Korean-American Countertenor Causes a Stir at Dartington

Vivaldi, Handel, Bach. Nicholas Clapton and Kangmin Justin Kim (countertenors), Peter Wilman (tenor), Dartington Community Choir and Devon Baroque / Jonathan Watts (director), Persephone Gibbs (leader), Great Hall, Dartington. 15.12.2013 (PRB)


Dartington Community Choir & Devon Baroque (please credit Philip R Buttall)
Dartington Community Choir & Devon Baroque (please credit Philip R Buttall)

Vivaldi: Gloria, RV589
Handel: Gloria (HWV deest)
Bach: Orchestral Suite No 3 in D major, BWV 1068
Cantata: ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’, BWV 191


The arts on the Dartington Hall Estate, situated closed to the ancient market-town of Totnes in South Devon in the Souit Wast of England, have been an integral part of its activities since its purchase by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst in 1925. Apart from the annual International Summer School where amateur musicians and professional performers from around the world have rubbed shoulders in a celebration of music, friendship and learning since 1948, the founder Trustees also actively encouraged participation from the local community.

In 1942 when Imogen Holst, sole child of composer Gustav Holst and herself a composer and conductor, was invited to join the staff at Dartington to train young music students, she established both an orchestra and a choir to which all the community was welcome. Dartington College of Arts continued this tradition with local participation in the college choir until 1982 when, in the autumn of that year, a new choir was formed, known as the Dartington Community Choir, and which is still privileged to hold concerts in the magnificent 15th-century Great Hall on the 1200 acre (485 hectare) estate. Its present conductor, Baroque-specialist, Jonathan Watts took over as musical director and conductor in September 2009, and the choir now numbers some 140 singers.

It’s not unusual for an aria temporarily to stop the action during an opera performance, but this doesn’t happen so often in a programme of sacred works by Vivaldi, Handel and Bach. Few present at Dartington Community Choir’s Christmas offering, though, were prepared for the sheer virtuosity of Korean-American countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as he negotiated the intricate operatic-like writing in Handel’s recently-discovered Gloria.

The work was, in fact, discovered at London’s Royal Academy of Music library only in 2001. Handel may well have composed this demanding piece for coloratura voice during his early years in Germany, prior to his departure for Italy in 1706 or, in fact, in the country itself, the following year. According to a comment made by Professor Hans Joachim Marx of the University of Hamburg, who discovered the manuscript, ‘Perhaps not too many sopranos will be able to perform this piece!’

So Kim’s performance – vocally that of a true male-soprano – seemed all the more astounding, combining an easy, flawless technique with beautifully-rounded tone, but delivered so effortlessly and with such obvious pure enjoyment and simplicity as to win over the packed audience from the very first note. He is clearly a young artist at the outset of what should hopefully be a glittering career.

The choir had already opened its account with a confident performance of Vivaldi’s ever-popular Gloria, producing a rich sound and negotiating the running passages with a commendable degree of control.

Inspirational conductor Jonathan Watts has the crucial advantage of being able to enlist the services of his own Devon Baroque, which, under the impressively-assured leadership of Persephone Gibbs, provided a perfectly-matched authentic accompaniment throughout, with due regard to the vital balance between voice and instrument, but equally where the gentler sounds of the Baroque instruments, and the slightly-lowered pitch, also made their telling contribution.

Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D provided some temporary respite for the singers, as well as giving the instrumentalists an added opportunity to shine. Here, in each of the varied movements, Watts, directing from the harpsichord, was certainly taking no prisoners in maintaining brisk tempi throughout, and this was especially effective in avoiding any sense of over-sentimentality in the often much-abused Air on the G-string. Perhaps the only downside was that, no doubt due to the limited prior rehearsal time available, and especially for an item that did not involve the singers, movements occasionally took just a few notes or so to settle to each respective tempo change.

Bach’s Cantata 191, written for performance on Christmas Day which closed the concert, is the only one to have a Latin text. But as with so much of the composer’s choral music, Bach expects his singers to be as virtuosic as their instrumental colleagues, and nowhere more so than in the Et in Terra Pax and Sicut Erat in Principio sections of the present cantata. Here again the massed voices rose to the challenge, and despite the obvious difficulties along the way, gave a final performance which was at once uplifting and triumphal.

Even if Kim stole the show, and had strong support from fellow-soloists, Nicholas Clapton (countertenor) and Peter Wilman (tenor), the final accolade must go to the well-disciplined and hugely enthusiastic choir, who simply gave their all on the night – and no conductor, irrespective of rank or importance, can surely ask for more from his performers.

Philip R Buttall




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