The Summer Gala Concert closed HCS' 80th anniversary season in style at All Saints' Church, Hertford on Saturday 29th June 2019.  The evening started with a quarter peal of the church bells and a celebratory drink, followed by a performance that included all genres of music associated with the choir. Accordion5 (Director: Ian Watson) and Blue Steel Band (Director: Mark Cherrie) have both performed with the choir before, and HCS were delighted to welcome them back to join in the celebrations.

Musical Director and Conductor: Derek Harrison

Led by Musical Director and Conductor Derek Harrison, together with Accordion5 (Director: Ian Watson) and Blue Steel Band (Director: Mark Cherrie), both of whom have performed with the choir before, and HCS were delighted to welcome them back to join in our celebrations.

Whilst most octogenarians want a quiet birthday party, this was not the case for the 80Th Anniversary Gala Concert of the Hertford Choral Society. This was a colourful event which was reflected by the decorations in All Saints’ Church and the wearing of Hawaiian Leis demonstrating the affection the Society has for the audience. The evening actually started outside the Church where we were blessed with excellent weather, a glass of bubbly and the sound of a quarter peal being rung on the bells; all making for an excellent start to the evening.

It was not only the Church that was colourful, so was the music. The choir was accompanied by two different ensembles: a group of accordions, which came across as “smouldering red”; and, a definitely “cool blue” steel band. The choir can be thought of as a rainbow as they changed their colour during the varied programme. As the Musical Director, Derek Harrison, points out, this combination falls into the category of “unusual”. The two groups, Accordian5 and Blue Steel have worked with the Society before and they provided very well-crafted arrangements of a range of music that would not normally be in their repertoires.

As with many experimental combinations, some things worked well and others not so well; or is it that the ear is not attuned to certain sounds? The colours did come over as muddy at times; this was noticeable in Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring and in For He Shall Give His Angels where the rhythm of the accordions did not fully match Mendelssohn’s intentions. There were very good colour combinations: Ave Maria had the accompaniment and the choir weaving the lines between the parts, with a special mention of the tenors delicate singing; also, Mozart’s Dies Irae where the accordions made God’s wrath seem that He was making his judgement on the rest of us there and then.

The two ensembles, Blue Steel and Accordian5 are accomplished, exciting professional musicians; and it is to the credit of Derek Harrison that he included them in this celebration. Accordion5 showed their versatility in Karl Jenkins’ Palladio and Gerhard Deutschmann’s Variations on an English Sea Shanty; their brilliant renditions had you transfixed as to where the different sounds were coming from and how it was being produced. As well as traditional calypsos, Blue Steel showed that they have a wide repertoire playing as a modern jazz quintet in October’s Child and a Cuban band in Chan Chan. As with all good groups, both were comfortable and exciting in their performance.

The choir was certainly rainbow and gave us a full range of musical genres: classical pieces; opera; calypso; folk; pop; tango; and, reggae. For the latter, it is difficult for a choir to recreate the Jamaican Patois but this did not detract from the spirit they gave to Marley’s No Woman, No Cry. This is an accomplished choir which is skilfully and musically directed by Derek Harrison. They have a balance and attention to detail which must rate them as one of the best non-auditioning choirs in the country.

Was this Gala Concert a fitting celebration? It certainly was from the moment the conductor appeared in a sombrero and the exciting way the music flowed. The overall colour for this event was a bright celebration yellow with strands of gold to match Derek’s coat!

Jeffrey Goodwin

Hertford Choral Society performed Verdi Requiem on Saturday 30th March 2019 at All Saints' Church, Hertford. Soloists were: Fiona Hammacott (soprano),  Margaret McDonald (contralto), Tom Raskin (tenor), Alan Fairs (bass), accompanied by the Chameleon Arts Orchestra. Musical Director and Conductor was Derek Harrison.

There can be no doubt that a performance of Verdi’s Requiem is a major undertaking. Not only do you need to bring together large choral and orchestral forces, but you also need four highly capable soloists who can rise to the technical and musical demands Verdi places on them. All these performers will need to immerse themselves in the musical style of late 19th century Italian opera of which Verdi was the supreme master, and through this be capable of expressing the music in the way Verdi intended.

The Hertford Choral Society’s performance rose to that challenge with aplomb. Everything was secure from the off, and it wasn’t long before I was confident that I was going to enjoy the evening immensely. The hushed opening, the a-cappella Te decet hymnus (ending perfectly in pitch), the entry of the soloists for the Kyrie were all executed with precision and confidence and sounded thrilling. This, relatively subdued, opening is followed by two huge noisy movements – the famous Dies Irae and the Tuba Mirum.

When a big orchestra is being encouraged by Verdi’s orchestration and dynamics to really open up it can, of course, be a challenge for any but the largest choir to be heard. It is true that the singers are helped by Verdi’s writing, and apart from, perhaps, the start of the Tuba Mirum (where all the brass are ‘tutta forza’), the choral element in this performance was fully present, and always the effect was powerful and exciting. The choir, indeed, displayed a great deal of stamina, maintaining their intensity of performance right through to the end. The soloists, of course, are given a key role and all four soloists here were excellent, going beyond the sometimes extreme technical demands in Verdi’s score to deliver powerful and emotive performances. In particular, the mezzo-soprano Margaret McDonald was, I thought, outstanding.

