I have to admit to being a little late to this evening in the cathedral-like medieval "Wool Church" of St Mary's, hidden away down a tiny dark street opposite Chipping Norton theatre (no parking! and beware Church LANE: at least one other latecomer nearly got stuck down it. It's Church STREET you want). It was appropriately daunting to be let in by the vicar to the sight and sound of the Choral Society in full swing in a venue packed with hundreds of concert goers. It was a delight for that to be followed by the dulcet tones of tenor Matthew Minter ringing out above sensitive accompaniment from Cotswold Baroque Players as they embarked upon the first recitative of Part One: 'Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned'. Quite.
Most humans who have listened to classical music on the radio or been near a choir will know the famous 'Hallelujah Chorus' from Messiah. As well as being familiar on the ear, it's also one of the excerpts from the full work which is commonly knocked out in impromptu day workshops as 'Come and Sing' Messiahs (e.g. bring enthusiasm, a sandwich and your own score; perform to the public later that evening). I sang the 'Chorus' in my school choir and it enjoyed it then. My second admission of this review is that I'd never got round to hearing the whole work. I half suspected it would be the tip of a gargantuan musical iceberg – and lo, it sure is. Over two and a half hours into the evening, we all stood up (a tradition allegedly established in the reign of George II - thank you, programme) for the couple of minutes with which all were familiar. The timpani came in rousingly (the bass slightly out of tune, but who cares?! HALLELUJAH!), heaven's trumpets punctuated punchily and we sang bitterly along. Glorious. (That wasn't the end, by the way. In total there are three parts, two short intervals and the whole thing took three hours. Not for the faint-hearted or skinny-bottomed. BYO cushion.)
The evening was extremely professional; you might not guess that the Choral Society is comprised of keen amateurs, doesn't require audition for entry and stages only two or three concerts per year (no wonder they are so well-attended – I'm sure they could fill venues across the year if they wished). The Cotswold Baroque Players' mini-orchestra complemented the singers wonderfully and the professional guest soprano, alto, bass and tenor impressed both in voice and in resume (Royal Academy, Guildhall, Royal Northern & Guildhall respectively). The Society's highly respected Conductor and Musical Director Peter Hunt has worked with singers for over thirty years (how, as he looks little over that, is beyond me) and clearly knows just how to get the best out of his performers. Enunciation was good throughout, there was no evidence of flagging despite the vast feat being undertaken. Once we moved to facing the musicians there was no trouble catching the wording of the libretto (though it was great to have it printed in the programme too). There were also lots of shiny, happy faces and free mince pies. It was a great atmosphere. My concert-going partner (ok, my Mum) was moved to tears.
Despite not being the most religious of persons (agnostic), or a big fan of the Bible as such, or that keen on excessive melisma (that thing Mariah Carey does where it takes two minutes to sing one syllable) and being the kind of person who is reminded of Peter Greenaway films by the sound of a counter tenor – I actually really enjoyed this. FYI, the melisma in Messiah occurs during Part One where the sopranos and altos in the chorus have to sing 57 notes during the word 'born'. See here if you don't believe me. Melisma may be dreadful, but it's terribly impressive when it's done properly. I do like big impressive churches and large numbers of people singing together – there's something about that combination that works, for a reason – and this put several balls in the back of the musical/spiritual net.
Chippy Choir accepts new members, rehearses on Wednesday evenings and is next singing Bernstein, Britten & McDowall in Deddington on 7 May 2016.