Friday, 29 January 2016

Sun, Moon, Sea and Stars - Tenebrae's Bob Chilcott celebration opens London A Cappella Festival

Bob Chilcott - photo Vicky Alhadeff
Bob Chilcott - photo Vicky Alhadeff
Sun, Moon, Sea and Stars, music by Bob Chilcott; The Tenebrae Consort, Nigel Short; London A Cappella Festival at King Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 28 2016
Star rating: 3.5

A celebration of Bob Chilcott's art opens the London A Cappella Festival

On 28 January 2016, Nigel Short and the Tenebrae Consort opened the 2016 London A Cappella Festival at Kings Place with a concert launching their new CD, Sun, Moon, Sea and Stars, a disc which celebrates the music of Bob Chilcott, both his recent work for choir and his arrangements for the Kings Singers. For much of the concert, the performers were just six singers, Grace Davidson, Joanna Forbes-Lestrange,  Nicholas Madden, Stephen Kennedy, and Nicholas Garrett, with Nigel Short singing baritone. For some items other members of the group came on-stage to make 10 or 11 singes and at the end of part two they were joined as well by the London Youth Chamber Choir (director Rachel Staunton).

The consort of six singers opened with three French folk-songs arranged by Bob Chilcott some 30 years ago for a group call the Light Blues. Charming and effective close harmony arrangements, but perhaps not the best way to open the concert. It was only with the next group of world folk songs, in arrangements originally made for the Kings Singers, that the real magic of Chilcott's arrangements could be heard. These had an easy naturalness and charm, with jazz-based close-harmony being the default setting, but within this a lot a variations and an appreciation of the sheer dexterity that his singers could bring off. An arrangement of a piece by Juan de Anchieta was quite straight, but the Japanese children's songs had a different texture  with a lovely transparent quality (and they were sung in Japanese too). The Latin American number was, of course, sheer delight with a lovely solo from Grace Davidson and Nicholas Garrett providing spectacular vocal percussion. The Finnish song was, rather remarkably, given a laid-back jazz feel whilst Greensleeves was married to mobile jazz harmonies.

Two of Bob Chilcott's own compositions came next, Marriage go my Lady Poverty and Thou, My Love, Art Fair both using the full ten singers. The first provided a lovely lyrical tune around which Chilcott wove a complex web of sound, whilst the second was slowly lyrical with rich jazz harmonies.

For the last two items the ensemble was boosted to a choir of 24 when the 14 singers of the London Youth Chamber Choir joined the Tenebrae Consort on stage, with Nigel Short conducting. Their first item was Bob Chilcott's arrangement of Walton's Touch Her Soft Lips and Part, from Walton's music for Henry V, and was very much Walton in excelsis, with the original lines enriched by Chilcott.  And then we had the fourth movement from Bob Chilcott's Even  Such is Time. Here, though tonal and melodic, jazz harmonies were far away and the result was quite austere and rather striking, with a lovely solo from a soprano in the London Youth Chamber Choir. The piece made me wonder what the other movements were like, but I would have liked to know what the words were. (In fact a little research points to Sir Walter Raleigh, and the OUP website describes the work as a meditation on death; something it would have been good to know before the performance.)

The second half opened with Bob Chilcott's The Modern Man I Sing, with Nigel Short conducting the full Tenebrae Consort of 10 singers. This is a striking multi-movement/multi-section piece setting words by Walt Whitman, though again no words were provided and I am afraid at this point the choir's diction was not quite good enough to follow them in the concert. The opening movement had some remarkable train-effects in the accompanying voices adding great rhythmic interest to the strikingly stylised vocal line. I had the feeling though that, confident though it was, the performance did not quite make the effect it ought to have. We moved through a lovely, effortless sounding lyrical texture to a very dynamic, edgy and rhythmic finale. The piece certainly struck me as worthy of much further investigation, but the concert did not really provide us with enough context to be able to appreciate the piece.

The group went back down to six singers for a group of arrangements of North American songs, with some lively, complex detail in The Feller from Fortune, and a lovely relaxed feel to The Gift to be Simple. The Lazy Man was provided with a finely rhythmical accompaniment, and She's like a swallow was simple, effective and haunting. The last song, L'habitante de Saint-Barbe was spectacular in its vocal dexterity sung at speed.

Next came a Beatles group, firs Mother Nature's Son arranged by Chilcott, and then Blackbird/I will arranged by Jonathan Rathbone, and When I'm 64 arranged by Paul Hart. Fine, effective arrangements but by this point in the concert I wanted a little more meat, and a little less jazz-based close harmony arrangements. The programme was the sort which works well on CD, to which you can dip in and out of at will, but in concert I would have liked some more of Chilcott's larger scale later works with the arrangements providing a bit of spice rather than the main backbone.

Not that there was anything wrong with the performances, the singers were wonderfully dexterous and clearly enjoying themselves and conveying that enjoyment to the highly appreciative audience. Making this style of singing sound so relaxed, easy and natural is a great art which Nigel Short and his singers brought of to near perfection.

The last group showcased the CD's title song, Sun, Moon, Sea and Stars, written specially for the group. This was a finely laid back piece with some lovely haunted harmonies. An arrangement of Jerome Kern's Go Little Boat with a complex texture woven round the melody to create something apparently effortless. Swimming over London was written for the Kings Singers but here sung by all 11 performers. It is quite a romantic piece with some lovely dark jazz harmonies. Finally a dazzling arrangement of Gershwin's Fascinating Rhythm.

The programme was rapturously receive by the capacity audience, though at the risk of sounding like an Old Grump, I have to admit that the incessant applause between every item rather broke the programme up. With 13 items in the first half, that is a lot of applause, and it would have been good if the audience could have been encouraged to applaud at the end of each group. We were treated to an encore, another Beatles arrangement, Goodnight.

Despite the finely enchanting performances from the singers, and their patent enthusiasm, the evening was a little bit too much like relaxing in a comfortable warm bath. Bob Chilcott's arrangements for the Kings Singers are things of delight and wonder, but I only want to hear them in small doses I'm afraid. But the other items showed is that Chilcott's range is far greater and I am sure that there are more surprises to be had in his catalogue.

The concert was preceded by a pre-concert talk with Nigel Short and Bob Chilcott, both of whom are former members of the Kings Singers. Bob Chilcott admitted being surprised that the programme had ranged so widely in his catalogue, and suggested that there were one or two pieces he had rather they had not done. Both commented on the big change that groups like the Kings Singers and the Swingle Singers have wrought on the world of a cappella music, and how when they were young it was supremely difficult to get decent arrangements. But since then the world of a cappella singing has exploded.

Chilcott has moved away from a cappella singing more recently, concentrating on choral music and when he recently wrote an a cappella piece he found it a bit of a challenge to get back into that world. For an a cappella piece the composer/arranger has to be aware of the individual voices and make allowances for them, as the sing one to a part, whereas in a choir you can take more for granted with multiple singers on each line.

There was also performance in the foyer, and I managed to catch some of the Royal Hospital School Chamber Choir, though they did not make the effect they deserved as they were competing not only with the noisy hubbub in the foyer, but a private view on the level above. At times the overall noise level was unpleasant and in fact I could appreciate the ensemble more when sat in Hall One with the doors open!

The London A Cappella Festival runs through Friday and Saturday with performances from a wide variety of acts as well as workshops and free performances in the foyers.

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