The choir sang with highly commendable fidelity to the score – their dynamics, Italianate vowels, and phrasing being well controlled throughout. Sensibly, when Verdi asks for extremely quiet dynamics (e.g. pppp) this was interpreted not as a barely audible whisper but as a positively withheld but still supported sound, which communicates the musical tension perfectly. Other work on vocal technique (perhaps partly from their workshop day) was also in evidence, the choir producing a full, smooth tone and accurate intonation. In some of the faster fugal passages (the opening of the Sanctus and in the Libera Me) we could, perhaps, have had more incisive and accurate rhythms – some of the detail was getting muddied – however the build ups to the climaxes were always tremendous.

The conductor, Derek Harrison, is not one for emoting passionately with the music, in the style of a theatrical Italian maestro. His leadership was, rather, clear and precise, giving the performance shape and direction. Verdi may be the archetypal romantic, but his large-scale works would not have stood the test of time had they not also been structured with care and precision. Derek showed great understanding of this and as a result the performance was compelling, drawing us in and propelling us forward. We can do without the theatrics; it is the musical integrity that counts!

This was an uplifting and moving performance, which did full justice to Verdi’s masterpiece.

Oliver Hitch

Hertford Choral Society held its annual Christmas Concert on 15th December 2018. For Christmas Cheer HCS was joined by Morgans School choir, James Gower (Bass Soloist), accompanist Christopher Muhley on organ and piano, with Roger Mullis as compère.

Musical Director and Conductor:
Derek Harrison

Handel Messiah (ed Prout), 3rd November 2018, with Camerata of London and Soloists: Alexandra Kidgell (soprano), Clare McCaldin (mezzo), Oliver White (tenor), James Cleverton (bass)

Musical Director and Conductor:
Derek Harrison

When planning a programme for the Choral Society’s 80th Anniversary year, it was noted that the first piece the choir is recorded as having performed was Handel’s Messiah. This masterpiece and staple of the choral repertoire has, naturally, been performed again by the choir many times since. Recent performances have followed modern performance practice in seeking to reflect the sound world and style of Handel’s own time, however for this outing Derek Harrison decided to return to an earlier era and look to recreate a performance that would have been familiar to the singers in the earliest Hertford Choir. To this end, this performance aimed to adhere to the instructions and orchestration of Ebenezer Prout, the editor of the 1902 Novello edition which was the standard throughout much of the 20th Century.

Thus, we got a full modern symphony orchestra, including clarinets, bassoons, horns and two double basses.  The orchestration (partly based on a version by Mozart) makes use of these forces by introducing varied colours and textures and this produces a wide dynamic range. The choral parts have editorial dynamics that reflect this orchestration. Prout also gives us his idea of the tempi, using metronome markings. To the modern ear these metronome markings come as a bit of a shock – they are really very slow.

The Hertford Choral Society threw themselves whole-heartedly into this challenge. We were given here a stately, grand and impressive rendition. This was a reminder, if one were needed, that the rules of performance are not fixed, but different approaches to a work can reveal new insights and scale distinctive heights.

From the outset it was clear that, as always, the choir had been meticulously drilled! The range of dynamics achieved was truly impressive and this brought shape and cohesion to the performance as it matched perfectly the shape given by Prout in his orchestration. The choir sang with a beautifully smooth legato almost throughout, which again is unfamiliar to modern ears, but it chimes with the orchestral style and the slower tempi. As for those tempi, they took a little getting used to! Some of the pieces in the first half seemed to struggle a little to get off the ground at the slower speeds. The tempi were certainly not any slower than Prout’s metronome markings and indeed, as we progressed through the piece the pace picked up and we appeared to move further from Prout’s tempi, which was no bad thing. "Let us break their bonds asunder" could even have been described as fast!

The excellent soloists were game and went with the flow, though the soprano Alexandra Kidgell looked a little uncomfortable at times – this was perhaps some way from the usual performance practise of the Sixteen, of which she is a member. The tenor Oliver White seemed much more at home and made the most of the space and support that the slower tempi and larger orchestra gave him. Clare McCaldin gave sonorous weight to her arias and James Cleverton impressed in particular in “The trumpet shall sound” in duet with the superb, but sadly unnamed, trumpet soloist from the orchestra, the Camerata of London.

The performance built to a tremendous climax in the second half. The “Hallelujah” chorus packed a mighty punch that I’m sure would have been familiar in any Edwardian concert hall. The pianissimo unaccompanied choir sections in “Since by man came death” were hushed and exciting, without the tuning problems that can marr this passage. “Worthy is the lamb” and the “Amen” chorus gave us a big, satisfying muscular ending.

Overall, the choir performed with commitment and energy and made a convincing case for restoring some older performance practice. If you were willing to go along for the ride (which I certainly was) then this evening was fascinating, often fun and frequently stirring.

Oliver Hitch

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