News

Choral Society golf outing

The fourth annual SACS Golf Day was held on 20 July at Mill Green Golf Club on the edge of Welwyn Garden City.  Eight golfers, including three guests, had an enjoyable afternoon competing in pairs for a trophy imaginatively created for the event in 2014 by Jon Harris-Bass.

Mill Green is a challenging golf course through a mixture of landscaped open terrain and woodland; five attractive lakes, featuring on about half of the holes, provide hazards which can be final resting places for balls after mis-hit shots.

The pairings had mixed degrees of success on the day and the victors were Peter Aubusson (whose home course is Mill Green) and his son Iain, with a betterball score of 47 points. Afterwards, the golfers and some partners dined at The Spice Hut Indian Restaurant where the trophy was presented.

George's Programming Secrets

Our Music Director, George Vass, is known for his thoughtful programming of music for concerts. Where does he start when putting a programme together? Alison Maitland asked him about the choices and considerations involved.

Time, venue, cost, orchestration and variety of repertoire are all part of the complex mix. “The first thing I consider is how much rehearsal time we have, and what time of year the concert is,” George says. “I then take the orchestration of the main work and use that as a starting point for the rest of the programme.”

He plans big works, such as the Mozart Mass in C Minor or Handel’s Messiah, for the spring when most of the 100-strong choir is available and there is plenty of rehearsal time.

As some people are away in the summer months, the July concerts are programmed for a slightly smaller choir. Where necessary, extra voices can be brought in. In summer 2017, we are performing a big work, Carmina Burana, along with local primary school children and students from Beaumont School’s talented Vocal Ensemble.

This version of Carl Orff’s classic is for two pianos and percussion, so George searched for other pieces using similar instruments – no easy task. Fortunately, he discovered that composer Cecilia McDowall had a new piece, A Time for All Seasons, for piano, percussion and youth chorus. The other two works, by Bob Chilcott, also use a youth choir.

The Choral Society performs in a variety of venues, chiefly the Abbey and St Saviour’s Church, St Albans, and the Weston Auditorium in Hatfield. Each has a different acoustic and can accommodate a different size of choir and instrumentalists, so programmes have to be tailored accordingly.

“The venue is paramount, as is the type of player accompanying,” George explains. “A professional orchestra of 35 makes a lot more noise than an amateur orchestra of 60. So we can have a large professional chamber orchestra for our bigger pieces. My job is to make sure there’s an even blend between all the parts – choir, orchestral forces, and narrator if we have one.”

The central piece for the 11 November concert in 2017 is the Duruflé Requiem. Of three versions available, George has selected the one using organ, strings, trumpets, timpani and harp. He originally intended to give the programme a French theme. In researching works with similar orchestration, however, he came across the beautiful and little known Stabat Mater by South German composer Josef Rheinberger, who is often compared with Gabriel Fauré, which fitted the bill.

A further consideration, depending on the rest of the programme, is to include at least one well-known or lighter work, to draw audiences in. Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture (‘Fingal’s Cave’) played this role at the March 2017 concert. Samuel Barber’s searingly sad Adagio for Strings is set to do the same at the autumn 2017 concert.

The cost of putting on some of the largest and best known choral works, notably 20th century giants such as Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, is unfortunately prohibitive because they require such huge orchestral forces, says George. Nonetheless, his focus is always on programming a rich mix of classical and contemporary through each season. On 4 February 2018, we will perform an additional concert of hymns and anthems – the type of music usually performed by chamber choirs.

“What sets us apart from other choirs is that we do cover a huge variety of music,” he says. “That mix of music is one of the major reasons why people like the choir so much.”

"Compelling accounts of three masterpieces" - review

Our 25 March concert in St Albans Cathedral gave "compelling accounts of three masterpieces", according to an enthusiastic review by composer James Francis Brown in the Herts Advertiser today. Read the full review below.

Choir carols raise over £700 for Grove House

Members of the Choral Society turned out in force to give a spirited performance of Christmas carols at St Albans City station on the evening of 15 December, raising £728.88 from generous commuters in aid of Rennie Grove Hospice Care.

The money collected is enough to fund three shifts for a specialist Hospice at Home nurse, according to Rennie Grove senior community fundraiser Gemma Bateman. "This means that around 12 patients in and around St Albans will be visited in their own home ensuring their symptoms are kept under control and their families feel supported. On behalf of these patients and their families, thank you for supporting us in this way."

