Past Performances

Two Elizabethans - choral music by Britten & Byrd

Sat, 8 Jul 2023

The latest performance by the Levens Choir under the direction of Gawain Glenton featured music by two composers separated by four centuries, William Byrd (1543-1623) and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976). The entirely unaccompanied concert in the acoustically-splendid St Oswald’s Church, Warton, was very well attended by an appreciative audience who were given a virtuoso display of choral music of the highest quality.

The evening began with Byrd’s 1590 anthem ‘Sing Joyfully’, a text drawn from Psalm 81; a bright, cheerful start with clear notes and harmonies and lovely dynamics. We then moved on to the first two parts of Byrd’s Mass for Four Voices, the Kyrie and Gloria - a more measured pace with strong base lines in the Gloria underpinning the harmonies and the alto section shown off to good advantage in this classic Tudor Renaissance piece.

Glenton cleverly split the Mass here, interposing Britten’s Advance Democracy, giving a huge contrast to the previous works. This dramatic warning of the gathering war clouds in Europe (written in 1938) uses melismatic sections laid over abrupt, jackboot-like utterances from the other voices and switches from major to minor keys bringing a feeling of threat and danger.

We then went back to Byrd’s Mass for the Credo and the perfect counterpoint to the horror of war. The sharp harmonies were particularly well shown by the sopranos in this expression of the spirit of faith with the tenors lending fulsome support.

The first half concluded with a rendering of Britten’s Five Flower Songs (op 47 of 1950). This song cycle, with elements of Elgar and Parry, provided the choir with a real challenge to which they rose magnificently. The contrast between the light touch required for To Daffodils to the almost menacing, slightly discordant harmonies of Marsh Flowers and the lyrical The Evening Primrose were handled with aplomb.

The second half began with Britten’s Deus in Adjutorium, his setting of Psalm 70 written in 1944-5 for a radio play. A rousing opening piece, delivered crisply and with precision. The sopranos were particularly prominent and the central canon was expertly performed.

Then came perhaps the best-known work of the evening, Byrd’s gorgeous Ave Verum Corpus. He wrote this in about 1605 but the original dates from the 13th century. The rich harmonies rang through the delightful acoustics of St Oswald’s with great balance and clarity. A quite superb rendition.

Then came, for your reviewer, the pièce de résistance of the evening; Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin. Written when the composer was only 16, this minor masterpiece is a dialogue between two sections of the choir, one singing in Latin, the other in English. Glenton split the singers to opposite ends of the church; simple but magically effective. Absolutely divine.

The concluding two parts of the Mass for Four Voices then followed, the Sanctus and Agnus Dei, with the full choir together again and in full voice. Despite the relative small number of male voices in the choir the balance was perfect, well shown in these pieces. The finale of the Agnus was quite beautiful.

Two short Byrd compositions followed; Even from the Depth, from Psalm 130, written about 1558, and Look Down O Lord, from 1614 - the latter from a collection entitled ‘In the teares or lamentacions of a sorrowfull soule’. Delightful cameos perhaps reflecting Byrd’s more introspective nature.

Which set us up for the grand finale - Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia, op. 27, based on Auden’s poem. The choir supported the excellent soloists (Lucy Crispin, Sally Dickens, Rose Jones, John Ward and Charlie Lewis) in this tribute to the patron saint of musicians (Britten was born on St. Cecilia’s day) to bring the wonderful evening to a rousing close, reflected in long and appreciative applause.

Steve Porter, 10 July 2023

Bach & Pärt - the power of the spirit

Sun, 26 Mar 2023
On Sunday 26 March, the Victoria Hall in Grange over Sands was treated to some beautiful choral singing by Levens Choir under the baton of Gawain Glenton, with organist Christopher Stokes in support. This was the second performance of their programme entitled ‘Bach and Pärt - The Power of the Spirit’, having been premiered in St George’s, Kendal the evening before.

