What a joyful and happy reunion took place in the School Chapel on Saturday night! Performers, choir and orchestra, and audience alike joined in the spirit of the Psalmist and composer, Hubert Parry: we were united in the gladness of entering the House of the Lord to celebrate together after many months of isolating lockdown. To crown the glory of the event, we welcomed the arrival of our wonderful new Director of Music, Naomi Butcher, whose energy and enthusiasm immediately invigorated the performance.
Her programme was eminently suited to the occasion. Parry’s triumphant I was glad was followed by Vivaldi’s Gloria, which also launched itself with a cracking start. Perhaps the tempi were somewhat over-enthusiastic, with a certain loss of rhythmic strength in favour of speed, especially in the resonant chapel acoustic. But, of course, this vitality was also in the spirit of the evening.
Likewise the two soloists, Rebecca Milford and Katie Macdonald, sang with gusto and exuberant vibrato, the contralto especially finding a fine legato line in Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, accompanied by Stephen Minton’s excellent ‘cello obligato. Another instrumental high spot was Jo Briers’ beautiful oboe solo.
The chorus sang with verve and enthusiasm, especially successful when singing forte, but having a tendency to lose pitch in piano. The string sections were on excellent form, playing with a full, bright tone, rising well to the challenge of quick speeds, although losing strength in the dotted rhythm of Domine fili unigenite. As ever they were superbly led by Susan Skone James.
The programme presented two surprises: first, the charming choral piece Song of Mine, Depart by the American, Eugene Butler. This displayed fine choral writing, full of ardour and spirit, and very accessible to the listener. A pity it was on the short side!
Then the second half of the evening’s music began with a rarely heard overture by Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’s sister, again showing off the brilliance of the strings, but somewhat eclipsed by the major piece of the concert – her brother’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony.
This work is full of invention and originality with very effective contrasts of orchestral colour between strings and winds, splendidly executed. Mendelssohn’s skill in organising the unity of his symphony is masterly, by making the coda of the Finale (reflecting the rugged scenery of the Scottish glens) derive from the introductory theme of the first movement. A glorious conclusion to a memorable evening of celebratory music.
Sadly, owing to the strictures of the pandemic, the chorus had to leave the stage during the orchestral second half. We look forward to the concerts of the future when the grand combination of the two halves of the Society can present a fully unified programme under the inspiring musical direction of our splendid new conductor.