Baritone soloist Ross Ramgobin's clear tones and gravitas were highly praised by reviewer Mary Cook in a piece about the Society's "Autumn Reflections" concert, which launched the new season on 8 November in St Saviour's Church.
Cook said the programme, put together by Music Director George Vass and featuring works by four contemporary composers, was one of the most challenging of the Society's to date. She writes of the sopranos' "pure ethereal sound" in Gabriel Jackson's Countless and wonderful are the ways to praise God, and describes the sharply contrasting moods of Cecilia McDowall's Stabat Mater and James Francis Brown's The Most Fortunate Generations.
Her review, an edited version of which appeared in the Herts Advertiser of 4 December, can be read in full below.
ST ALBANS CHORAL SOCIETY: AUTUMN REFLECTIONS, 8 NOVEMBER
In what must have been one of its most challenging programmes to date, St Albans Choral Society launched its seventieth anniversary season in St Saviour’s Church on Saturday evening with a programme of ‘Autumn Reflections’ by contemporary British composers, three of whom were in the audience.
Conductor George Vass has a reputation for promoting and commissioning new music in his role as the Society’s Music Director and also Artistic Director of the Presteigne Festival.
Stabat Mater was commissioned by the Choral Society from composer-in-association Cecilia McDowall to mark its Diamond Jubilee in 2004, and it received another performance on Saturday. As in the earlier performance, a children’s chorus was drawn from Parmiter’s School in Watford which has a strong musical bias. The work’s close and sometimes dissonant harmonies convey the sorrows of the Virgin Mary at the foot of the Cross in seven movements in palindromic structure shared between the choir, childrens’ chorus and baritone solo. Maestro Vass favours a natural, unforced tone from the choir; perhaps on this occasion, a more mature sound would have provided a greater contrast to the youthful voices of Parmiter's. Baritone soloist Ross Ramgobin was most touching in his two solos. His clear tones, with an almost Italian-tenor quality to the high notes, cut through the warm sound from the chorus. The work ended with a single muted horn note fading to silence, the audience reluctant to break the spell.
Composer Gabriel Jackson wanted “a text that was sacred but not liturgical”. He selected Countless and wonderful are the ways to praise God, from Estonian writer Doris Kareva, part of a longer work described by the author as “a message of hope through beauty”. After an assertive statement of the first three words, the texture of the music changes with the orchestral lines chasing each other in a lively canon; the sopranos then return restating the opening words which gradually calm the frenetic orchestral episode. The sopranos maintained a pure, ethereal sound which was very effective, while all voices clearly articulated the central section with its short phrases rather in the style of Poulenc. The viola solo was played by Philip Hall with great tenderness.
From optimism, to a stark warning about the fragility of our planet. The Most Fortunate Generations by James Francis Brown to words by Brian Levinson refers to those born in the 40s and 50s who have exploited the world’s resources and are in danger of leaving an “environmental mess” for future generations. The opening warning motif on trumpet is developed with other material throughout the work. Choir members are to be commended for sustaining the mood of this piece with its bleak and disturbing message. In this, the world première of the revised version, Ross Ramgobin brought a gravitas to his solos, the words of which were given to a narrator in the original; and again when joining with the choir in the very dark and harrowing ending.
Will Todd is known as a composer and jazz pianist, but his version of The Lord is my Shepherd was a serene and beautiful setting well suited to the natural sound of the choir. The programme also included a lyrical and delicately phrased performance of Elgar’s Serenade for String Orchestra.
The members of Orchestra Nova displayed their usual high standard of technical ability and musicianship under Maestro Vass who brought forward the composers Cecilia McDowall, Gabriel Jackson and James Francis Brown to receive warm applause from the capacity audience.