Wednesday 10 February 2016

Seven world premieres - the impressive debut of Suzi Digby and Ora Singers

Suzi Digby and Ora Singers
Suzi Digby and Ora Singers
Byrd, Esenvalds, Panufnik, Pott, L'Estrange, Park, Bray; Ora Singers, Suzi Digby; Church of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 9 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Impressive launch of a new choir with programme spanning 16th and 21st century including seven world premieres.

Last night (Tuesday 9 February 2016) saw the launch of a new professional vocal ensemble, created by the conductor Suzi Digby (founder of the London Youth Choir). The 18 voiced Ora Singers made their debut concert at the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London. Part of the ensemble's ethos is the commissioning and performance of new music, combined in performance with 16th and 17th century classics. At this performance the group gave the premieres of works by Eriks Esenvalds, Roxanna Panufnik, Francis Pott, Alexander L'Estrange, Owain Park, Charlotte Bray; all these new pieces were inspired by and reflections on the music of Byrd (Infelix ego, Ave Verum and the Mass for Five Voices). Alongside the new music we heard the music of Byrd plus another intriguing pairing, Allegri's Miserere (in Ben Byram-Wigfield's scholarly edition) and James MacMillan's Miserere (written for Harry Christophers and the Sixteen as a pendant to the Allegri).

St Peter ad Vincula is a highly atmospheric space in which to have a concert, and this was rendered more so by having the singers initially singing seated in a circle lit principally by candlelight. The drawback being that in a church full of pillars and with a tomb-chest in the middle of the space, sight-lines were limited and there was a sense of us eavesdropping on a performance, rather than being sung to. But what we heard was well worth hearing.

Ora Singers use experienced professional choral singers, and many of the personnel were familiar from other ensembles. Suzi Digby drew from them a remarkably strong, focussed sound notable for its flexibility, vibrant yet well blended with a lovely sense of line. In a lively acoustic like St Peter's the words rather went for naught the more complex pieces, so it was a shame that the low levels of lighting meant we couldn't read the words in our programmes.

The programme opened with Allegri's Miserere which used a scholarly edition by Ben Byram-Wigfield where the abellimenti are closer to what was intended. This means avoiding the solo soprano top C, which is a 20th century invention, though were were treated to this in the final solo verse. Suzi Digby's tempo was quite steady, but she drew a strong performance from the main choir. The solo singers (Emilia Morton, Katy Hill, David Clegg, William Gaunt) blended well and used some attractive ornaments.

Next came William Byrd's great motet Infelix ego and a reflection on it by Eriks Esenvalds. Byrd's setting of Savanorola's meditation on Psalm 50 from Byrd's Cantiones Sacrae of 1591 which includes a number of large scale pieces setting sacred but non-liturgical texts which would resonate with Byrd's fellow Catholics in England. The performance was notable for the strong sense of the works architecture and the way that the individual voice parts blended yet still gave a sense of the different lines. The group made quite a strong sound, this was an environment where the tenors could sing quite strongly in their upper register without affecting the balance. And with resonant low basses, for once this wasn't a soprano led sound.

Eriks Esenvalds Infelix ego is a meditation on Byrd's setting, using a six voiced semi-chorus in addition to the main choir. Esenvalds uses this to combine Byrd's polyphony with more static harmonies so that the sense of Byrd's tonal architecture wove in and out of focus, with some very rich and dense 21st century textures. This was a vibrant and confident performance, very strong technically with no sense of it being the first time the group had performed it in public. In both the Byrd and Esenvalds, I felt that the overall choral approach prized line and tone above the words, and I would have liked more sense of the text. The first half finished with a strong and passionate performance of Byrd's Ave Verum with the voices shaping the vocal lines beautifully.

Part two opened with a firm, flexible account of the Kyrie from Byrd's Five part mass followed by Roxanna Panufnik's Kyrie after Byrd. Panufnik has taken Byrd's harmonies and developed them further giving us Byrd in excelsis, with rich harmonies and many false relations. A highly fascinating piece. Francis Pott's Laudate Dominum was written as a reflection on the Gloria of Byrd's five-part mass, and dedicated to the memory of the late David Trendell, who was director of the chapel choir at King's College London. Pott's work was a big, bright piece, complex and vibrant, and full of rhythmic felicity.

Alexander L'Estrange's Show me deare Christ was a reflection on the Credo of Byrd's mass with L'Estrange writing the work as an examination of what Credo (I believe) would have meant to a recusant Catholic like Byrd. So L'Estrange's macaronic setting mixes John Donne's Holy Sonnett XVIII with words by Jesuit martyrs like Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell, plus text Byrd's will and Latin from the creed and the Athanasian creed. L'Estrange's music gave us a bright, flexible sound with interruptions and interpolations, a sense of the disparate nature of the thoughts arising from the text. It is a highly complex piece, perhaps a little disparate at times and again I come back to the necessity to be able to either hear the words or read them to apprehend the music in better detail. This is a work I would like to hear more of, and look forward to being able to hear it on the choir's forthcoming CD, Upheld By Stillness .

Owain Park's Upheld by stillness was a reflection on the mass's Sanctus and Benedictus, setting Kathleen Raine's poem The Word. The work was intense and rather austere, opening with a soprano solo from Emilia Morton. Park used a combination of fascinating textures in the piece, often with a sense of polytonality. Charlotte Bray's Agnus Dei was a reflection on the Byrd and was performed with Byrd's original coming afterwards. Bray's piece gave us a sense of Byrd's polyphony but transformed with 21st century touches. A strong yet fluid performance of Byrd's Agnus Dei brought the sequence to a close. I have to confess that as a lover of Byrd's wonderful mass, I would rather have liked to hear all the mass movements alongside their reflections.

The programme finished with another pairing, James MacMillan's setting of the Miserere which uses the same text as the Allegri setting from the opening. This was a warm and strongly intense performance with Digby and the singers making much of the dynamic contrasts in MacMillan's piece. Technically confident and with a strong sound, the resulting performance wove the sections of MacMillan's setting into a seamless large-scale structure.

Of course, this wasn't the end. There was one further piece, as an encore. Roderick Williams reflection of Byrd's Ave Verum with Williams almost de-constructing Byrd's music and splitting it between three choirs (placed at a distance from each other), extended Byrd's harmony and false relations into the realms of poly-tonality with luscious textures.

This was certainly an impressive debut. Any new ensemble has its work cut out in the busy London performing world, especially when so many groups share the same core singers. Suzi Digby and Ora seem set to carve a path by their dedication to commissioning new music, though next time I do hope that they let their composers of the leash and allow them free reign rather than reflecting on an earlier piece.

Elsewhere on this blog:

1 comment:

  1. Htier performances are so incredible. There are not words to capture the pure beauty. Can't wait until they come back to Dallas!


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