Christmas music from across the ages

Ancient English carols mix with modern nativity settings in St Albans Choral Society’s Christmas concert of music and readings for all the family on Sunday 11 December at 7pm in Marlborough Road Methodist Church.

The choir will perform favourites such as the Coventry Carol, whose words come from a medieval mystery play, and the traditional English Sussex Carol, along with three works specially selected by Music Director George Vass for this year’s concert.

The first of these is Felix Mendelssohn’s exuberant motet Frohlocket, ihr Völker auf Erden (Rejoice, Ye People on Earth). Next is John Tavener’s Today the Virgin, a 20th century take on plainsong. Then comes contemporary composer Johnathan Dove’s ethereal Seek Him that maketh the Seven Stars.

The audience will be invited to join in popular carols such as Good King Wenceslas and Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and the music will be interspersed with four readings on festive themes by members of the choir.

“Our Celebration of Christmas concert welcomes adults and children of all ages and we look forward to a full house to help us launch the festive period,” said conductor Vass. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone to participate and experience the spirit of the season.”

Tickets priced £13 (£1 for children) are available in advance from SACS Ticket Line on 07555 610095, online from www.ticketsource.co.uk, or on the door.

Performance "full of colour and life"

Composer James Francis Brown much appreciated the English premiere of his new work, performed by the Choral Society at St Saviour's Church, St Albans, on Saturday 12 November.

He says: "It was a great pleasure to hear such dedication and conviction in this performance of The Heavens and the Heart. St Albans Choral Society, for whom it was written, gave a splendid performance, full of colour and life – proving, once again, that they provide a welcoming home for new music.” 

James Francis Brown

Modern works with Faure Requiem

St Albans Choral Society will perform works by contemporary composers James Francis Brown, Sally Beamish and David Matthews (pictured above) alongside the Fauré Requiem at 7.30pm on Saturday 12 November in St Saviour’s Church, Sandpit Lane.

The first half will feature the English premiere of Brown’s The Heavens and the Heart, a thrilling setting of three Latin psalms for mixed chorus and small orchestra of horns, harp and strings. The Society commissioned the piece jointly with the 2016 Presteigne Festival, with funding from the Williams Church Music Trust and the Arts Council of Wales.

Its rapid opening section speaks with exciting dynamics of the unending power of God and the heavens (Psalm 19). This is followed by a sober conjuring of righteousness and sin (Psalm 58), and a final jubilant section, with a bell-like tribute to God’s glory (Psalm 92). 

Continuing the Old Testament theme is David Matthews’ version of Psalm 23, The Lord is My Shepherd. The third contemporary work is Sally Beamish’s Showings, which is based on the visions of the 14th century Christian mystic and theologian Julian of Norwich. 

The sublime Requiem by Gabriel Fauré will fill the second half, with solos by two young singers: Edward Kay, baritone, and soprano Sophie Edwards, whose “silvery-toned” performance of the Pie Jesu won praise at this year’s Presteigne Festival. George Vass will conduct the choir and Orchestra Nova.

Tickets are available at £18 (£15 conc), £15 (£12 conc) and £1 children from SACS Ticket Line on 07555 610095 or from members of the choir.

Choir Golf Day 2016

Report

 

The third annual Choir Golf Day was held this year at Aldwickbury Park Golf Club in Harpenden on Thursday 28 July with seven golfers taking part.

Aldwickbury is a testing course with several steep inclines, undulating greens to deceive the unwary and some thick rough providing plenty of opportunities to lose balls. Consequently, a wide variety of scores were recorded but the winners were Alistair Holt Thomas and Colin Dunkerley with a betterball score of 47 points. The golfers and some partners had dinner afterwards at the nearby Shapla Indian Restaurant where the presentation was made of the Trophy (kindly created by Jon Harris-Bass).

One of the winners - Alistair Holt Thomas

More photos of the day can be found in the Gallery section of the website.

Concert marks 21 years with conductor George Vass

St Albans Choral Society is celebrating 21 years with Music Director George Vass by holding a summer concert of Schubert and Mendelssohn symphonies on Saturday 9 July with Bushey Symphony Orchestra (BSO), which Vass also conducts.

The concert, which takes place at 7.30pm in the Grand Hall at Bushey Academy in London Road, Bushey, features Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Symphony-cantata Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise). 

