Bruckner motets; Tchaikovsky: Overture, Romeo & Juliet; Berlioz: Te Deum

The programme for this Spring Concert was highly musically demanding for both choir and orchestra together as one force and as separate entities. It is always a risky decision for a conductor to begin a concert with unaccompanied items for choir. The three Bruckner Motets require tremendous vocal control in terms of musical style, dynamic contrast and unblemished intonation. Yet the choir of Tonbridge Philharmonic Society gave a convincing performance of each of the Motets. The text of “Locus Iste” is a fitting tribute to Tonbridge School Chapel “This place was made by God, A Sacred Place beyond all price. It is without fault or blemish”. (“Locus Iste” reminds me very much of the character and harmonic style of Mozart’s “Ave Verum”).

There was much dynamic contrast in this piece with an excellent balance between each of the vocal parts with eloquent musical phrasing. The second Motet “Tota pulchra es” began with a solo tenor entry. Hugh Hetherington’s opening phrase instantly captured the “plainsong” spirit of this motet. The vocal quality was rich and warm with a pure and unblemished legato phrase. Again the choir responded fully to the sudden dynamic contrasts required to communicate the musical intensity that Bruckner intended in his choral writing. There was only one slight uncertain moment in bars 48-51 in the choral entry after the tenor solo. The notes were a little insecure but this can be forgiven as the harmony takes an awkward turn at this point (the tenor solo phrase is firmly in C major and suddenly the choir enter with a combination of numerous sharps, flats and naturals. The harmonic insecurity of this passage recovered immediately the organ entered at bar 53. The third Motet “Christus factus es” is particularly appropriate as we approach Easter. The text is the Gradual for Maundy Thursday. It is longer than the previous two motets and the more substantial of the three. This was a confident performance with much dynamic contrast and vocal colouring. There was excellent balance between the vocal lines and clarity between each part. On page 71 “Quod est super..” here the alto part with its moment of melodic interest and importance came over with a sonorous and pure clarity of vocal sound. It was clear that Robin Morrish had spent much time in rehearsal addressing balance of parts and making sure that each vocal line was in sympathy with another. Overall in these three Motets the diction was excellent and the intimate character and mood of the music was captured. One can imagine these pieces being performed perhaps by a smaller choir and in a smaller venue.

The second item in the programme was for the orchestra alone, “The Overture to Romeo and Juliet” by Tchaikovsky. The entire performance of this work would have done credit to any professional orchestra. From the opening bars of the music it was clear that Robin Morrish was in full command of the performance and he had the orchestra eating out of his hands. Everything we associate with Tchaikovsky’s musical style was present in this performance, huge dynamic contrasts, melodies which require in performance musical over-indulgence to convey their romanticism and drama. I was particularly impressed by the perfectly placed notes in the sections of the music written for woodwind alone and the perfectly accurate and articulately placed pizzicato string passages. Robin Morrish had clearly spent much time working on the balance between the instruments in rehearsal. Each section of the orchestra and each instrument within each section firmly understood its role and relationship to all the other parts. There were moments when instruments were in conversation with each other, each taking a more dominant or less dominant role in the development of the Romeo and Juliet story as it unfolds. The orchestra achieved all that Tchaikovsky stood for as a composer writing in the late Romantic period, huge and sudden changes of dynamics, contrast in tone colour and sudden changes in mood and dramatic effect. The attack of the strings, particularly in the cello entries captured the anxiety and confrontation developing in the Romeo and Juliet story. The Brass and Percussion sections came into their own at the appropriate times in the music but equally the Brass and Percussion players were sympathetic to the rest of the orchestra and blended with the other instrumental lines within the texture. The performance of the “Overture to Romeo and Juliet” was equal to any professional orchestra that I have heard play this work. The audience responded to the closing bars of this work with rapturous and extensive applause. A performance which displayed true artistry from both orchestra and its conductor.

After the interval choir and orchestra joined forces in a performance of Berlioz’ “Te Deum”. This followed the same theme as the Romeo and Juliet Overture – a hugely romantic work full of musical contrast, passion and drama. In Berlioz’ “Te Deum” one suddenly becomes aware of the space that can be created in music. Firstly the position of the organ and the orchestra at completely opposite ends of the chapel created a feeling of an expanse of space and distance. Secondly Berlioz is renowned for his use of a very large orchestra and consequently huge textures and diverse contrast in texture in his compositions.

