Hertford Choral Society's concert, 'In the spirit of Christmas' was a musical celebration enhanced by top flight guest performers.

These were the spellbinding saxophanist Catherine Evison and the award-winning young students of The Bax Choir from Heath Mount School.

Leading the Choral Society, Derek Harrison's imaginative programming gives his singers a fresh and interesting challenge each year - as bright and modern as the stylish decorations in the Church that evening. The Choir sang works ranging from the atmospheric 'My Lord has Come' by contemporary composer Will Todd, to gentle lullabies, including the lovely torch-lit 'Sing Lullaby and What Child is this' to the slavic splendour of the beautifully shaped 'Christmas Canticle'. It takes a very versatile and experienced choir to encompass all these styles so successfully.

On a different scale, Catherine Evison on saxophone, with Christopher Benham at the piano, employed the resonant acoustics of the Church to the full.  Whether the mood was mellow and poignant, elegantly jazzy or fast and frolicksome, their performance was magical.  With a scarlet HCS carnation in her hair and adding highlights to the larger choral works, Catherine stole our hearts.

The 40 strong Bax Choir impressed with their confident and tuneful performance, keenly responsve to the conducting of Musical Director Andrew O'Brien. Their three outstanding soloists, Sam Townend, David Shaw and Vinnie Avvoltoio, deserve particular mention. Matthew Woodward accompanied the choir  in their singing of works by Britten, Harold Darke and Michael Head, clearly demonstrating why they were 2012 Junior School Choir of the Year.

Good humoured compere Roger Mullis guided us through the evening and urged us to 'raise the roof' in the audience carols - we tried our very best!

Rose Pullum

From Credo to Cannibals Hertford Choral Society demonstrated their confidence in tackling contrasting themes and styles. All Saints Church provided the perfect setting for the Little Organ Mass by Franz Haydn with the outstanding Willis organ, expertly played by Peter Jaekel in the Benedictus, solo from which the Mass takes its popular name. Moods ranged from the powerfully rhythmic Kyrie to the tranquil sections of the Credo (well done Altos, lovely sound), contrasted with yearning passion of the Agnus Dei and culminating with an exciting Gloria. In what may be a creative trademark of Music Director Derek Harrison, the movements were reordered and expanded by the inclusion of a duet from Haydn’s Oratorio The Seasons. Here the two soloists Philip Salmon (Tenor) and Dominique Thiébaud (Soprano) demonstrated their musical prowess to the full expanding on the theme of selfless love that ran throughout the programme.

Following this Benjamin Britten’s St Nicholas Cantata was performed in a manner that would have pleased the composer. Professional and amateur musicians joined to give a convincing rendition of music that requires fine tuning with Britten’s unique bi-tonal harmonic language. The Amadeus Chamber Orchestra, expanded by percussion and piano duet were more suited to the imaginative and highly efficient brilliance of Britten’s scoring. They provided an exciting accompaniment to the frequently angular melodic style so bravely taken on by the choir. Philip Salmon once again came to the fore with a powerful portrayal of the Saint, now joined by the crystal clear sound of Will O’Brien as the young St Nicholas and Michael Ochman-Bates, Hugh Reid and Stephen Curley as the Pickled Boys in this extraordinary murderous tale.

This was a spirited and convincing performance, much in keeping with the composer’s original intentions and very much reflective of a choir that seeks to expand its repertoire. Their outreach programme creates opportunities for keen singers of all abilities to enjoy singing beyond the everyday pop song and perform alongside professionals, expertly supported by their conductor. With future performances including Bach’s B Minor Mass, Voices and Jazz and an open rehearsal / performance day ‘’Raise Your Voice’’ now planned keen singers will find much to enjoy. 

Steve Wright
Head of Music, Richard Hale School

Hertford Choral Society teamed up with Sounds Aloud Percussion Ensemble to deliver an exhilarating, entertaining and hugely enjoyable concert in All Saints Church on Saturday 22nd June. The decorations and subtle up-lighting transformed a rather dull June evening into something warm and welcoming.

This latest exploration in an annual series of imaginative pairings showed its great strengths in the opening numbers. Pastime in good company was crisp and bounced along with tight foot-tapping rhythms. The following transcription of Pachelbel’s was gently engaging, with words (not always entirely clear) by Sheila Dorling.

The excerpt from Bach’s St John Passion showed the down side of such an ensemble.  The beautiful and mellifluous tones of the marimba smoothed out the harsh tensions of the original string writing – losing the sense of the drama to follow. Kumpo, using three African drums, certainly got the adrenaline flowing with a set of strong rhythmic patterns tossed from player to player.