“We’re delighted to be marking our long association with George in this way,” said Rod Cowper, the Society’s Chair. “Under his dynamic musical leadership, the Society has developed into one of Hertfordshire’s leading choral ensembles. We much appreciate the way he creates exciting programmes of classical greats and contemporary works and keeps challenging us to achieve greater things.”

Vass, who is renowned for his enthusiasm for community music-making and for promoting up-and-coming singers, has also been music director to the BSO for 30 years and joked: “I’m really celebrating my 51st with the two musical organisations.”

He went on: “Both orchestra and choir work amazingly hard to achieve the excellent performances for which they have rightly become known. I am greatly honoured that both groups wish to celebrate our mutual association in this way.”

The three vocal soloists in the Bushey concert are sopranos Pippa Goss and Áine Cook, and tenor Christopher Bowen. Tickets are available at £18, £15, £1 children, or £17, £14, £1 children if pre-booked online or by telephone at BSO Ticket line 07467 248 258 or www.busheysymphony.org.uk.

"Glorious music, splendidly performed"

James Francis Brown, the composer, reviewed our concert in St Albans Cathedral on 30 April and pronounced it "remarkable". His review appeared in the Herts Advertiser on 12 May. Here it is in full:

Glorious music, splendidly performed

On Saturday night, a full audience enjoyed one of those occasions that reminds us of the remarkable fare available, on foot, to the residents of Hertfordshire and beyond. St Albans Choral Society, together with top-notch Orchestra Nova conducted by George Vass offered a programme that was as generous as it was intelligently devised.

Opening with a high-spirited performance of Haydn’s Te Deum in C, the choir signalled their intent with clear enunciation and exuberant rhythmic play with the orchestra. It was good to hear the authentic kettle drums, enhancing the 18th century flavour of this compact and exhilarating work.

Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, K618 was perfectly suited to the acoustic of the abbey, the choir exchanging the customary sepulchral hush for a brighter, even sunnier tone.

The ensuing Symphony No 40, one of Mozart’s most familiar works, shared this buoyant, air-filled approach; the brilliant young orchestra responding hand-in-glove to Vass’s concept of the work. This performance drew attention to the essentially vocal origin of Mozart’s music and gave emphasis to the Rococo charm of the work without neglecting the dramatic qualities so admired by the early Romantics. The first movement was nicely poised, shining a refreshing light on the second-subject and an elegantly-flowing account of the andante gave way to a minuet in which the contrasting trio seemed, again, to reveal a charming emphasis.

The finale demonstrated just what a virtuosic orchestra can achieve under the expert guidance of conductor Vass and Leader, Martin Smith. Dramatic placing of harmony, brilliant articulation and vitality in the bow-strokes together with pin-point accuracy of intonation ensured that the first half closed with real flare and a sense of anticipation.

The careful choice of works in the first half seemed to conspire and mingle in the mind during the interval, so that the calm generosity of Beethoven’s Mass in C was met with a receptive spirit in the minds of the audience. Nowhere near as often performed as the Missa Solemnis it is, nonetheless, a highly personal and characterful work. For this, the most substantial work of the evening, choir and orchestra were joined by four soloists who well understood the subtle, understated nature of the music. Daisy Brown’s sparklingly fresh yet splendidly controlled soprano was well matched by Ben Alden’s light and ethereal tenor. In the lower voices, the carrying, bell-like warmth of tone from mezzo-soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones and baritone Michael Bundy never strained the chamber-like intimacy of the vocal quartet.

But it is the choir that represents the universal humanity in this work and, again, this quality was conveyed with dramatic purpose, excellent intonation and rhythmic clarity. Highlights of the performance include a vigorous ‘Cum sancto spirito’ and a tense ‘Qui tollis’ (lovely clarinet playing here too), an intimate yet never over-wrought Benedictus and a heart-warming reprise of the music from the opening Kyrie in which the word pacem (peace) offers a magical revelation of the expressive kernel of the work.

It’s odd to note that Prince Esterházy II, who commissioned this work, found it to be ‘unbearably ridiculous and vile’. One wonders how the première must have sounded; by all accounts, it was far from ideal. I can’t imagine that a performance as committed and communicative as that given on Saturday night wouldn’t have persuaded him otherwise.

James Francis Brown

www.jamesfrancisbrown.com

 

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