Dartington Community Choir and Quartet 19 In Concert

08/05/2018

Toch, Brubeck, Glass, Maxwell-Davies, Whibley, Orff: Dartington Community Choir, Simon Capet (conductor), Quartet 19 (percussion ensemble), Milly Forrest (soprano), Robert Jenkins (tenor), Julian Chou-Lambert (baritone), Clare Talbot (piano), Kristian Lindberg (piano, Harriet Riley (percussion), Great Hall, Dartington, 6.5.2018. (PRB)

Dartington Community Choir with Simon Capet (inset) (c) Philip R Buttall

Ernst Toch – Geographical Fugue for Speaking Chorus
Dave Brubeck – Take Five
Philip Glass – Mad Rush
Peter Maxwell-Davies – Farewell to Stromness
Stephen Whibley – ¡Higuita!
Carl Orff – Carmina Burana

Dartington Community Choir’s previous concert featured Mendelssohn’s bread-and-butter stalwart of the repertoire, Elijah. Like many similar works, it is long enough to sustain a whole evening’s music-making, without the need for any partner-work, vocal or otherwise. For its next concert, the choir will combine two shorter works, one from the Classical Period, and the other from the Baroque; that should form ideal bedfellows in terms of musical content, use of available resources, and in providing a viable programme length.

But Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana is a different kettle of fish altogether. Very careful consideration was needed to find a suitable companion piece for a work first performed in Frankfurt in 1937 and given the all-clear by Goebbels and the Nazis as an alternative to what that they perceived as decadent avant-garde music. Orff’s ‘scenic-cantata’ was originally scored for a very large orchestra, with a particularly sizeable percussion section, and all manner of theatrical effects, but for logistic reasons, to say nothing of finance, it was fortunate that Orff’s disciple Wilhelm Killmayer came up with a smaller-performance version, where the choir and soloists are supported by two pianos and a percussion group. While this was obviously the accompanying ensemble conductor Simon Capet opted for, it still did not automatically provide the answer to what to partner Carmina Burana with on the night.

But Capet is not only a fine musician, but also has an equally important feel for resourcefulness, and quickly realised that the answer was virtually staring him in the face. Rather than merely engage a number of individual percussionists for the Orff, by using a ready-made percussion ensemble, he could hand over the first half of the evening entirely to them. Enter Quartet 19: formed only in 2015 by Luke Baxter, Iolo Edwards, James Harrison, and Jemma Sharp, while students at Cardiff’s Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, these four talented young players proved absolutely ideal for the task ahead.

Of course, Capet was not quite home-and-dry yet: advertising a choral concert in the hallowed surroundings of Dartington’s medieval Great Hall, where a percussion ensemble is involved, might be more difficult to sell than if the accompaniment had been provided by the more regular kind of ensemble – for example, orchestra, organ, or piano. In his opening welcome, Capet confirmed that things could get loud. That might have caused a few misgivings at the time, or even a desire to beat a hasty retreat a few rows further back, even though the players would not apparently be offended if the audience occasionally ‘felt the need to block off their ears’, should things get a bit overpowering.

In reality everyone appeared to emerge unscathed. It was great to hear people saying at the end that they would probably have given the evening a wide berth, had they just seen the words ‘percussion ensemble’, but that, after hearing Quartet 19 play, were delighted that they had given them the benefit of the doubt. Those in fact were exactly the same comments made by those who had gone along to their solo recital the night before.

Space is at a premium in the Great Hall. If the choir is not on stage, then it needs to be parked in the Green Room area, hardly ideal when the concert is still ostensibly theirs. Here Capet killed two birds with one stone, so to speak, by opening the programme with Toch’s Geographical Fugue for Speaking Chorus, written only a couple of years before Carmina Burana, and an example of so-called Gebrauchsmusik – or ‘practical, easily-accessible music’ – which was doing the rounds in Germany at the time. Toch’s work is all about fun but set within the serious academic rigour of a textbook fugue, using speech only, and an excess of geographical names, many, like Titicaca, or Popocatepetl, with decidedly tongue-twisting ramifications. It also gave some excellent training for the various vernaculars the choir would encounter later in Orff’s cantata. The Choir attacked it with their now well-accustomed discipline and abundant enthusiasm, providing an effective, if not somewhat different, opening gambit.

