Tuesday 9 December 2014

New Lamps for Old at St John's Smith Square

Alistair Dixon and Chapelle du Roi
New Lamps for Old - Talls, Braid, Bordoli, Sheppard, Hugill, Harper, Darbourne, Victoria, McDowall; Chapelle du Roi, Alistair Dixon; St John's Smith Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 6 2014
Chapelle du Roi on strong form in programme pairing contemporary and 16th century works

Alistair Dixon and his group Chapelle du Roi gave their New Lamps for Old programme at their Christmas concert on Saturday 6 December 2014 at St John's Smith Square. Whilst the eight-voice vocal ensemble specialises in music of the 15th and 16th centuries, for New Lamps for Old Dixon paired settings of the same text - one by a 16th century composer and one by a 21st century one including a number of commissions and first performances. As one of the first performances was my own setting of the Advent Prose, this article is not a review but a reflection on the works performed and the group's fine performance

The 'old' composers were from Chapelle du Roi core repertoire: Tallis, Sheppard and Victoria, and the contemporary composers were a nicely varied bunch. The format of the concerts and time constraints in rehearsal mean that the new works needed to fit an ensemble singing mainly poyphony and chant, and in fact a number of the modern composer clearly had chant influences mixed into their writing. The composers reflected quite a wide age range from 20's to 60's with a concomittant variety of approach.

The modern composers were myself, David Braid, Samuel Bordoli, Norman Harper and Jonathan Darbourne. Braid combines composing with playing the lute, Bordoli held the Mendelssohn Scholarship and Manson Fellowship at the Royal Academy of Music and is interested in architecture and site specific pieces. Norman Harper is the Director of Music at St George's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Southwark. Jonathan Darbourne sings alto with the Chapelle du Roi and was performing in the concert.

The concert started with Tallis's Latin Magnificat; this and the companion Nunc Dimittis  (also in the concert) are highly unusual as they represent the Anglican pairing of Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis with settings in Latin. They were created for the Latin translation of the Book of Common Prayer which Queen Elizabeth I allowed to be performed in Universities (where Latin was still spoken). The Magnificat was bookended by the evocative chant antiphon O Sapientia, and then followed by David Braid's expressive setting of the same text.

Tallis's Nunc Dimittis was followed by Samuel Bordoli's Nunc Dimittis, with its hints of chant and organum; in fact Bordoli's Nunc Dimittis is a pair with his own Magnificat and I look forward to hearing them both soon.

Threading its way through the evening was John Sheppard's lovely lyrical Missa Cantate starting with the Gloria full of gorgeous melismas and a variety of vocal textures.

The final pairing in the first half was the atmospheric plainchant Advent Prose with my own setting of the same text. My work was written over a year ago, and it was lovely to make its acquaintaince again especially in such a finely mesmerising performance from Dixon and Chapelle du Roi.

After the interval, the Sanctus and Benedictus from Sheppard's Missa Cantate was followed by Sheppard's respond Verbum Caro with its clear high sopranos and distinctive rich texture. Norman Harper's setting of the same text, reflected the structure of the respond and in fact used some of the chant that Sheppard did, with highly atmospheric results.

The Agnus Dei from Sheppard's Missa Cantate was followed by Jonathan Darbourne's No Man's Land 1914 which Darbourne himself directed. Darbourne sets verses from a poem by his father, Richard Darbourne, about the Christmas Eve truce during the First World War. Both in style and content the piece was different to the rest of the programme, but Darbourne has written a strong and fascinating work which provided an interesting sense of contrast to the programme and certainly showed the singers' versatility.

The concert concluded with the final pairing, Victoria's glorious double choir Alma Redemptoris Mater and Cecilia McDowall's lyrical setting of the same text.

Throughout the concert the Dixon and his eight singers showed themselves to be on the peak of form, whether it was bringing clarity and richness to Sheppard's distinctive timbres and harmonies, or placing my own close-harmonied drones with care and attention. Talking to the performers afterwards they clearly relished the challenge of mixing the old and the new.

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