Saturday 20 June 2015

Choral showcase: Voices of London Festival opening

Siglo de Oro
Siglo de Oro
Festival Launch Day - A Choral Showcase
Siglo de Oro/Patrick Allies, Sinopia, In the Smoke
Voices of London Festival at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 19 2015
Three contrasting vocal groups in this lively festival opening

With any new festival, it is often the second one which is the difficult hump to get over, recapturing the energy, enthusiasm and commitment which made the first successful. Judging by last night's (19 June 2015) Festival launch for the second Voices of London Festival at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens, then they are all set for a winner again this year. Organised by a group of young choral conductors, the festival aims to celebrate choral singing and bring together a wide variety of singers, from youth choirs and office choirs to renaissance ensembles and a cappella groups, including a new choral commission as festival finale.

At the Festival launch on 19 June 2015, we heard three very different groups; the ten person vocal ensemble Siglo de Oro, conducted by Patrick Allies, who sang a mixture of 17th century and contemporary music by Robert Ramsey, James MacMillan, Sebastian de Vivanco, Thomas Weelkes, Ed Rex and John Tavener; the female vocal trio Sinopia made up of three young opera singers whose programme ranged from Mozart and Verdi, through Gilbert and Sullivan to Andrews Sisters style arrangements of classics like Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and Chattanooga Choo Choo; and In the Smoke, a ten person a cappella group who combine singing their own close-harmony, doo-wop arrangements of popular classics such as Kelis's Acapella and Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammeer with lively choreography.

Patrick Allies and Siglo de Oro performed a selection of items from a longer programme, Eternal Light: Musical tributes & Elegies, starting with Robert Ramsey's When David heard written in the early 17th century on the death of Prince Henry (Charles I's elder brother). A grave and rather moving piece, the ensemble sang it with an expressively vibrant sound. Singing in a half-circle with the voice types mixed up, they are not afraid to use full voice. James MacMillan's A child's prayer was written after the Dunblane massacre and uses two soprano soloists against the darker backdrop of the rest of the ensemble. A rather austere piece, it wove its magic as gradually the textures grew more complex. Sebastian de Vivanco was a contemporary of Vittoria's in Avila, his Versa est in luctum was wonderfully rich with some strongly characterised singing to make a really meaty performance. In Thomas Weelkes' madrigal Death had deprived me, written on the death of his colleague Thomas Morley, the singers really brought out the piece's sense of harmonic instability, with its chromatic shifts, and strikingly wide vocal range. Sung in English, the group were rather fighting the church's resonant acoustics and not all the words were audible. Ed Rex is a young composer who is a contemporary of many of the singers in the group. His Do not stand at my grave and weep was tonal, and chromatic with a very clear melodic sense and very effective use of close harmony. But, for me, the words cast rather a vein of sentimentality over the piece which the music could not quite lift. Finally John Tavener's Song for Athene, quite a challenge with just ten voices but they displayed fine control and the performance really paid off great dividends.

The vocal trio Sinopia, accompanied on piano, did two short sets. First they gave us the more operatic fare with Mozart's three ladies from The Magic Flute, Mendelssohn's Ye Spotted Snakes from A Midsummer Nights Dream, the witches from Verdi's Macbeth, Gershwin's Summertime, and finally two Gilbert and Sullivan items Poor Wandering One from Pirates of Penzanze and Three Little Maids from The Mikado. All three singers are young women with an opera training background, and they certainly showed that they could move  confidently between styles. So that the three ladies had a nice sense of comic irony, the fairies a lovely purity of tone and the witches, sung in Italian, a remarkably vivid and dark timbre. Perhaps Summertime was a stylistic leap too far, but they were spot on with the pair of delightful G&S numbers. And the items were not just sung, but staged in a nicely discreet manner which brought out the essentials of the music, they seemed adept at creating real characters on stage, and my only complaint is that they should be looking at some more imaginative repertoire.

After the interval, they returned now wearing 1950's dresses for a set of close harmony numbers. Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy seemed to owe as much to Bette Midler as to the Andrews Sisters, but I'm gonna sit right down and write myself a letter and A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square were both brilliantly in Andrews Sisters territory with the three vibrant voices combining in terrific fashion (and all sung unamplified too). I did feel that the essential simplicity of Jerome Kern's Just the way you look tonight was lost  in turning it into a trio, and Pete Schmutte's arrangement of Chattanooga Choo Choo was too clever for its own good, though the three singers really sold it superbly.

In the Smoke
Finally another ten person unaccompanied ensemble, but a very different one. In the Smoke do their own close harmony arrangements, with an extensive use of beat box and doo-wop styles and combine them with imaginative stagings. Again, singing without amplification they were adept at ensuring that the solo lines (taken by a number of different singers in the group) were spotlit, and often using two voices in octaves for reinforcement. Perhaps there was something slightly unnerving about their carefully choreographed, smiling demeanour in the bright lights of a church. But there is no doubting their talent, and the imagination that went in to the presentations and arrangements, with a set which included Kelis's Acapella, Leona Lewis's Brave, Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer, Seasick Steve's Walkin Man, the Sugarbabes' About You Now, the Temptations Get Ready, Tom Waits' Martha finishing with a very different, uptempo version of Gershwin's Summertime. There is a chance to catch the group again in their Summer Extravaganza on July 31 at the Greenwood Theatre, SE1.

The Voices London festival continues throughout this week at St James's Church, Sussex Gardens. Today (20 June) there is a chance to hear seven different youth choirs, tomorrow Patrick Russill directs Festival Evensong, then on Tuesday you can hear two different chamber choirs, De Profundis and The Joyful Company of Singers, with Friday being devoted to Workplace Choirs (eight different ones), and finally the festival finale with a new commission Jamie Brown's A Cornish Requiem. Full details from the Voices London website.

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