Following Geoffrey Shaw’s Shakespeare Songs, which were well sung if a bit under-characterised, came Graham Install’s Chasm.  This used percussion as melody and voices as percussion. Its three-part structure featured vigorous outer movements and a lyrical central Gloria – sunshine after the stormy night of the Kyrie - all blended together in the final Sanctus. The choir obviously relished the challenge and the performance was delivered with great panache.

The percussionists ‘summonsed’ us to the second half with a fine treatment of the British Grenadiers.  Derek Harrison’s delicate re-arrangement of Britten’s Sally Gardens was stylishly understated and was followed by an equally imaginative treatment of She moved through the fair by Graham Install, both getting first performances tonight.

HCS then sang some very fetching arrangements of some lollipops before Daniella Ganeva stunned us in leading a virtuosic (and physically demanding) performance of Marimba Spiritual.  The relentless energy and drive was a tour-de-force for the players and a‘white-knuckle’ ride for the listener.

Three movements from Orff’s Carmina Burana brought the concert to a rousing conclusion and triggered a well deserved ovation.

What can Mr Harrison come up with next year? – I’ll certainly be there to find out!

Martin G Penny

This was a rousing performance of Mendelssohn’s masterpiece, completed in the penultimate year of his too-short life, and premiered in Birmingham in 1846. Potential audience members put off by Saturday’s  dreadful weather missed a rare treat. Choir, soloists, and orchestra gave of their utmost, and Michael Pearce in the title role was especially noteworthy, never flagging throughout his long and strenuous part. The other solos were finely sung, Hannah Mason  appropriately angelic , Fiona Hammacott in fine voice, and Nicholas Sharrat’s  ringing tenor convincing as Obadiah.

Special mention should be made of young William O’Brien as the youth, a brief but important part for boy treble beautifully sung with confidence and maturity.

Conductor Derek Harrison is always in control of his forces, and the choruses were given with precision as well as passion. The fine organ playing of Peter Jaekel added extra power and depth to the climaxes.

The aptly-named Bartholdy (Mendelssohn’s hyphenated surname) Orchestra, which was originally formed for a performance of this piece, played well, as one would expect, and the various solos were accompanied with taste and discretion, allowing the words to be heard clearly. Unfortunately, due in part no doubt to the cavernous acoustic of this very high-roofed church, the orchestra, as usual placed in front of the choir, frequently seemed too loud in the climatic choral passages, drowning the efforts of even the 100-plus singers at maximum volume. Despite this, however, the overall impact of the work was overwhelming, and at the final exultant chorus, Elijah, orchestra, choir, and audience ascended figuratively to heaven, if not in a fiery chariot, at least in the rapturous glow of Mendelssohn’s heavenly inspiration.

Gordon Williams

Hertford Choral held a workshop led by Lord Berkeley of Knighton, as part of the preparation for this concert, you can read more about it here.

On the eve of Remembrance Day Hertford Choral Society presented a thoughtfully crafted programme to a sell-out audience at All Saints Church.

The Chameleon Arts Orchestra opened with Music for Carlow, overflowing with Irish lyricism and vibrant rhythm before accompanying the choir in Mirror of Perfection by Richard Blackford.  The choir took confident control of the varied tonesand textures used in this ambitious choice of music to express praise, overpowering love, faith and  Soloists Emma Tring and Stephen Charlesworth joined the performance that included demanding syncopation contrasted with warm and expressive lines to convey the power of love through the words of St Francis. Blackford, present for the performance, complimented the choir on their musical rendition.

Followed by Faure’s Requiem Mass the musicians recreated the message of peace and happy deliverance through warm and balanced tones.  With timbres ranging from the dark austere opening> to the beautiful Sanctus the music was shaped with tenderness.  This was no ordinary concert< presentation however as it uniquely diverted from the norm.  Movements were separated by words of Simon & Garfunkel, WB Yeats, and Wilfred Owen among others. Originally selected by Music Director Derek Harrison and powerfully read by Peter Ruffles they highlighted the deep meaning in> the original Latin texts and supported the fine musical expression of the choir.

This was a thought provoking combination of music, reaching back to mediaeval texts to bring us a profound message of hope at a time when remembrance is surrounded by conflict. You will often hear Faure’s popular Requiem performed as yet another concert piece.  Rarely will you encounter it presented with such fine artistic direction and thought.

Steve Wright

Sweet choral treats stimulated the senses: this was a hard-working evening for the audience, which was required at intervals to sing six carols.  I cannot vouch for the quality of my own contribution, as it was mercifully absorbed into the impressive volume from a church with no spare seats.

The real work came, of course, from the choir, who not only led the massed singing but also performed many less well-known pieces in attractive arrangements with their customary polish and accuracy.  It was good too to hear them sing another very impressive piece, A Lullaby to the Nativity by Richard Blackford with its attractive melodies, following the success of the choir’s performance of his Mirror of Perfection in their previous concert.

