Classical and Opera Reviews

Skylark: Seven Words from the Cross @ St John’s Smith Square, London

30 March 2018


Matthew Guard
(Photo: Sasha Greenhalgh)

The watchword for the American choral group Skylark’s concert on Good Friday was ‘compact’. Lasting only an hour, the concert (including encore) contained 17 pieces that were performed with elegance, brilliance, focus, and a minimum of fuss, such that sixty minutes of music left the audience very satisfied indeed. Their musical director, Matthew Guard, conducted with small, precise gestures, which gave maximum effect: every note was hand-crafted, shades of speed and dynamic were meticulously observed, and the choral blend was superlative.

The seemingly Roman-Catholic title belied the content, as the seven words from the cross served as thematic headings for small groups of pieces that were fresh, open and breezy with New-World Protestantism: fuguing tunes, shape-note music, revivalist melodies, African-American spirituals and hymns from the Sacred Harp tradition, mingled with some contemporary (and some not-so-contemporary) European music.

William Billings, arguably the first American composer to be known in Europe, was well represented through his easily recognisable  pieces When Jesus Wept, Jordan and Plymton – the latter containing several unexpected (but delightful) Purcellian flourishes in the middle verse. David’s Lament was given a brisk account which was slightly startling to those of us who know it in a more sedate form, but it worked well.

The musical traditions of the South – African-American and Sacred Harp – were expressed through the sensitively performed spirituals Were you there? (given an elegant free-form gospel treatment), Deep River (lush harmonies and chromatic shifts accompanying Dana Whiteside’s yearning solo) and Amazing Grace in a polished but simple arrangement for women’s voices. The simple hymn Just as I am was performed in a revivalist/gospel style with a solo bass and a solid underpinning chorus.

The open, fifths-and-unison sound that characterises shape-note music somehow injected a new freshness and precision into the old-world pieces performed. Hildegard von Bingen’s Karitas Abundat felt more free-form than ever; Poulenc’s Vinea mea electa (from Quatre motets pour un temps de penitence) came over with a brand-new precision, such that every one of Poulenc’s quirky harmonies pinged out with renewed clarity and brilliance; John Sheppard’s In manus tuas was given all of the subtle shadings in dynamic that music of the period requires, amply proving that one of Skylark’s many talents is a ‘feel’ for 16th-century polyphony.

From the 20th and 21st centuries, Skylark chose pieces by Hugo Distler (Ich wollt, daß ich daheime wär), Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (Death may dissolve) and Anna Thorvaldsdottir (Þann heilaga kross), all of which provided well-judged contrast to the shape-note material, through the use of overlapping suspensions and note clusters. Thorvaldsdottir’s piece, though, bridged the harmonic gap neatly, through an opening section consisting of a built-up cluster of second intervals (like an organ being leaned on), but quickly moving to a simple folky tune underscored by a drone, that instantly conjured simple wooden churches in a chilly landscape.

The concert closed with a delightful bluegrass arrangement of Shawn Kirchner’s Angel Band that highlighted the mellifluous blend of Skylark’s close-harmony male voices.

This was Skylark’s first visit to the UK; their return is eagerly anticipated.


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Skylark: Seven Words from the Cross @ St John’s Smith Square, London


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