Chichester Psalms
2013-03 thumb

Saturday 16 March at 7.30pm
St Cross Church, WInchester

Bernstein - Chichester Psalms
Janáček - The Lord’s Prayer
Britten - Choral Dances from Gloriana
Holst - Hymns from the Rig Veda
Tariq O’Regan - Dorchester Canticles

conductor - Katherine Dienes-Williams

Hugh Webb (harp), Tom LIttle (organ), Nigel Bates (percussion)
Stephen Douse (tenor), Hamish Klintworth (treble)

Tickets £17.50 (concessions £14.50, children 17 and under £5)

Leonard Bernstein may be best remembered for a wealth of vivacious Broadway numbers, but Southern Voices are drawing on the American composer’s equally toe-tapping sacred repertoire for this concert at St Cross Church.

The Chichester Psalms, commissioned for the 1965 Southern Cathedrals Festival, is a three movement work for chorus and boy treble soloist. Sung in Hebrew, it will be performed from Bernstein’s reduced version for organ, harp and percussion.

The 100th anniversary of the birth of Bernstein’s British contemporary, Benjamin Britten, will be marked by a performance of his Choral Dances from the opera Gloriana. Ladies’ voices will sing Gustav Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda (Hindu scriptures), composed around the time of Britten’s birth, and Czech composer Leoš Janáček will feature with his setting of The Lord’s Prayer for voices, organ and harp.

Meanwhile, the 21st century will be represented by London-born Tarik O’Regan’s Dorchester Canticles, written in 2004 for the Bournemouth Sinfonietta Choir. Now in his thirties, O’Regan is a highly acclaimed composer who divides his time between New York and Cambridge.


Rich and colourful textures from Southern Voices

Much of the relatively modern choral music in this concert was linked by the accompaniment of organ, harp and percussion. It’s ideal for a chamber choir as it adds excitement and colour without overwhelming the singers. So the audience was treated to a rich assortment of unusual and, at times, exotic sounds.

First-off Janácek’s Otcenás, which is an extended and thoughtful setting of the Lord’s Prayer dating from 1906. In three of the six sections a solo tenor alternates thematic material with the chorus, against a background of unsettled harmony. In the three other movements the whole choir carries the text, which is in Czech throughout. It was very effectively done, although the tenor soloist (Stephen Douse) had some challengingly high notes in the opening minutes.

Holst wrote the four groups of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda between 1908 and 1914. Considered to be the oldest religious writings in the world, the hymns date from 1200-900 BC and form the cornerstone of Hindu thought and belief. Many Vedas were written, but the Rig centres on the gods and includes praises, blessings, sacrifices and curses. Holst used his own translations from Sanskrit. We heard the 1911 Group 3 for four-part women's voices and harp. The four short movements are filled with mystery and awe at the Dawn, the Waters, the celestial being Vena, and the Travellers. Time signatures, key signatures and bar lines are lost on the listener, such is the other-worldliness of this unique and beautiful music. This group is very challenging for both choir and harpist and the Southern Voices ladies gave a superbly blended and assured performance, despite being fewer in number than usual.

Tarik O’Regan’s Dorchester Canticles was commissioned by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta Choir, and received its première in St Mary’s Church, Dorchester in 2004. For liturgical occasions the Cantate Domino and Deus misereatur texts (otherwise known as the ‘alternative canticles’) may legitimately replace the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis at Evensong. For concert performances the work was conceived to partner Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms (see later), so there are optional harp and percussion parts. The music is challenging both to perform and to hear but, with an English translation to hand, made perfect sense. The choir gave it their all and, apart from a couple of tentative entries, made a very good case for this contemporary music. The excellent percussionist Nigel Bates added greatly to the impact and, preceded by a brief organ ‘toccata’, the ending was particularly exhilarating.

The second half began with the Choral Dances from ‘Gloriana’ by Benjamin Britten, which came as light relief! Queen Elizabeth I is on a visit to Norwich where she is entertained by a Masque. The Southern Voices ladies made good ‘country girls’ and the men ‘rustics and fishermen’ as they entered the innocent spirit of these jolly unaccompanied pieces. With Gloriana written to mark the Coronation of the present Queen in 1953, and the Britten centenary this year, it was doubly apt to include these items.

And so to the Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein. Sung in Hebrew, the brash and startling opening (‘Awake, psaltery and harp: I will rouse the dawn’ - Psalm 108) never fails to jolt the audience. Harpist Hugh Webb seemed to lose his place at one point in Psalm 100 but quickly recovered to provide impressive support, as he did throughout the concert. Next came Psalm 23, ably provided by 12-year-old treble soloist Hamish Klintworth from Guildford Cathedral Choir. Then the men excelled in ‘Why do the nations rage’ (Ps 2). Their unison sound was superbly controlled in ‘Lord, Lord, my heart is not haughty’ (Ps 131) as was the ladies’ in ‘Surely I have calmed and quieted myself’. The final section is mainly all voices in unison and at the words ‘Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity’ (Ps 133) the choir achieved a sublime pianissimo. Perhaps the organ at St Cross church was not quite up to the drama, but organist Tom Little was faultless throughout the concert and responded to every subtle detail demanded by conductor Katherine Dienes-Williams.

It is a pity that more people were not coaxed out of their comfort zone to hear this interesting and varied programme which was all hugely enjoyable for those brave enough to cope with the unfamiliar, and the wet weather. (Bruce Randall)

(an edited version of this review appeared in the Hampshire Chronicle on 21 March 2013)