Exon Singers Celebrate Golden Jubilee with Extra Special Concert

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Vivaldi, Biber Scarlatti, Handel: The Exon Singers, The Zeitgeist Chamber Orchestra, Richard Wilberforce, Sam Poppleton and David Hill (conductors). Jaymee Coonjobeeharry (flute), Katharine Fuge and Miranda Heldt (sopranos), Alan Horsey (organ), Jonathan Vaughn (harpsichord), Parish Church, Tavistock, 30.7.2016. (PRB)

Exon Singers - please credit Philip R Buttall
Exon Singers (c) Philip R Buttall

Bach: Lobet den Herrn

Vivaldi: Flute Concerto La Notte

Biber: Battalia

Scarlatti: Stabat Mater

Handel: Dixit Dominus

Since 1973 The Exon Singers have hosted an annual week-long festival in the charming surroundings of Tavistock Parish Church. Having had the great pleasure to review last year’s closing concert I was, of course, looking forward to 2016. But as this year in fact marks the Golden Jubilee of the Singers’ original formation in Exeter, it seemed very likely that this year’s corresponding event might prove to be something extra special.

Under their current conductor and artistic director Richard Wilberforce, the choir got off to a flying start with a well-disciplined account of Bach’s exuberant motet Lobet den Herrn, with some sterling support from Alan Horsey (organ). Not an easy sing, the choir responded well to the clear and enthusiastic direction from the front, capturing the spirit of the text throughout.

Young flautist Jaymee Coonjobeeharry joined The Zeitgeist Chamber Orchestra – led with consummate assurance by Becky Windram – in an electrifying performance of Vivaldi’s La Notte Concerto. Conductor and orchestra-founder Sam Poppleton finely contrasted all the mysterious nocturnal goings-on in the opening movement with what was to follow, in a wholly-engaging reading, where Coonjobeeharry showed himself in total control in terms of some exceedingly neat playing in rapid figurations, allied to a mellowness of tone when required, and all mindful of a well-judged sense of shared dynamics.

Biber’s Battalia, which, despite its seventeenth-century origin, would not be out of place alongside some similarly-dissonant works of today, provided an ideal aperitif for Domenico Scarlatti’s attractive Stabat Mater, where the sinuous interweaving of the vocal lines was especially well managed, and where, once again, the choir sang as one, achieving a wholly satisfying rendition.

The Exon Singers’ President – organist and choirmaster David Hill – needs no introduction. But this was to be the first occasion when he would conduct the Singers at any of the annual Festivals. In fact, during the first half of the concert he was merely an interested audience-member, sitting directly in front of me in the next pew – soft-spoken and occasionally in quiet conversation with those next to him during breaks in performance.

Without doubt the programme so far had been worthy of a golden-jubilee celebration, but what was now to come seemed an absolute revelation. Like Argentina-and-Barcelona-footballer Lionel Messi, Hill is not the tallest among his peers, but within a few seconds of the opening of Handel’s Dixit Dominus, his presence simply towered head and shoulders above the rest, and it soon became clear that – just like his South American soccer-playing counterpart – Hill was equally capable of producing those match-winning moments that would inevitably win any game.

Paradoxically Hill was simply able to elevate the singers – now augmented by some alumni choir-members who had joined in for this year’s Jubilee celebrations – to an altogether higher level, in terms of attack, dynamics, articulation, and particular attention to the niceties of the word-painting present, in this challenging, yet brilliant and virtuosic work. With superb  solo support from sopranos Katharine Fuge and Miranda Heldt, who blended perfectly, and a secure and sympathetic accompaniment from the orchestra, this was certainly one of those performances the like of which you might perhaps hear only once in a lifetime.

Current Exon Singers conductor Wilberforce trained at St John’s College, Cambridge, as, coincidentally, did Hill, where he was later to become Director of Music. Handel’s Latin title is usually rendered as: ‘The Lord Said’. With just a smidgen of poetic licence, it could be translated as: ‘The Master has spoken’ – a fitting peroration, perhaps, that defined Hill’s inspirational direction on the night, while also summarizing The Exon Singers’ achievement during their first fifty years.

Philip R Buttall

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