The Oxford Early Music Festival and co-promoter Music at Oxford should be commended for having Merton College Chapel Choir on its program. The audience who attended this event were won over by its brilliance and will no doubt continue to support the choir and this wonderful musical experience. For visitors to Oxford, Merton College Entrance is not exceedingly obvious but is well worth a visit.
The ease in which Benjamin Nicholas former Director of Music until late 2012 conducted the first five pieces showed the craftsmanship of his conducting. He encouraged and nurtured every last ounce of vocal clarity and soundscape from the choir. His love of choral music and his enjoyment of conducting the college choir again was telling.
Peter Phillips who conducted the second half of the program is an alumni of Winchester and St John's College and an internationally recognised and respected conductor. Choir members smiled and truly gave their all, in response to his conducting. His own work 'Ave Jesu Christe' made the most of the intricacies of voices, lyrics and score.
The acoustics in this ancient chapel made the choral voices throughout the entire concert dance and float to the very top of the decorative wooden ceiling. The music resonated and rang out while the choir were perfectly framed by the gilt gold mount that surrounded the altar, a piece of the Crucifixion thought to be a work of Tintoretto.
As the sun set behind the early nineteenth century stained glass in the Merton College Chapel there was momentary silence before the full house erupted into its final applause. Some mouths were agape, speechless and overcome by the sheer aural spectacle of Striggio's Ecce beatum Lucem, a magnificent motet written for 40 parts and 5 choirs. Conductor Peter Phillips, who also founded the famous Tallis Scholars, signalled to the audience to refrain from applauding and then asked if the choir might be permitted to sing the piece again. The choir processed out past the audience and graced us with this encore from the ante chapel. Having such a special work performed at all is a rare opportunity, so hearing it again was indeed the pinnacle moment in an exquisite and spiritually uplifting evening concert.