Quartet 19 were next out, but, instead of making their expected entrance through the doors at the rear of the stage, the four players appeared from the back of the auditorium, setting up a simple rhythmic pattern which they tapped on anything they could lay their hands on while working their way to the front. Constant crescendo added greatly to the already-heightened sense of audience expectation. Once assembled on stage, they continued freely improvising complex rhythmic textures on an array of non-pitched percussion, much to the delight of an obviously intrigued audience, used, perhaps, to more-sedate openers in the past.

Percussion lends itself to audience participation, far more readily than most other instrumental families, and this is always a sure-fire winner in any form of entertainment. But it still needs handling sensitively, as not everyone is happy to show off their instant musical skills on a pair of maracas or similar. Iolo Edwards got it just right. He encouraged a number of participants to forsake the relative safety of their seats for an on-stage role, and still kept everything moving at a terrific pace throughout. He was equally well supported by his colleagues, but his easy manner and approach certainly won through. After putting these new recruits through the rhythmic complexities of five beats in a bar, with Dave Brubeck’s old-chestnut Take Five, Luke Baxter’s suitably reflective arrangement of Peter Maxwell-Davies’s Farewell to Stromness for pitched percussion showed off the quartet’s sensitive side well, while Philip Glass’s Mad Rush further attested to their easy handling of shifting rhythm patterns. The players were not going to be able to leave without an encore and thrilled the audience with BBC Concert Orchestra Co-Principal Percussionist Stephen Whibley’s samba-styled ¡Higuita! for four players sharing one marimba – and what an absolutely superb sound this new state-of-the-art instrument produced under their abundant technical mastery. This was all about the enthusiasm of these four young Welsh-trained wizards, yes, taking a few risks along the way, but producing a stunning result that truly emphasised that percussion is not just about drums – and about noise.

If it seemed as if the first half would now be a hard act to follow, then this is very much to underestimate Dartington Community Choir. The singers relish a challenge, whether in the convoluted lines of a piece from the Baroque era, or in the full-blooded operatic singing-style of Verdi’s Requiem, and always give their all in performance. But, uniquely, Orff’s Carmina Burana combines a plethora of musical genres in the one work, from Gregorian plainchant to Stravinsky – and a good deal more in between. Then there is the text itself, from dog Latin to medieval German, Provençal, and Old French, often challenging enough just to get the tongue around. These were the not-insignificant challenges facing the singers, but after the work’s immensely stirring O Fortuna opening – which, if you are a child of the 1970s, you may well recall as the tune used in the ubiquitous ‘Old Spice’ TV advert – it became abundantly clear that these Dartington Songsters would be more than able to rise to the challenge. There were many quite breath-taking moments along the way, and none more so than those where the female chorus soared effortlessly in three-part harmony, producing an ethereal, divine effect. As for diction, everyone coped really well overall, although there might have been a few sore jaws the next day.

Orff is not kind to the three soloists, either, especially the two men with their additional added characterizations, and takes all three well beyond the normal range for their particular voice. In Milly Forrest (soprano), Robert Jenkins (tenor), and Julian Chou-Lambert (baritone), they had soloists who understood exactly what was required of them, and then responded with great panache.

The job of a choir rehearsal-pianist can be very rewarding, but there must usually be a slight feeling of disappointment when, on the day of the performance, their role ends, as the orchestra steps in and takes over. But on this occasion, the Choir’s weekly répétiteur Clare Talbot was joined on a second grand piano by Kristian Lindberg to provide the melodic backing, and what an excellent job they did, too, perfectly matched in dynamics, articulation, and ensemble. Meanwhile, Quartet 19 returned to the platform as the mainstay of the percussion ensemble; they were joined by extra player Harriet Riley, who totally tamed the tricky timpani part. Riley comes originally from the area and graduated as an orchestral percussion student at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama a few years ago.

There is always a myriad of people working behind the scenes, and, of course, taking part on the night, but again the evening’s tremendous success must largely be attributed to conductor Simon Capet. In performance, he cleverly combines the roles of conductor with that of an animateur, motivating and encouraging the choir not only to put in the very best performance they can, but, more importantly, to inspire them to look as if they are really enjoying it. His technique is simple – a clear beat that all can follow, and the ability to communicate his intentions and every nuance of the score by means of minimal, highly economical gestures, no unnecessary tilting at windmills in his conducting armoury.

It would probably be true to say that a fair number of those in the audience had little or no real knowledge of what to expect on the night, when they bought their tickets. Judging by the tremendous reception at the finish, no one asked for their money back, but instead made sure they had reserved their seats for the next one, even though it will be as different as chalk and cheese.

Philip R Buttall

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