A feature of this concert was the contribution of the choir of Bengeo School, excellently drilled by their conductor, Catherine Smith to produce clarity and a good volume in their excerpts from Scrooge (the musical) in the first half and particularly effective in the second half with Herbert Chappell’s Raggle Taggle Three Wise Men with its honky-tonk underlying rhythm.

Every Christmas Cracker contains its special little treats when opened up; Sir Thomas Beecham referred to his bon-bons offered as choral treats.  In this concert the delicious interludes came from Paul Mayes and his trumpet – three trumpets actually. First, he gave a rendering of Jeremiah Clark’s Prince of Denmark’s March played on the unfamiliar piccolo trumpet, which he demonstrated with a dazzling cadenza that soared up into the rafters, probably shattering a few tiles with its concluding note as it soared to outer space and which endowed a familiar piece with an unaccustomed brightness of tone.  This he followed with O Holy Night by Adolphe Charles Adams on the more mellow E flat trumpet.  He used a B flat instrument in second half pieces to further confuse us; excellent music that entertained and instructed.

Natasha Page, a homegrown young soprano now in her second year at The Royal Welsh College of Music contributed some accomplished singing with Paul Mayes in Let the Bright Seraphim from Handel’sSamson.

But perhaps the tastiest surprise bon-bon in the Cracker came when the compere, Roger Mullis, combined voices with Music Director Derek Harrison for the two counter tenors to sing an alto duet by Purcell with sensitivity and the accomplishment to be expected.

Richard Henderson

Hertford Choral Society teamed up with the Hammonds Saltaire Band to deliver an enterprising, entertaining and hugely enjoyable concert. Entitled Jubilification (well – not exactly – ed) the concert promised, and delivered, that very English mix of music-making found in the works of Parry, Elgar and Walton as seen at many coronations, other royal occasions and the last night of the Proms. In keeping with the latter, it also contained a few ‘novelties’ that allowed some cunning planning to balance the exuberant with the more reflective. I had not heard the band before and they are a very polished outfit – and it was great to see so many young faces in their ranks.

The concert opened with Parry’s I was glad from the 1902 coronation (and every one since) complete with the 1953 ‘vivats’ for Her Majesty. After a surprisingly lightweight opening from the brass, this settled down into a committed performance (with very clear words) and came to a rousing conclusion setting the evening off in great style.

Elgar’s Great is the Lord followed in a fine arrangement for the brass with good clear words from the gentlemen. The many contrasts were well managed, though the brass was a little too prominent on occasion.

Walton’s Crown Imperial (from the 1937 coronation) allowed the band to show their strengths with a crisp opening and snappy trumpets contrasted by a fine liquid sound for the 'big tune'. Given the high musical standard, I was slightly surprised by the lack of ‘give’ in the tempo on occasion. The Lincolnshire folk tune Brigg Fair had an excellent flugel horn solo; the rich warm sound evoking a gentle summer’s day.

Walton’s Coronation Te Deum brought us to 1953. Andrew Parnell delivered the very taxing organ score with clarity and élan whilst providing exactly the right amount of support for the singers. The piece ‘came off’ but one sensed that for some of the singers this was right at the limit of what could be done.

The following two songs from Verdi (opera choruses Speed your journey from Nabucco and the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore – ed) were delivered with panache and an excellent legato from the band when needed.

British Sea Songs allowed the band to show a variety of textures and colours and gave the audience some practice in clapping (not that they needed it!).

The second half began with some electrifying playing in Holst’s Jupiter with rippling trumpets and an opportunity for us all to sing ‘I vow to thee’.

Harwood’s O how glorious suffered by comparison. After a rather perfunctory (too fast?) opening, the strong first unison phrases from the choir faded away and the piece never regained the energy and momentum needed to make it work.

Malcolm Williamson’s Jubilee Hymn (from the 1977 Silver Jubilee) was a delightful novelty and was extremely well sung. I wasn’t convinced by the two organ fanfares, which seemed a little at odds with the haunting main melody.

William Mathias’ Vivat Regina, also written for the 1977 Silver Jubilee, was a striking and slickly performed piece. It also made this listener sit up as one movement opens with material used in the organ part of an earlier anthem.

Elgar’s Nimrod was a textbook demonstration by the band of sustained legato control through staggered breathing, the whole piece rising to an impressive climax through a seamless crescendo. Eric Coates’ Dambusters whizzed along – but I wasn’t really able to hear the words.

Finally the audience got to its feet and joined in singing Land of Hope and Glory and Jerusalem at a collective volume that had to be heard to be believed. Chorus and band both received well-deserved ovations.

Next year Derek Harrison is planning a teaming of choir and percussion – I can’t wait!

Martin G Penny

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