Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Radical Masses: Vasari Singers @ St Martin in the Fields, London

27 September 2006

Will Todd‘s Mass in Blue was premiered in The Barbican in 2004, and is released on CD this month.To celebrate the release, the Vasari Singers under Jeremy Backhouse performed the piece as part of a selection of choral music in the beautiful setting of the St Martin in the Fields church.

The Mass is an often startling concoction of genres. One might imagine the pairing of Latin text and jazz music to be too much, and admittedly, the result is neither spiritually convincing nor particularly good jazz.

Luckily, the pounding rhythms and gleeful reimagining of the text into ballads, Negro spirituals and gospel choruses produce a work of theatrical intensity and incredible energy.

Bethany Halliday‘s soprano must take most credit for this latter judgement. Musically, she was nothing special, with much swooping (especially in the Kyrie) and shrillness up above, while her body contortions suggested an uneasiness with the high part writing. It was thus up to her immense charisma, radiant smile and sparkling dress to capture attention, which they did. On the piano, the composer himself performed well, though his dynamic palate could do with widening, while Jim Fleeman on drums and Gareth Huw Davies on double bass achieved what they wanted to.

If one can give Will Todd’s other, shorter contributions to the programme one compliment, it would be that they passed by in a flash. The Rose, Lead me Lord and Lighting the Way do sound very similar to an ear unfamiliar with the works, but the excellent singing of the choir gave them an innocence and sincerity. If occasionally a choral leap upwards was unsteady, one could not fault the dedication of the singers. Even when the sopranos were pushed up into their higher registers in the final stanza of The Rose, pitching and tone were perfect. Soprano soloist Fiona McWilliams was quiet but plausible in the second piece.

Before the interval, the main event was Palestrina’s great Missa Papae Marcelli, a difficult piece for any choir, with its complex polyphony and long Credo requiring immense stamina. This piece confirmed my suspicion of the choir that the tenor section needs a lot of work. Even though there were six of them, I was only able to hear one strong voice, albeit a very powerful and intelligently used one.

Otherwise, the choir performed admirably. The sopranos especially impressed with a forceful, vibrato-less sound. A couple of unsteadily pitched entries aside, intonation was uniformly good, and conductor Backhouse adopted sensible tempi. Sadly, he could not control the audience as well as he did his choir, for continuous interruptions of polite applause threatened to disrupt the introspective mood of the piece. Previously, Lotti’s Crucifixus a 8 started the concert in purposeful fashion, although the numerous s sounds could have been dealt with more imaginatively. The same complaint could be made against the treatment of Gesualdo’s O vos omnes.

Whatever problems the choir encountered, their communication and ensemble delivery gave the performances an air of biting confidence. Indeed, this community spirit even led to a few sneaking to the bar in the interval for a quick glass of wine. Or was it water? The highlight of the concert was the Mass in Blue, and the enthusiastic audience response confirmed that this piece will enjoy much success in the concert hall and on CD. Make sure to catch it.

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