound seemed to be at odds with their small number, only eighteen singers in all, who rose magnificently above the trumpets and timpani of the orchestra. Throughout the performance the singers' clarity in the long melismas, their sense of phrase and shape, and the blend both within voice parts and across the breadth of the chording and counterpoint never failed to impress. Some of the chordal passages in The King Shall Rejoice made the singers work hard against the brightness of Handel's orchestral scoring, but the imitative lines and strings-of-pearls passagework were accomplished with finesse and apparent ease throughout the programme.
The three soloists, whose contributions from Judas Maccabeus, Samson, Giulio Cesare and Belshazzar punctuated the purely choral movements gave us much to enjoy, whether this was the silky smoothness and commanding consummate cool of baritone Andrew Ashwin's delivery, or the heartrending phrasing of Tom Williams's countertenor, or the devilish virtuosity made to look so very easy in the coloratura of Judit Felszeghy. The humour which she gleefully projected in Let the Bright Seraphim is a quality so often innate in Handel's writing but nearly as often overlooked by performers - but not here! Judit wooed the audience, not to mention the conductor and the orchestra, giving us no option but to hang on her every semiquaver.
The orchestra, Musica Donum Dei, about whom there was no information in the programme, are a period instrument band who played with much sympathy and subtlety throughout the evening. There is no doubt that period instruments provide a different perspective, particularly on those well-known works which we become accustomed to hearing on modern instruments. Conductor Simon Lumby drew the finest from their lucid tones, and directed the entire concert with a gently understated mastery and control of all the musical layers.
Negative points? It is always possible to search for them - but to criticise this concert at any level would really be an insult. Viva's next outing, their Christmas concert on 9th December at St Aidan's, should go in your diary now (and in pen) if you are a lover of choral music at its finest.
'Sing we and chant it...' - Saturday 14th April 2018
review by Qyan Arnachellum
In the historic setting of Leicester's Grade 1 listed Guildhall, one of the best preserved medieval buildings in the country and to an almost capacity audience, Viva, tonight seventeen strong, presented a selection of madrigals and part songs spanning the last three hundred years, to great effect.
After a slightly rushed but humorous and informative exposition of the genre of music they were performing, the choir began with the song 'Sing we and chant it' by the English composer Thomas Morley, a bright and lively start to proceedings, followed by 'Too much I once lamented' by Thomas Tomkins, reflective in mood but not sombre. 'Come again! Sweet love doth now invite' by John Dowland was spirited and energetic with excellent dynamics.
It isn't possible to comment on every piece sung but it was a very well balanced and challenging (for the choir!) programme, covering the full range of emotion, sung pieces interspersed by poetry recited well. Highlights for me were many but included the Robert Bridge poems set to music by Gerald Finzi including 'My Spirit sang all day' and bringing everything up to date, the Four Fire Madrigals by the eminent American composer Morten Lauridsen.
By their very nature madrigals, sung a capella, test the individual singer's ability to provide a wholesome, in tune sound so that a perfect balance and blend is achieved with the other parts. From experience, this is tiring and demanding, requiring total concentration and dexterity because each part is so significantly exposed. It is not for the faint hearted! For the whole concert, such qualities were displayed. Clear intonation, much light and shade, expressiveness, excellent control and precise execution were further attributes much in evidence. By the conclusion, I was in utter admiration of them, not for the first time I can assure you!
It was a truly wonderful evening, the standard of music making quite simply excellent. Thank goodness, noise emanating from a separate event slowly passing by outside, did not interfere with the music whilst it was actually being sung.
Choral Evensong, Southwell Minster, Saturday 24th February 2018
This act of worship was the first time that I had witnessed Viva La Musica sing Choral Evensong and I was not disappointed. If ever there was an occasion where one's spiritual soul was fantastically enriched and nourished, this was it.
The music chosen demanded clarity and precision at the highest level in its execution and this was achieved in abundance. Throughout the entire service, the quality of singing was simply superb, with beautiful and effective dynamics and accurate timing displaying a technical and musical mastery that was second to none. The marriage between conductor and singers seemed effortlessly blissful resulting in those attending, and I am sure all would agree, feeling very strongly the presence of God in that Holy place.
From Charles Stanford's stunning Beati Quorum Via, Philip Stopford's highly engaging Truro Canticles, through to William Harris' Faire is the Heaven, nothing could be faulted.
A brilliant rendition of Henry Smart's Postlude in D for organ, played by the choir's conductor Simon Lumby, completed this serious, important and very successful time of worship. I couldn't help thinking that God must have been pleased and uttered "Well done, thou good and faithful servants."
One of my favourite hymns is 'How shall I sing that Majesty, which angels do admire?' This also contains the words "...sing sing, ye heavenly choir..." John Mason, writing this in the 17th century probably would never have guessed his hymn of praise would resonate and be so pertinent 324 years after his death. Viva la Musica in this service, demonstrated so magnificently that it is and proved themselves to be the embodiment of such sentiments.
The Rev'd Canon Dr. Michael Brierley, Precentor of Worcester Cathedral,
following our visit in September 2016
"We were absolutely delighted to host Viva La Musica at Worcester. They were one of the best visiting choirs that we’ve had, and we really enjoyed their company. The congregation was full of appreciative comments about them. This was their first weekend visit to an English cathedral, and we shall be very keen to have them back again."