Allelujah, Hallelujah or Alleluia!! Take your pick!
The glorious weather held and a beautiful sunny evening offset the glowing ancient stones of St James' Church on Friday 9 June as Audlem Voices gathered to present their 2023 Summer Concert of Classical Greats.
Jon Richardson, our Chair, welcomed the audience and introduced Naomi Newman, our accompanist, and Jenny Collis-Smith, our wonderful indefatigable Musical Director and founder of Audlem Voices.
Without further ado, we launched into Handel's magnificently stirring coronation anthem Zadok the Priest, composed for the coronation of King George II in 1727 and performed at all British coronations ever since (including the most recent one, naturally!). Among the fervent patriotic prayers for the king to live forever in this piece there is a great number of allelujahs – perhaps a sign of things to come...?
Felix Mendelssohn's great oratorio 'Elijah' was the source of our next piece, the lyrical and moving He, watching over Israel, with its simple steady straightforward tempo grounding the intricate melodic patterns of the four voice parts. The text ties a verse from Psalm 121 to another from Psalm 38 to create a heartening message – that God never rests from caring for us, and will give us strength to persevere through our struggles. (God knows we need that strength...)
We followed that with Lacrimosa from Mozart's famous Requiem -a powerful plea to the Almighty to grant eternal rest to those who come before him on the dreadful Day of Judgement. It's a choir favourite and we love to sing it.
There was now a lightening (initially and finally!) of mood as our lovely Guest Soloist, Jane Johnson, stepped forward in a gorgeous blue-green gown a to perform three very different but equally beautiful pieces by Handel, accompanied by Jenny Collis-Smith at the piano.
First came Spring, from Handel's opera 'Ottone', a delightful welcome to spring with lambs leaping and blossoms blooming and songbirds singing. Little did any of us suspect that this spring picture we were all enjoying so much was NOT a translation of the aria on which this song is based, which is not about spring at all! But who cares?
This was followed by Lascia ch'io pianga (Leave me that I may cry), a beautiful mournful aria from Handel's opera 'Rinaldo', sung by the distressed heroine as she languishes in captivity and has a lot to cry about, as she has no hope (she thinks) of rescue.
Jane's third piece, Let the bright seraphim, comes from Handel's oratorio 'Samson', and marks the dramatic conclusion where the blind Samson pulls down the pillars of the Philistine temple, killing the Philistines and giving up his own life in the process. A Hebrew woman calls on the angels (the seraphim and cherubim) to assemble and blow their trumpets in celebration of Samson's heroism.
(Note: The piano accompaniment to that piece is a marvel!)
To wrap up the first half, the choir now rose to perform a suite of songs by well-known contemporary American composer Morten Lauridsen. These beautiful Nocturnes consist of three songs in three languages, French, Spanish and English.
In Sa nuit d'été (Its Summer Night), a passionate love poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, a lover tells his beloved that her heart, if ever revealed, would be like a previously undiscovered star suddenly rendering the night translucent as it makes its début in the skies.
Soneto de la noche (Sonnet of the Night) is an equally passionate and tender love poem by Pablo Neruda, where the lover muses on how he longs for his beloved to be at his side when he is on his deathbed, and how he wishes for her to flourish and be happy again once he has gone.
Sure on this shining night by James Agee brings the suite to a gentle conclusion and is also a kind of love poem, in which the poet ponders the wonders of a night in late summer when the stars are so bright they cast shadows on the ground and bring tears of awe to the eyes of the lone beholder.
Interval time now gave choir and audience a welcome chance to mix and mingle over refreshments, as well as to walk about – a good thing to do when you have been sitting on those hard old wooden pews for a while! Everyone enjoyed themselves so much several calls had to be made for their return.
The second half took off with the splendidly uplifting O Rejoice that the Lord has Arisen! (better known as Easter Hymn) which comes from Pietro Mascagni's one-act Italian opera 'Cavalleria Rusticana' ('rustic chivalry'). The congregation in the church whose piazza forms the stage for the main drama are fully focused on the glory of the resurrection, and don't notice the rumpus outside. Our choir was similarly focused, believe me, and delighted to have Jane singing the solo, which took her to heights unimaginable to the rest of us...
Another Italian opera was the source of our next item, Speed Your Journey from Giuseppe Verdi's 'Nabucco'. (Nabucco is what Italians call Nebuchadnezzar, the ancient King of Babylon who famously destroyed the temple of Jerusalem and enslaved the Hebrews). In this song, the Hebrew slaves lament the loss of their homeland and call on Jehovah to strengthen them to endure their captivity to the very end.
We then returned to Mozart and his requiem, with the marvellous Hostias (Offerings). This is another plea to the Almighty to have mercy on those who have died, and bring them to eternal life, as he had long ago solemnly promised to Abraham and his successors. The bit about the long ago promise is extremely lively for a requiem, and great fun to sing!
Jane now appeared in a fresh gown (royal purple!), left Handel behind, and presented a fresh trio of beautiful songs.
She began with Dido's Lament, from Henry Purcell's baroque opera 'Dido and Aeneas'. In this tragic piece Dido, Queen of Carthage, distraught at being abandoned by her lover, lies dying by her own hand. She rests her head on her sister's bosom, and begs her, 'When I am laid in earth, remember me... but forget my fate!'
The second song was the famous eucharistic prayer Panis Angelicus (Bread of Angels) by St Thomas Aquinas, set to glorious meditative music by the Romantic composer César Franck. It is sung as a communion hymn in churches all over the world, but surely never so beautifully and reverently as it was sung by Jane.
Jane concluded her performance with Mozart's Alleluia from his motet 'Exsultate, jubilate' (Exult, rejoice). This is a wonderful showcase for a soprano, and Jane did it full justice. The lyrics are fiendishly difficult, consisting of a single word (guess what!), repeated in an astonishing number of different and entrancing ways...
The audience loved it, and so did we!
The choir rose again with two consecutive but contrasting excerpts from Antonio Vivaldi's 'Gloria'. The first consists of the opening phrase from the Latin text of the Gloria – Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest) – repeated with a rhythmic excitement that carries you along to the climax. The second takes the very next phrase, Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntate (And on earth, peace, goodwill towards men), and rolls it out on waves of beautiful long sustained melodic lines and harmonic clashes. It takes a lot of breath!
We followed that with perhaps one of the most famous and beautiful pieces from a requiem in the world – In Paradisum (To Paradise) by Gabriel Fauré. It closes the requiem with a heartfelt prayer that the angels will guide you into paradise, where you will be welcomed by the holy martyrs, and into the holy city of Jerusalem, where a chorus of angels will greet you, and you will find eternal rest alongside the one-time pauper Lazarus.
A delightful evening came to a close with a return to Handel – and yes, it was the magnificent Hallelujah Chorus! The audience rose to their feet (some of them joined in!) and we all put our hearts and souls and voices into lifting the roof (metaphorically, of course).
Jane, Jenny and Naomi were presented with beautiful bouquets and the audience and the choir applauded loudly. And then it was goodnight, goodnight – and the sun was still shining in the west as we came out!
KF for Audlem Voices