Under the title Christmas past, Christmas present, Levens choir presented its Christmas 2022 programme to a large and appreciative audience gathered in Carver Church, Windermere. And it was an early Christmas present to the audience with examples of British music ranging from the 15th to 21st centuries.
All of the music was unaccompanied, so there was nowhere to hide for the choristers. Not that they needed to. The choir was confident, in good heart and voice. They were well prepared by their relatively recent new director Gawain Glenton. One of his main musical outlets is with the English Cornett & Sackbut Ensemble, but he is clearly equally at home in front of a choir. His enthusiasm is infectious.
The concert opened with MacMillan’s O radiant dawn. The declamatory impact was instant, assisted by the choir being spread out along the length of the church. The audience were closer to the performers, and therefore we felt more engaged. This piece was followed by Byrd’s Puer natus est nobis. Here, the clear lines of the vocal parts were impressive. Ravenscroft’s Remember O Thou man was treated particularly sensitively in the quieter verses. The choir was given just one note before the start of all of the pieces, and I wasn’t convinced by the first chord in this piece. Otherwise, they were immaculate.
The programme was interspersed with readings given by Anne Preston. She complemented the music content, commanding the atmosphere, and with humour at appropriate times throughout the evening.
Long, long ago by Herbert Howells started the next group. The choir was confident, and the final chord was exquisite. Two contrasting pieces by Parry - I sing the Birth and Welcome Yule – demonstrated the choir’s versatility. I hadn’t heard, sung (or to be honest knew the composers of the next pair of pieces) – Bernard Hughes’ The Linden Tree and Richard Pygott’s Quid petys O fili from opposite ends of the C16th/C21st spectrum, the latter contained two-part echoes of the very early Renaissance period.
The first half concluded with Good-will to men by Dobrinka Tabnakova, Bulgarian born, but musically educated in Britain.
After the interval, we heard a different aspect to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s compositions, All this night bright angels sing. Here, the chording was excellent.
Further contrast in a programme of repertoire spanning the centuries from the 1500s to the 2000s was Peter Warlock’s lovely Bethlehem Down and Christopher Tye’s A sound of Angels.
John Tavener’s The Lamb is a particular favourite of mine. It looks innocuous but is not easy to sing, and the choir captured its beauty.
Very few choral programmes these days escape at least one piece by Bob Chilcott. His rhythmical style in Pilgrim Jesus is exciting. Another modern offering, this time Stopford’s Lully, Lulla, Lullay had a real lilting quality.
Cecilia McDowall’s Of a Rose ended the evening’s music, sending us home in a jolly festive frame of mind
The conductor thanked the audience for its support and invited singers to join the choir. In turn, I thank the choir and Gawain for the hard work and getting the Christmas music season off to a very good start. He is a most welcome addition to the South Lakeland music scene.Robert Talbot 15 xii 22
1922 was the Orwellianesque title of this year’s Levens Choir Summer Concert. In the year of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, we were invited to reassess L. P. Hartley’s declaration that ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ through music and words written shortly before and after her birth. At one end of the continuum, the ‘spiritually aware’ music of the atheistic Vaughan Williams and the intensely personal ‘conversation with God’ of Frank Martin, and at the other, Adrian Self’s setting of Dover Beach, a reflection on the uncertainties of faith in the face of ‘scientific enlightenment’.
By way of contextualisation, readings from Joyce, Woolf, Williams and Eliot reinforced the point that the decade after the Great War marked a seismic re-alignment of the social, political and religious mores of Victorian Britain. Whether or not intentionally, Orwell’s prophetic vision of the consequences of totalitarianism were evoked both by the title and reflecting on Putin’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine. Far from being a different country, the past seems very much a homeland to those that care to look around them. To quote Willy McBride, ‘it’s all happened again and again and again and again...’
Together with Holst’s Nunc Dimittis, the two masses evoke the Roman Catholic tradition through their Latin text and use of double choir polyphony. In the case of the Vaughan Williams and Holst, further textural contrast is provided by ‘verse’ sections. All four pieces are intended to be performed a capella - a feat only to be attempted by the most competent and confident of choirs.
