Remembrance Concert – November 2014

(reviewed by Camille Mazarelo)

A Triumphant Valedictory Performance at the Abbey

Conductor Glenn Davis led the Hexham Orpheus Choir through a repertoire of music which, for sheer ambition and nerve, would have been unthinkable just over a decade ago. It would also have been impossible had he not taken over the conductor’s baton 17 years ago. Brilliant and dedicated singers have been recruited over his tenure. This night’s performance was a just reward for his consistent drive to raise aspirations and attainment.

The evening offered us Tavener’s Exhortation and Kohima, tightly bound beautiful harmonies, requiring two unaccompanied choruses. This was followed by the Fauré Requiem and a second half entirely given to Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem.

In addition to the choral work Mr Davis demonstrated orchestral skills with a performance of the Barber Adagio for Strings, originally written for string quartet. The work is noted for its lovely arched forms and changing meter. Given its ubiquity (said to be America’s most popular and most played orchestral work), this performance was surprisingly moving, the sonorous mezzo cello line simply outstanding in the middle section.

The Fauré Requiem which followed was possibly the best performance of the work I have heard yet. The Hexham Orpheus produced near perfect symmetry; there was a barely perceptible blip in the Agnus Dei section. A choir this size must exercise great skill to achieve pianissimo, forte and sforzando, without undue dramatic effect so undesirable in this particular Requiem. The orchestra was extraordinarily empathic and the synchrony between the two groups prevailed throughout. A lovely rendition.

The Tavener Exhortation was a delight to listen to, despite brief asynchrony at each entry phrase, on the part of both choruses. The closing perfectly pitched whispered ethereal chord was enchanting and reflected the magnificent control of the stunning lead soprano on the night, Hannah Reynolds.

Hannah Reynolds and Nick Forbes, lead baritone, then brought their substantial talents to bear on the finale and major work of the night.

Vaughan Williams composed the Dona Nobis Pacem after the First World War, when there were ominous indications of a second major conflict. It is a prayer for peace with texts taken from the Mass, poems by Walt Whitman, a political speech, and sections of the Bible.

The Vaughan Williams is undoubtedly challenging for the listener. Alternatively, sombre or uplifting, the music at times is counter-intuitive and disconcerting. The piece demands substantial brass and percussive sounds at times, while at others there is no more than a single haunting soprano chant. Harmonies when present are unmistakably Vaughan Williams, and do bring one back to the comfort of familiarity. I simply cannot imagine what it must have taken to put this piece together; it was an absolute triumph of vocal talent and versatility and tight conducting.

The Hexham Orpheus could probably have been said to have “come of age” with this latest concert, had Glenn Davis not also brought them through the Chichester Carols, not that long ago. He has an innate musicality which is enviable and unique.