United Kingdom Various composers: Natalia Romaniw (soprano) with Andrew Matthews-Owen (piano); Morriston Orpheus Choir, Alice Reed (piano), Les Ryan (organ), Joy Amman Davies (conductor); The Ariosa Singers, Hywel Evans (piano), Penny Ryan (conductor). All Saints’ Church, Oystermouth, Swansea, 02.06.2012. (GPu)
It seems fitting that Seen and Heard International should put on record one of the many concerts organised around Britain in honour of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. One of the largest and most attractive of local churches overlooking the sweep of Swansea Bay hosted a concert which (while also serving to raise funds for church restoration) was a showcase for some of the many musical talents of the area.
Soprano Natalia Romaniw, now in her mid-twenties and about to join Houston Grand Opera’s Young Artist Programme (where she will sing Mimi amongst other roles) is Swansea born and bred and was returning to the church where much of her early development as a singer took place, before she studied at the Guildhall in London. Many will remember her as Wales’ representative at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in 2009 where she reached the Song Prize final. It seems to me, on the evidence of some other recent hearings as well as of her share in this concert, that she has matured considerably as a performer in the intervening years. Her voice is thoroughly secure and full, her lower register particularly convincing and the top of her voice full of power. She is an expressive singer who was heard at her striking best in Rachmaninov’s ‘Ne poy krasavitsa, pri mne’ (to words by Pushkin), which had a lovely sense of idiom and quasi-operatic force and in ‘Quando me’n vo’ (Musetta’s Waltz’) from La Bohème, which was very well characterized vocally and sung with infectious charm. She was impressive too in the poignant ‘Mae Hiraeth yn y mor’ by the Welsh composer Dilys Elwyn-Edwards, who died earlier this year (1918–2012). At every turn, the work of her experienced accompanist Andrew Matthews-Owen was beautifully judged and poetic. He, too, has local connections, having been born just down the road at Neath (and being something of a specialist in the music of Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott).
The Morriston Orpheus Choir have been internationally well-known for a great many years, through its CDs and broadcasts, and its many tours, which have taken the choir all round the world. They deservedly have a reputation as one of the leading Welsh male voice choirs and their performances are always highly accomplished and ‘professional’, their sound both full and beautifully blended. Just occasionally their polish can seem to be achieved at the expense of the expressive power of the text they are singing, but they are also capable, especially in a large and acoustically excellent church like All Saints’, of a splendid radiance of sound. Among the highlights of their programme on this occasion was a very beautiful performance of the setting of the Lord’s Prayer by the American Albert Hay Malotte (1895-1964), a lyrical rendition of ‘Y Tangefeddwyr’ (Peacemakers) by Swansea-based composer Eric Jones and a number of arrangements of American spirituals. In one of the best of these, ‘Give Me Jesus’ (arranged by Alwyn Humphries, for 25 years Musical Director of the Orpheus, and in the audience at this concert) the choir were joined by Natalia Romaniw in a stirring performance. Joy Amman Davies, current Musical Director of the choir, brought the best from her singers and pianist Alice Reed and organist Les Ryan were exemplary accompanists.
The second choir taking part in the concert provided encouraging evidence that the future of the Welsh choral tradition is in good hands. The Ariosa Singers are a youth choir affiliated to All Saints’ and led by their outstanding Music Director Penny Ryan, and has as its patron the composer Karl Jenkins (another Swansea boy!). Penny Ryan was a major early influence on Natalie Romaniw and herself recorded as a soprano soloist with the Morriston Orpheus, so that many aspects of the local musical family were brought together on this particular evening.
By its very nature, the personnel of the Ariosa Singers constantly changes; the group performing on this occasion included some youngsters some years short of their teens; its oldest members were not yet, I’d guess, out of their teens. While, naturally enough, the Ariosa don’t have the polish of the Morriston Orpheus, a polish that comes with years of experience, they more than compensate by the freshness and vivacity of their singing. Penny Ryan has clearly mastered the complex art of keeping her young choir disciplined and organised while also making sure that they express (and enjoy) themselves. Under her direction, and well supported by accompanist Hywel Evans, they gave a quietly moving performance of Paul Mealor’s ‘Wherever you are’; they coped very decently with Fauré’s ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’ (sung in English) and they sang with both gusto and a good sense of balance in ‘Anthem’ from Chess. In Reuben Nicholas they have a soloist of obvious promise. Having previously made trips to Dublin, Prague, Barcelona, Tuscany and Venice they will, in July, give a series of performances in Rome (including singing Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica). The extensive connections between Italy and South Wales will surely only be enhanced by their visit, bringing together again two nations with a particular love of song.
The evening began with God Save the Queen. It ended with the Welsh National Anthem (Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau). In between we heard more music than I have been able to mention here and a very large audience left clearly very happy with what they had heard. The only reservation lay in the choice of the final item on the programme, when all the voices came together – ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ from Carousel – an unfortunate choice in the week when Swansea City’s popular and successful manager Brendan Rodgers left them to join Liverpool, since this song is that club’s anthem! There were no other such wrong notes in a joyous concert.