1922 is the second concert to be conducted by Levens’ new Musical Director, Gawain Glenton, a practitioner well-versed in the complex demands of polyphonic counterpoint. His direction is clear and the choir has been well-trained to sing with a sense of line and attention to detail - the tell-tale signs of a first rate ensemble. This was evident from the opening of the Vaughan Williams Mass and the well-paced and beautifully shaped imitative entries of the nine-fold Kyrie eleison which also featured the first of two excellent solo quartets. The antiphony of the Gloria and Credo were well balanced - this is a choir with strength and depth across all voice parts - though the dramatic interplay between the two tutti and soli choirs could have been further enhanced by separation, as would be the case in a liturgical context. The Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei demonstrated the choir’s ability to embrace rapid changes in texture, dynamic and metre and the final, poignant plea for peace of the Agnus Dei in which the altos recall the opening theme of the Kyrie, was particularly moving.
Holst’s Nunc Dimittis with its progressive rhythmic and dynamic crescendos, stands as an unusual setting in the canon of sacred music. The layered entries of the opening were carefully shaped, the solo sections assured, and the high tessitura of the top sopranos in the declamatory ending, confident and well-sustained.
It is difficult for an audience to appreciate and a choir to grow into a piece on one performance. Self’s evocative setting required more observance of hairpins and a greater regard for textural balance fully to realise his intentions. The harmonic language is challenging and would have taken some learning, but the choir now needs to see beyond the notation to the music.
The performance of Martin’s Mass contained many beautiful moments and the deeply moving Agnus Dei was sensitively managed. Few amateur choirs can produce bass bottom D drones and soprano top B naturals and yet Levens managed this with consummate ease. Although there was a clear sense of relief in the faces of the singers at the end of the Sanctus, having navigated its 5/8 metre and contrapuntal textures, the overall performance was convincing and assured and provided a fitting climax to this ambitious and thought-provoking programme.
The Levens Choir gave its first two concerts under its new music director Gawain Glenton, accompanied by the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble. Gawain is an internationally-renowned virtuoso of renaissance Venetian music and his choice of music reflected his expertise. His focus for these concerts was the work of Claudio Monteverdi.
The opening piece, Domine ad adiuvandum, got things off to a cracking start - a veritable fanfare of voices and instruments with great support from the soloists, one of whom was drafted in at very short notice. The choir was in perfect synchronisation and note-perfect from the off. This piece, part of Monteverdi’s best-known work, the Vespers of 1610, had choir and ensemble in clear understanding and set the tone for the evening.
Then followed Alessandro Grandi’s Nisi Dominus, sung by the soloists with the sackbuts providing fine accompaniment and the choir supporting - a showcase for the expertise of the professional musicians. Monteverdi’s Domine ne in furore gave the choir the chance to demonstrate its skills, providing a lovely round, rich sound, helped by the sympathetic acoustics.
Other highlights included Franzoni’s Sancta Maria, where the female voices complemented the bass notes of the sackbuts beautifully; Gabrieli’s Beata es virgo, which gave the ensemble a vehicle to demonstrate their prowess on these rarely-heard early instruments; and the conclusion to the first half of the concert, Monteverdi’s Beatus vir, which saw the choir pass the text from section to section flawlessly.
Your reviewer was reminded more than once of the Hilliard Ensemble with Jan Gabarek - the way the voices and instruments complemented each other was very similar. High praise indeed.
And so to the second half, where the choir gave us a rich, deep, resonant sound in Monteverdi’s Cantate Domino, followed by his Adoramus te, Christe, a much gentler piece with lovely clear lines from the altos. The Audi coelum featured the tenor soloists in counterpoint from opposite sides of the church. Grillo’s Sonata prima had all seven musicians, with Gawain prominent on cornett, playing with a remarkable agility and lightness of touch.
Then back to Monteverdi to conclude the concert: his Ave Maria Stella showed his characteristic variations on a simple tune and the final Amen was glorious; and finally, the Magnificat primo, which really was magnificent and which featured a fine duet from basses from the choir, drew things to a rousing conclusion. The applause at the end was long, warm and fully deserved.
Overall: the soloists were clearly very familiar with the works, performed well and linked with the choir seamlessly; the ensemble were absolute masters of their craft and played with obvious brio; and the programme was interesting and varied, providing a perfect introduction to the genre for the uninitiated.
And the choir was magnificent. The energy in the choir throughout was obvious - many of the singers had huge smiles - and the commentary from Gawain provided background information which added to the enjoyment greatly.
