Thursday 19 July 2012

Panufnik performed by London Oratory School Schola

Roxanna Panufnik, thanks to her Westminster Mass, is a composer who is perhaps associated with the Roman Catholic Liturgy but her interests are far wider. Her 2006 work, Love Abide (for soli, chorus, organ, harp and strings) sets both the Bible (I Corinthians 13) and the 14th century Sufi poet Rumi. The first movement of the work is a setting of Rumi's poem Love is the Master and it was this movement which the London Oratory School Schola sang as the conclusion to the first half of their Gala Concert on Wednesday 18 July at London's Cadogan Hall.

The Schola were joined by the chamber choir Colla Voce and the London Oratory Sinfonia, conducted by Lee Ward who is leaving after 16 years as Director of Music at the London Oratory School. The concert represented not only a fund raising gala for the Schola Foundation, which supports the work of the London Oratory School Schola, but also a farewell to Lee from the school and many of his former pupils.

The Schola is frankly, amazing; a choir of men and boys, which at last night's concert fielded some 30 trebles. It is a vigorous choral foundation which is embedded in what is still a state, grant aided, school.  The boys sing at the Brompton Oratory every Saturday evening along with a concert and touring schedule and a strong outreach programme. For a Catholic foundation, the trebles of the Schola have a surprisingly traditional English sound and with a tone which is far less up front than somewhere like Westminster. Their patron is HRH Princess Michael of Kent and she was at the concert.

Panufnik's work was a fascinating piece as the composer has used Sufi rhythms and scales to give the piece a tempting exoticism; it opens with infectious rhythms in the strings over which the choir sing smoother, more densely texture choral lines. The whole piece has an immense propulsion which seems to go with drive of the words. Panufnik has done a lot of work with the Schola and her music seems to be rightly popular with them.

Another of the Schola's patrons is James MacMillan and the trebles Schola (along with some of the women from Colla Voce) sang one of MacMillan's Strathclyde motets, one for the feast of St. Columba, for sopranos, trebles and harp. A deceptively simple melody, the piece could not have been by anyone other than MacMillan and the results were effective, haunting and rather moving.

Other contemporary music, in a rather different form, came in the shape of a piece which is extremely popular on Classic FM but whose charms have rather escaped me, the Benedictus from Karl Jenkins's Armed Man. Still the work was clearly popular with both the performers and the audience and the cello solo was beautifully played by one of the school's music staff.

Gareth Valentine is best know as the musical director of a number of major West End shows, his Recordare featured four adult soloists and a fine treble solo, plus the Schola, in an attractively melodic melange which was rather more Broadway than the work's title might suggest.

David Terry's As the apple tree was written specially for the occasion, to enable 15 former choral scholars at the school to return and sing with the choir. Terry had successfully incorporated the requirement for the choral scholars contribution to be included on minimal rehearsal, but the work showed no sign of these limitations and was rather haunting.

Colin Mawby's Ave Verum was a rather surprising piece, given that its composer was director of music at Westminster Cathedral for many years. Written in a very rich idiom, it rather reminded me of the motets of the 20th century French composer Pierre Villette.

Lee Ward formed the chamber choir Colla Voce to utilise the talent of former pupils. The 16 members of the choir performed the choral version of Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music as well as participating in many other items.

The concert opened with a stirring rendition of Handel's Zadok the Priest followed by Purcell's Sound the Trumpet sung by two counter-tenors who are former pupils of the school, Fergal Mostyn Williams and Daniel Keating Roberts. Keating Roberts went on to give a fine account Who may abide from Handel's Messiah. This was a last minute addition to the programme, a response to the illness of opera tenor Julian Gavin who was due to sing at the concert (Gavin is not an ex-pupil, but is the parent of pupils).

Inevitably with a concert like this, there were quite a number of occasional pieces, performances from former pupils. Brothers William and Leo Melvin played the Allegro from the Brahms concerto for Violin and Cello, displaying a strong rapport. Martin Cousin, one of the teachers at the school, played Rachmaninov's Prelude in C sharp minor. Aidan Coburn displayed a nicely focused lyric tenor voice in Lamento di Frederico from Cilea's L'Arlesiana and Una furtiva lagrima from Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore.

As Lee Ward is moving to Brasil, the concert included three items with Brazilian connections. The Pater Noster (sung by Colla Voce) and the aria from Bachianas Brasillieros No. 5 (sung by Eleanor Briggs) by Villa Lobos, and Brasiliera by Milhaud. This latter piece was played by one of the school music staff, Mark Ward, accompanied by Jonathan Beatty. Though Milhaud is French, he accompanied the diplomat (and poet) Paul Claudel to Brazil as Claudel's secretary, hence Milhaud's strong interest in Brazilian music and rhythms.

The concert concluded with everyone joining in a rousing (and very loud) performance of Parry's I was glad.

Roxanna Panufnik's Love is the Master has been recorded by the London Oratory Schola and the London Mozart Players on a new CD, Love Abide, which will be released in Spring 2013.

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