It has been a busy few months in the Crouch End Festival Chorus (CEFC) world. After singing big choral-orchestral works at the Barbican in March, we’ve been rehearsing hard for a completely different style of concert: 75 minutes of (mostly sacred) Renaissance-y a cappella music. This week we performed the same program (in a different order) twice, in London’s gorgeous Southwark Cathedral and in historical Waltham Abbey in Essex. On the program:
- Three motets by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896): Locus iste, Os justi, and Ave Maria. You may look at Bruckner’s dates — or be familiar with his symphonies — and ask, “Renaissance-y, really?” Oh yes. These three motets are unaccompanied, three- or four-part wonders of expressive harmony and modulation. I had been familiar with the motets from my “Music of the Romantic Era” musicology course at Oberlin (thanks, CMcG!) and always wanted to sing them. When our conductor, David, added them to the program partway through our rehearsal schedule, I was thrilled. If some of the modulations in Os justi don’t give you chills, I don’t know what will…
- …except maybe the final cadence of Ralph Vaughan Williams‘ (1872-1958) Mass in G minor. Yes, another Romantic/modern-era composer writing a piece that sounds much older than it is, using Dorian and Mixolydian modes as well as plainsong-like passages in addition to “normal,” non-modal keys (thanks, program notes). This mass is written for two choirs and four soloists (which David turned into a semi-chorus), which means that at some points, 12 different parts are singing. It is a more challenging piece than it seems at first reading — lots of tricky rhythms and time signature shifts. And though it sounds older, there are moments of characteristic Vaughan Williams harmonic progressions that will draw you back into the 20th century.
- Annunciation and Song for Athene by John Tavener (1944-2013). Written in the Orthodox tradition (Tavener converted in 1977), each piece uses a semi-chorus to great effect and each is heartbreakingly beautiful. Song for Athene is best-known for being performed and broadcast at Princess Diana’s funeral. Tavener wrote some remarkable music — David thinks he’ll become known as one of the great late 20th-century choral composers.
- Thomas Tallis’ (c.1505-1585) 40-part Spem in alium. Yes, 40 parts: eight choirs of five voices each. Though this would traditionally be sung with one person on each part — that’s how I’d seen Collegium Musicum sing it at Oberlin — CEFC is large enough that David put 2-5 people on each part. I sang in Choir 4 with three other sopranos on my part. This piece is incredible in its complexity and interwoven parts — even moreso because it dates from the 16th century. Give it a listen and let the glorious sounds wash over you. I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to sing it.
- A world premiere of Salve Regina by Bernard Hughes (b. 1974), which was commissioned by CEFC for its 30th anniversary this year. Written in memory of a chorus member’s husband, this also requires two choirs and, like the rest of the program, it is beautiful and quite challenging. I think we pulled it off well and Bernard seemed pleased.
- A strange arrangement of Paul Anka’s Buddy Holly song It Doesn’t Matter Anymore by Orlando Gough (b. 1953).
That’s the music — I haven’t even told you about the venues yet. Both venues were places where CEFC had never sung, so these were exciting opportunities for us.
We sang the first concert at Southwark Cathedral, which sits next to Borough Market near London Bridge. Apparently Southwark is the oldest cathedral building in London, and it is beautiful, with high vaulted ceilings that made for lovely acoustics with great reverberations. I had stepped into it a few times while visiting Borough Market but it was even more incredible to sing in it.
For the second concert, we traveled outside the M25 to Essex (is it still London? That’s up for debate) and historical Waltham Abbey. Someone told me that the Abbey’s foundation dates to the 11th century and the building dates to the 12th. It is best known around the UK as the place where King Harold II is (probably) buried, after being shot in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (or something). Less than half the size of Southwark, Waltham Abbey made for a more intimate concert setting — fitting for much of the music we were singing. Its acoustics weren’t as grand, but I think Spem sounded better in the smaller space.
In terms of how the concerts were received, I leave you with an email David received from an audience member after the Tuesday performance:
We went to see CEFC at Southwark Cathedral two nights ago. Probably the best I’ve ever heard them.The acoustics of the cathedral were superb and their version of the Tallis masterpiece was sublime.I was wishing I could get to Waltham Abbey on Saturday, but alas other commitments.