After nearly 50 years under its founder, Ian Jones, who built the choir’s deserved reputation, the future with Gawain Glenton at the helm looks every bit as promising. Bravo.SP
Venice was at the heart of European trade in the 16th and 17th centuries and, coupled with political and religious tolerance, created the conditions for music publication and performance to flourish there. This was the historical background to this evening’s concert which so richly brought to life the music of that time and place.
Covid has been a scourge for choirs and continues to make public performances problematic, with last minute call-offs. That Levens Choir were able to perform to their customary high standard is a tribute to all those taking part, and is a relief to concert-goers, grateful that ‘live music’ is beginning to flourish again. Supported by the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble (ECSE) and vocal soloists, and under new choir director Gawain Glenton, we heard some accomplished presentations of an ambitious programme of works by Claudio Monteverdi, Alessandro Grandi and Giovanni Gabrieli, amongst others.
Levens Choir’s ability to remain sure-footed and well-blended even when in eight or ten separate parts is commendable, a testament to their depth of resources, though I was sorry not to see the youngsters that have graced the choir in the recent past. The presence of ECSE and a chamber organ brought a pleasing variety of sound colour to proceedings, the sackbuts conveying a rich sonority whenever they played. The short prayer by Amante Franzoni ‘Holy Mary pray for us’ sung by the sopranos and accompanied by sackbuts was beautifully executed. Performances in thefirst half though, I felt, were somewhat understated, and I was beginning to think that the Lancaster Priory acoustic was affecting the impact of the choir, until the final item before the interval, Monteverdi’s ‘Beatus Vir’, which brought the first half to a rousing conclusion.
This was a foretaste of what followed in a second half full of variety, caution thrown to the wind. ‘Aude Coelum’ from Monteverdi’s Vespers, to which the singing of the two tenor soloists Ian Honeyman and James Savage-Hanford brought an admirable dramatic intensity, was particularly full of energy. The choir resting, ECSE almost transported us to St Mark’s Square. The verses of the hymn ‘Ave Maris Stella’, each framed by ECSE, were serenely presented, with delightful solo contributions not least from sopranos Fiona Weakley and Rachel Little. Monteverdi’s ‘Magnificato Primo’ brought the concert to an energetic conclusion, with fine rhythmic precision and dynamic variation. The tenor soloists’ exchange was again splendid.John Hiley, 11.4.22
A rare musical treat was unveiled for the audience at the Levens choir Christmas concert. Amongst carols, a string quintet and some seasonal music from Finzi, the highlight of the evening was the Missa Sancti Christophori by Antonio Lotti, a Baroque composer best-known for his 8-part setting of the ‘Crucifixus’ from this work. The Levens choir took on the challenge of this substantial work with spirit and energy, and were ably and sensitively accompanied by the string ensemble (led proficiently by Pam Redman) and Andy Plowman on continuo. The Music Director, Ian Jones, drew out the very best from the choir, with precise articulation and the contrapuntal passages neatly interwoven throughout. The voices were well balanced, with solo parts competently covered by choir members, and careful shaping of phrases ensured variety and interest, with a sustained and full sound worthy of a larger choir. The Crucifixus flowed beautifully despite some initial hesitancy at the start, and all 8 parts moved as one to give a delightfully rich and textured wash of sound. The choir did full justice to this magnificent yet challenging work, and should be commended for their performance.After some well-chosen carols (including the Stable Carol written by choir member Robert Duffield, a gentle and lyrical piece with some pleasingly complex moments), the string quintet performed the Bax ‘Lyrical Interlude’. This is a very pleasant yet little known work, which reflected Bax’s interest in Celtic culture. The quintet played with cohesion and sensitivity, with players supporting each other to create a perfect balance. There was skilled and controlled playing throughout, with some beautiful warmth of tone in particular from the violas.
The concert closed with Finzi’s ‘In Terra Pax’, which intersperses the poem ‘Noel: Christmas Eve 1913’ with St Luke’s account of the angels’ visit to the shepherds. The choir brought across the solemnity of the occasion well, with soloists Edwin Reynolds and Rebecca Chandler taking the parts of the poet and the angel confidently yet with gentleness and delicacy of tone. There was a triumphant and joyful climax, with the choir skilfully passing passages back and forth to create a cacophony of pealing church bells to proclaim the birth of Christ. This was an exuberant performance, a perfect end to a most enjoyable evening.Veronica Dunne