The programme was framed by two great motets by J.S. Bach, interspersed with the music of some of Bach’s older relatives and of Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki. This was an unusual mix which allowed the enthusiastic audience to enjoy the composers’ contrasting personal pursuits for spiritual truth in music. The Victoria Hall in Grange might not seem the obvious choice for a programme of this sort, but the building and the choir are a perfect match. It is an intimate space which gives a fantastic, honest platform for a choir of this size, and helped the audience to feel immersed in the choir’s clear, warm sound. 

To name a few of the individual pieces: Komm, Jesu, komm is a virtuosic motet for two choirs of four voices with long weaving lines, which is huge favourite of solo voice ensembles. The music was tackled with a sensitivity to the interplay of the voices and with Lutheran fervour by the choir, and the music flowed with momentum towards its final chorale. This felt like fun chamber music. Pärt’s Deer’s Cry which followed, a prayer for protection, has a poise and warm, contemplative feel which is given power by its repeated phrases, the silences in the music, and soaring soprano lines. It was beautifully paced. 

Some delightful solo playing on a Walter Chinaglia chamber organ by Christopher Stokes split each half of the concert in two. It is rare indeed to hear an audible laugh whilst listening to solo organ music. J.C. Bach’s Fugue on B.A.C.H. delighted the audience, providing a charming sorbet in amongst the more austere choral settings. The Pärt and Górecki pieces were sung with great impact and control, with rousing crescendos. The mesmeric and sustained fortes in the Pärt Nunc Dimittis and the imploring repeated cries of ‘Maria!’ in the Górecki Totus Tuus were thrilling. This is monumental music which inspires goosebumps.

Levens Choir, founded fifty years ago by Kendal’s choral mover and shaker, Ian Jones, is in safe hands, with its excellent organisation, talented singers and the inspiring new(ish) conductor Gawain Glenton at the helm. His deep understanding of the music he chooses, and his clear and encouraging direction produce excellent results. There are quality singers in each section which help all to raise their games, and tackle virtuoso repertoire. There was some excellent work from the soprano soloists, from the smaller groups in the Bach motets, sonorous low notes from the basses which underpinned the Eastern European repertoire in particular, and virtuosic singing from the inner parts which are given music of great interest. The result is homogeneous and sonorous and the audience was drawn in by the sincerity and depth of the music, sung with serious attention to detail, care with the language and committed communication. 

The evening’s programme ended with the tender final ‘gute Nacht’ of Jesu, meine Freude. A joyous encore of Pärt’s Bogoróditse Djévo left the audience on a high.

Gawain Glenton’s programme note and insightful chats in between pieces invited the audience to enjoy and feel involved in the music and music making. That we did. Bravo to all. What a joy to be treated to live music again.

Nicholas Hurndall Smith

Bach & Pärt - the power of the spirit

Sat, 25 Mar 2023

Bach & Pärt concert poster

Levens Choir under their conductor, Gawain Glenton, are to be congratulated on performing an ambitious and exciting programme with such aplomb. They delighted the audience at St George’s Church, Kendal, with their dynamic and musical interpretations of pieces by Bach and Pärt, the former sensitively accompanied by Manchester Cathedral organist Christopher Stokes, on a 2009 Walter Chinaglia baroque organ.

The programme was book ended by two Bach motets. Komm, Jesu, Komm gave us a foretaste of the quality of this choir with its precisely articulated opening contrasted with some fine legato singing. The choir was at its best, though in the final Jesu Meine Freude, a cantata which demands many different styles of singing. All were tackled with conviction and confidence; stately chorales contrasting with the complexities of the fugue.

Christopher Stokes demonstrated the colours of the organ with movements from JS Bach’s Pastorale and a delightfully showy Fugue on B.A.C.H. by J C Bach.