The use of highly dense orchestration and in the case of the “Te Deum” three separate choirs in the scoring create a sense of space. It was clear from the outset of this work that the choir thoroughly enjoy singing this setting of the “Te Deum”. In the opening few pages all the vocal entries were confident and musically secure. There was excellent balance achieved in the contrapuntal texture of the vocal writing in the opening movement. The end of the opening movement is interesting from a harmonic angle. One would expect one movement to come to a firm close then the next movement to begin afresh. At the end of the first movement Berlioz leaves the choir and orchestra with an imperfect cadence which then leads into the second movement on a chord which resolves to a perfect cadence in B major. The introduction to the second movement is scored for organ solo. This gave the opportunity for us to hear Chris Harris solo. He is the rehearsal accompanist for the choir and it is a rare occasion that a rehearsal accompanist comes into the fore during a performance. In the second movement there was excellent balance between the vocal parts especially between the Sopranos and Altos when they were singing as a duet. In this movement both choir and orchestra demonstrated their understanding of what is required in the music of Berlioz. Both forces achieved the sudden changes in dynamics required to reinforce the dramatic intensity of this music.

The third movement “Dignare, Domine” is completely different in character. This movement is refined, prayerful and deeply lyrical. The sopranos conveyed the change in mood from the outset of the movement. They achieved a pure tone throughout the vocal compass of the melody and sang with a sonorous legato sound. Again the vocal parts were perfectly balanced and in complete sympathy with each other.

The movement “Christe Rex Gloriae” requires tremendous commitment from both choir and orchestra in terms of energy both physical and mental. The intensity of this movement was conveyed straight away from the opening bars “Tu Christe, tu Rex Gloriae”. Later in the movement the same theme is used in canon between the vocal lines. Each part entered confidently and with clarity. Berlioz is renowned for sudden changes in dynamics in his scoring. Under Robin Morrish’s excellent direction both choir and orchestra achieved the demands of Berlioz’ changing dynamics. When working with a large choir and large orchestra it is very hard to achieve soft dynamics. Yet there were some intense moments particularly in the sections of the score marked with very soft dynamics. The balance between the woodwind parts was particularly impressive. Berlioz tests his performers at the end of this movement. Tremendous energy is required not only for singing and playing very loudly but also to convey the rhythmic drive of this music. This movement is a huge “play” and “sing” for everyone involved. It was therefore not surprising that Robin Morrish gave a short break between this and the next movement. It was also musically very appropriate.

The fifth movement is a prayer and the music much more intimate. The short break leading to this movement gave us all the opportunity to prepare for the tranquillity of “Te ergo quaesumus”. This movement opens with the tenor solo and for the first time this evening we were able to hear Hugh Hetherington at length. Hetherington has a rich, warm vocal quality suited to the solo writing here. Each musical phrase was refined and unsentimental. Hetherington’s high notes were exquisite and effortless. The interjections between the solo tenor line and the Soprano/Alto writing were perfectly placed and flowed seamlessly. At the end of this movement there is a passage for unaccompanied choir. So often amateur choirs have intonation difficulties when unsupported by instruments but here the intonation was unblemished. The clarity of sound and diction was excellent. The “give away” regarding TPS choir’s perfect intonation was the final cadence played by the organ!

The final movement returns to Berlioz’ robust musical style. The bass entry was confident and grand. Looking at the score this seems to be the most complex section of the entire work. There are awkward entries in the vocal writing and many awkward intervals to pitch at the start of a phrase as well as in the middle of a phrase. The choir clearly new the score inside out and the balance between choir and orchestra was excellent. So often the Brass (by nature the brass section is very loud) drown any choir or orchestra but this evening there was perfect balance between the Brass, Percussion and the rest of the forces employed. Again this movement requires tremendous musical and physical energy. Both choir and orchestra did us proud and I am sure there was not one person on the platform who didn’t feel exhausted or uplifted. The performers, Hugh Hetherington and Robin Morrish received rapturous, extended applause from a hugely appreciative audience. This was a momentous performance of Berlioz’ Te Deum and matched any performance that a professional choir and orchestra could have achieved. Tonbridge Philharmonic Society is held with high esteem in the local community and most certainly did the audience proud this evening. No choir or orchestra could achieve such a high level of musicianship without an outstanding Musical Director. My warm congratulations to Robin Morrish and to you all!