International A Capella Ensemble Passes Out with Flying Colours

27/07/2014

 Morley, Bennet, Byrd, Reger, Bruckner and others: International A Capella School Concert / Stephen Connolly (director), Cheltenham Minster St Mary’s, Cheltenham, 25.7.2014. (RJ)

There are many who subscribe to the notion that the best musical instrument of all is the human voice, and this may explain why a capella singing is becoming so fashionable. Unaccompanied singing usually features prominently in the Eton Choral Courses founded by Ralph Allwood 35 years ago principally for young singers aged 16 to 20, with each intensive course culminating in a public concert.  And it was fascinating to hear the results of a more recent initiative, the International A Capella School directed by Stephen Connolly.

Connolly was a member of the celebrated King’s Singers for 23 years whose concerts usually do not restrict themselves to the English choral tradition. This particular concert similarly embraced a broad range of styles, both sacred and secular, from Byrd’s Ave Verum to Beatles’ classics arranged by various composers. The singers proved to be a cosmopolitan crowd from Italy, Germany, Canada and the USA with a few UK participants as well – most of them young but by no means all of them. Yet in less than a week Connolly had welded them together into a tightly knit ensemble capable of performing complex material.

The programme followed a chronological order starting with a bright and cheerful Sing we and Chant it by Thomas Morley. The mood then became more serious in John Bennet’s Weep, O mine eyes with a beautifully controlled opening and diminuendo conclusion. Byrd’s Ave Verum impressed with its dynamic variety and the heartfelt misereres, yet came over as somewhat restrained compared with Lotti’s Crucifixus in which the ensemble sang out with fervour and compassion at the sight of the suffering Christ.

The choir skipped a century or so to tackle upon Reger’s Nachtlied – prayerful, Romantic, heartfelt and with some gorgeous harmonies. The most substantial of the sacred works was Bruckner’s Christus factus est which offers all sections of the choir a chance to take the lead – and with its almost symphonic character was perhaps the most satisfying of the works on offer. However, Bairstow’s Let all mortal flesh keep silent ran it a close second with an exhilarating climax in imitation of a peal of bells.

The other items were at the more popular end of the scale; they were well performed and by no means a walkover.  Leslie’s Charm me asleep was redolent of the Victorian age, but a nicely controlled rendition of Stanford’s Bluebird made one sit up and appreciate the composer’s skill. Folk songs from Spain, Japan, Scotland and the USA followed, two of them arranged by Ives, reminded the listeners of the singers’ international credentials. Incidentally Ives also arranged  Obladi Oblada by Lennon and McCartney, which featured on the programme, as if to demonstrate that the gap between popular and choral is not so huge after all.

The evening was a passing out parade for the singers and although no medals were handed out, the appreciation of the large audience was testimony to the high standards attained as well as their versatility in performing five centuries of music in the space of 80 minutes. I am so impressed by Stephen Connolly’s teaching skills that I am considering engaging him as my singing teacher. Covent Garden, here I come!

Roger Jones

 

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