The pieces by Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki pointed us to a very different approach to religious music, reflecting the more contemplative and spiritual style of the Eastern Orthodox Church. These pieces demand a sonorous tone and pitch perfect tuning to allow the harmonics to ring out. This was achieved beautifully in The Deer’s Cry with the lower parts providing a wonderfully rich and mellow base over which the sopranos could soar. The Górecki Totus Tuus was full of drama. The ensemble at full throttle was spine tingling, as was the control in the final repetitions at the end which maintained pitch and tone as they faded away.

We were treated to an encore of the party piece of the evening, Bogoroditse Djevo, by Pärt. This was impressively sung in Church Slavonic. Something of a tongue twister, it was full of character and verve, bringing to an end an excellent concert by this ever improving choir.

Anne Pater

Christmas past, Christmas present

Tue, 13 Dec 2022



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


Sat, 2 Jul 2022

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.

Duncan Lloyd

The Glories of Venice - Monteverdi and his world

Sun, 10 Apr 2022

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.

11 April 22

The Glories of Venice - Monteverdi and his world

Sat, 9 Apr 2022

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

For St Cecilia: Finzi, Britten, Purcell, Howells

Tue, 23 Nov 2021

It is good to see local choirs heading back towards some kind of normality, as did Pro Nobis at Cartmel Priory a few weeks ago. Conductor Ian Jones stated that music and the performing arts had been short changed by the Covid epidemic, but the choir were going to help us to re-launch live events. In doing so, they helped us to celebrate S. Cecilia's Day (actually the 22nd). Of course, S. Cecilia is the patron saint of music, and the composition of a number of the pieces in the programme were inspired by her.

Ian Jones, the founder and conductor of the choir, was performing at his final concert. That is a great pity, but it is better to retire whilst still at the top of your game. He had chosen a number of his favourite pieces.  It was Ian who introduced me to the music of Finzi many years ago, and there is a lasting impression.

The concert opened with that great C20th English choral composer Herbert Howells' Hymn to St. Cecilia. Immediately we were engaged by a rousing unison sound in the first verse.

Daughter of another great English composer Gustav, Imogen Holst's unaccompanied A Hymn to Christ was given a firm foundation by the bass line. Coincidentally, this piece was sung the following day on BBC Radio 3's Choral Evensong live from Truro Cathedral.

O Clap Your Hands together all ye people, is a setting of Psalm 47 composed in eight parts by Orlando Gibbons. Like Laudibus in Sanctis by William Byrd later in the programme, could have done with a more sympathetic acoustic, and the execution was closer to madrigal style than English sacred choral music.

Tenor soloist James Marczak, ably accompanied by Andy Plowman, gave a lyrical performance of a beautiful song by Howells, King David.

In Valiant-for-Truth, music by Vaughan Williams, the part singing was secure, and here again, the basses were the choirs secret strength. The section including 'Death, where is thy sting?' was powerful.

Britten's Hymn to St. Cecilia contains an imitative section, and this was particularly effective.

The only non-British piece was Chant donné by the French composer Duruflé. This is a solo organ piece with sumptuous harmonies played Andy Plowman. It was a very sensitive performance. Andy made the best of a very basic electronic instrument.

Levens Choir commissioned Adrian Self to set Three Songs for Christine, words written by a choir member who had died two years ago. Adrian always writes effective and sensitive music. I particularly enjoyed his 'Thoughts of a Corncrake on the RSPB Reserve, Coll'. The humour was well captured in his music - and the choir appeared to enjoy themselves.

The concert concluded with Parry's My Soul There is a Country in which the chording at the outset took a little time to settle, and some entries lacked unanimity, but Finzi's For St. Cecilia brought the concert to a fitting climax. I must confess that I had never heard this piece before, but the choir sold it to me. After a regal keyboard introduction, the choir took us on a harmonic adventure.

Overall, this was an enterprising and challenging programme, and Levens Choir certainly assisted our celebration of S. Cecilia.
Robert Talbot.

Starry Music

Sun, 15 Dec 2019

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
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