Tuesday 20 July 2021

Young contemporary composers to late Haydn: London Oriana Choir at Opera Holland Park

London  Oriana Choir & City of London Sinfonia at Opera Holland Park
London  Oriana Choir & City of London Sinfonia at Opera Holland Park

Redford, Daley, Curry, Mack, Disley-Simpson, David, Haydn; Sian Dicker, Hannah Bennett, Guy Withers, Alex Jones, London Oriana Choir, City of London Sinfonia, Dominic Ellis-Peckham; Opera Holland Park

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 19 July 2021
A welcome chance to hear large-scale choral music again in an imaginative programme which mixed works from the choir's five15 commissioning programme with Haydn's great mass in the time of distress

This year, a sort of fringe festival has grown up around the main festival at Opera Holland Park. James Clutton, the company's director, has been taking advantage of the nights when the theatre is dark to offer the space to other performers, providing performance opportunities at a time when badly needed. So, British Youth Opera will be performing its season there, there is a song recital series next week, Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde coming up, Waterperry Opera's family friendly Peter and the Wolf, Knowing Britten: A celebration of the life of Steuart Bedford, and last night (19 July 2021) London Oriana Choir.

On Monday 19 July 2021, London Oriana Choir, musical director Dominic Ellis-Peckham (who is also chorus master at Opera Holland Park) were joined at Opera Holland Park by the City of London Sinfonia and four of Opera Holland Park's Young Artists, Sian Dicker, Hannah Bennett, Guy Withers, Alex Jones for a programme of music by Stanford, Vittoria Aleotti, Heinrich Schütz, JAC Redford, Eleanor Daley, Jessica Curry, Tara Mack, Anna Disley Simpson, and John David ending with a performance of Haydn's Mass in D minor.

The first half was an eclectic mix of unaccompanied music with a focus very much on the choir's five15 project whereby for five years they appoint a female composer in residence who writes three works for them, alongside a commitment to increase the amount of music by women composers in the choir's programmes. 

We began with Stanford's Coelos Ascendit Hodie, a gloriously upbeat double-choir motet from his early Three Latin Motets. For many of the choir, this was the first time they had performed to an audience in a long time, and for many audience members (myself included) hearing a 60-voice choir was something of a novel delight too. The acoustic was probably somewhat drier than the choir was used to, but it wasn't unhelpful and the clarity, combined with the choir's fine diction and clear sound worked well.

Vittoria Aleotti was an Italian nun, talented young she published a book of her madrigals in Venice in 1593. T'amo mia vita, her setting of a poem by Guarini, proved to be attractively motet-like and indicative of a composer definitely worth exploring more. Whilst Schütz is certainly better known than Aleotti, we certainly don't hear anything like enough of his music in concert programmes, and it was a welcome treat to come across his Selig sind die Toten. Probably performed on a rather different scale than the composer intended, however the motet benefited from the attentive choristers' lithe sound and sense of drama.

JAC Redford is an American composer working in both film, TV and concert music. His motet, Let beauty be our memorial sets his own words and combined a real tune with an effective arrangement and a contemporary American classical sound to create something rather lovely. Eleanor Daley is a Canadian composer, best known for for her Requiem, her setting of Set me as a seal upon thine heart proved to be a touching piece based around modern counterpoint.

Jessica Curry was the choir's third composer in residence as part of five15 and Home, her setting of words by poet Warsan Shire, was one of her pieces for the choir as part of her residency. Using the choir split into various groups, it opened with the words 'No one' repeated in an almost incantatory way, the harmonic span gradually widening out. Whilst the harmony was relatively conventional, Curry achieved striking effects with the way she juxtaposed material from the different groups in the choir.

Tara Mack is a member of the choir and was inspired by their five15 start writing herself and Harlem Night Song, setting a poem by Langston Hughes, was the result; a highly effective piece with an interesting use of the choral forces. Another premiere followed, In the blue by Anna Disley-Simpson, her final piece for the choir as its outgoing composer in residence. The text draws on American poet Alice Freeman Palmer.  Starting from an atmospheric wash of sound that was all texture, a melody gradually emerged and developed. The piece was arch-shaped, expanding and contracting in a highly effective manner which moved from the aleatoric opening to something more structured and then back to the opening material. The result sounded fun to sing and was a striking way of providing interesting and effective challenges to non-professional singers in an achievable way.

The first half finished with a song by Welsh song-writer and bassist John David in a highly effective arrangement by Peter Knight and Jacob Narverud.

For the second half we turned to Haydn. He wrote his Mass in D minor in 1798, the third of six annual masses the composer wrote from 1796 to 1802 celebrating the name day of his employer Prince Esterhazy's wife. Haydn seems to have called the work the Missa in Angustiis (mass in time of distress), referring to the troubled times. Napoleon had won four battles against Austria within a year and in August 1798, when the mass was premiered, was invading Egypt. Thanks to Nelson's success at the Battle of the Nile in that month, this threat was reduced and the mass would acquire the name Nelson Mass, cemented as Nelson and Emma Hamilton seem to have heard it in Austria in 1800.

Haydn wrote for four soloists, choir and an orchestra of strings, trumpets, timpani, and organ (to save money, the Prince had sacked his woodwind players), which results in a rather martial feel. Haydn's approach is quite modern, no major arias for the soloists simply an interweaving of solo, choir and orchestra with the orchestral part doing far more than just support. 

The solo focus is on the soprano whose first entry launches like a rocket over choir and orchestra, and Sian Dicker did not disappoint. In the Kyrie and Gloria she particularly displayed some superb strong tone along with a fine approach to the ornamental vocal writing. Whilst many of her entries brought a welcome element of drama to the piece, there were lovely intimate moments too. The other soloist with showy moments was bass Alex Jones, who brought a sense of quiet drama to his moment in the Gloria. For all these soloistic moments, a lot of the solo writing was more semi-chorus-like and the four young artists bonded admirably in these with mezzo-soprano Hannah Bennett and tenor Guy Withers providing admirable support, and each grasped their opportunity when Haydn did give them a moment in the limelight.

The choral writing also gives the choristers plenty to get their teeth into and the members of London Oriana Choir clearly relished their opportunities, whilst giving us some nicely lithe, clear sound with a nice bite when necessary.  In the Credo, Haydn put the choir into a simple canon, with trumpet fanfare embellishments, presumably having a care to making the words audible, with some wonderfully vigorous moments later. The Sanctus was definitely all the chorus' show, and they brought the Agnus Dei to a close in fine, vigorous manner.

The orchestra had plenty of character and complexity to contribute, and throughout the piece I found myself enjoying the stylish contributions from the City of London Sinfonia players, from crisp tutti to twiddly solo moments, and of course those trumpet fanfares and more.

The mass remains a remarkable piece. Written seven years after Mozart's death even though Haydn was his young contemporary's senior by 24 years. And by 1798 not only had Haydn's pupil Beethoven (some 38 years Haydn's junior) started to make a name for himself, but when Haydn stopped writing the sequence of birthday masses for Princess Esterhazy, Beethoven would take over. 

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