Commotio, the Oxford choir, will be performing on two dates in June - Sat 11th June at St John the Evangelist Chuch on Iffley Road, and on Sat 23rd July at St Nicholas' Church in the village of Chadlington. I went along to Iffley Road yesterday to watch a rehearsal for those concerts and to meet the choir's founder and conductor, Matthew Perry, and the guest conductor Bob Chilcott, who composed most of the featured works and is one of Britain's best-known composers of choral music, both sacred and secular.
The name Commotio (Latin: an excitement or agitation) came to Mr Berry as he and a colleague put in a night-shift in the library at University College many moons ago. He's employed in the music publishing industry, and in the course of his job travels a lot at home and abroad. He's ideally placed consequently to seek out his speciality, little known choral music; that's to say both neglected pieces by well-known names, and high-quality music from sources little-known in this country. Commotio is an amateur choir which rehearses every week in the university terms and gives between 4 and 6 public concerts in any given year. They have a close connection with the Naxos label - to the classical music aficionado that name alone is a guarantee of quality, with a couple of new releases in the pipeline. So we're talking here of one of Britain's top amateur choirs.
Mr Berry oozes affection for and pride in his choir; I might describe the relationship as avuncular were not some members of the choir a good many years older than their conductor! Each has an allotted seat at rehearsal and standing spot in performance; on the occasions that a member leaves the choir, so the replacement occupies that same slot. It's typical of Mr Berry's warm approach that when seeking new material for his choir, say in a library in Budapest, he told me he's inclined to summon up their faces in his mind's eye in order to visualise the suitability of the music for their voices. In this respect the amateur ensemble has an advantage over the pro-outfit where the revolving door of the freelancer's diary whirls apace. I believe a future working up of the material into a full drama would be compelling stuff.
Bob Chilcott will be conducting a number of the pieces for the forthcoming concerts and yesterday he led the rehearsal. The centrepiece will be his own Nidaros Jazz Mass (Nidaros is the ancient name for the Norwegian town of Trondheim; Mr Chilcott has strong links with Scandinavia), supported by Jazz Songs of Innocence (from the William Blake verses), and 'Scarborough Fair', the old folk ballad going back to the 12th century, if not earlier (so a few years before Simon and Garfunkel collared it). Mr Chilcott rehearsed this with meticulous care, paying great attention to the phrasing, but leavening the studious atmosphere with humour. He travels often to Japan and has a big following there as well in the USA.
The two concerts will also feature four short pieces from Shakespeare sonnets and plays, including 'Orpheus and his Lute' composed by Thomas Hyde of Worcester College.
And Lorenzo's magical soliloquy 'How Sweet the Moonlight Sleeps' from The Merchant of Venice, set to music by Henry Leslie, a Victorian and contemporary of the construction of St John the Evangelist Church:
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.