Anthems for the 21st Century

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The Kent wind was icy, but Tonbridge School Chapel was warm, and the music-making warmer still, when on 12 February the Vasari Singers, under their conductor Jeremy Backhouse, assembled before an invited audience of composers and friends to preview their ‘21st Century Anthems’ programme. The choir celebrates their 25th Anniversary this year and, to mark the occasion, has commissioned ten new anthems from a diverse group of British composers; along with recent choral works from four other prominent figures this festive cornucopia of new music will be premiered in public at St John’s, Smith Square on May 15th, with a CD of the programme released at the same time. And that is why we were there in the airy chapel at Tonbridge, to hear the pieces in the same space they would be recorded in, by Signum Records, the following weekend.

About ten years ago, the chapel was razed to the ground by fire, and a completely new building was erected on the old foundations. Long and lofty, like a large Oxbridge chapel, it is an ideal recording venue, with a clear yet resonant acoustic, and a magnificent four-manual Marcussen organ. From the first bars of Philip Moore’s finely wrought I saw Him standing it was clear that the choir was on outstanding form, with a rich and full sonority, excellent blend and balance, and displaying a meticulous concern for the niceties of tuning and articulation. What followed was a fascinating conspectus of compositional approach and aesthetic: Richard Blackford’s On Another’s Sorrow was intimate and intense; Stephen Barlow’s When I saw on Rood, with its weeping glissandi, featured outstanding solo contributions from Fiona McWilliams and Dan Burges, atmospherically distanced from the rest of the choir; my own offering, Now I Have Known, O Lord, had all the refinement and hushed self-communion it needed while Will Todd’s semi-aleatoric Angel Song II wove a magical spell with its disembodied vocalise; Barrie Bignold’s Peace was eloquent and disarming, again with beautiful solo singing by Fiona McWilliams and Matthew Wood and Ward Swingle’s Give us this day was perfectly poised, its immaculately voiced harmonies simple yet so telling; Humphrey Clucas’s brief Hear my crying, O God was terse and unsettling in its sparse, powerful anguish. Several pieces also featured the organ, played with scintillating virtuosity and coloristic imagination by Jeremy Filsell, including his own richly-voiced Mysterium Christi and Francis Pott’s long-drawn, chromatically limpid setting of The Lord is my Shepherd, which gave the Vasari sopranos and altos a deserved moment in the sun.

Of the non-commissioned works the rhythmic exuberance of Tarik O’Regan’s Surrexit Christus was brought vividly to life, while James MacMillan’s Chosen was fiercely intense, with a brooding darkness lit up by moments of blinding illumination. Jonathan Rathbone dared to set a text already given eloquent voice by Thomas Tomkins in his Absolon, my Son and responded to the challenge with a work of great emotional directness and heartbreaking plangency. The programme was brought to a thrilling close by Jonathan Dove’s splendiferous Bless the Lord, O my soul, full of torrential virtuosity from both choir and organist, its teeming invention thrillingly realised.

To prepare, in a mere couple of months, ten completely new works, all of which make considerable (and very different) demands of the singers, is no mean achievement. Throughout the evening the Vasari Singers displayed all the qualities that have made them the force they are in the musical life of this country. On current form, there is simply no better non-professional group in the land. Roll on May 15th – for the anniversary festivities will be splendid and richly deserved!

© Gabriel Jackson, 2005

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