On Saturday night, Jubilate Chamber Choir (under the directorship of Benjamin Nicholas) and the Berkeley Sinfonia came together for an evening of 20th and 21st century music.
Gabriel Jackson's Countless and Wonderful are the Ways to Praise God for choir and strings started the programme: a glorious, jubilant first note from the choir, then the strings came rushing in like waves with the choir, sometimes weaving in and around them 'crazed and lovely' – words from the Estonian poet, Doris Kareva, who inspired this piece.
Next came Edward Elgar's gentle Serenade for Strings Op 20. The soaring lyrical first movement is followed by the sweet, pure sound of the second movement; the final movement starts in a similar fashion but is more robust and upbeat. A sheer delight. The concert notes informed us that parts of the Serenade were performed by the Worcester Ladies' Orchestral Class that Elgar led: Elgar frequently tried out new pieces on this group of players.
The first piece by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Valiant-for-Truth, masterfully performed by Jubilate Choir, comes across as quite traditional church music. Although an avowed agnostic, Vaughan Williams wrote a lot of church music. The words of this piece come from Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, depicting the moment that the pilgrim comes to the end of his life and is carried over to the other shore.
The highly accomplished violin soloist in Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending was Tel Aviv-born Neta Rudich. Her 'lark' was slow and measured – 'dreaming its way along' as the first review of the piece put it. Supported by the full orchestra, her 'lark' soared gentle and beautiful – 'a silver chain of sound . . . to lift us with him as he goes' (the work was inspired by George Meredith's poem of the same name). Vaughan Williams wrote The Lark Ascending on the eve of war in 1914, but it gives no hint of the horrors to come, rather painting a picture of tranquillity and beauty.
In marked contrast, the last piece by Vaughan Williams, Dona Nobis Pacem written in 1936, is not peaceful at all. The work is based largely on Walt Whitman's Dirge for Two Veterans, the death of a father and son. The piece starts with the beautiful, serene voice of the soprano Cecilia Osmond gently begging for peace but her plea is drowned by the noise of war: 'Beat, beat drums, blow bugles blow'. Every now and then she manages to make herself heard before being overwhelmed again. The words are brutal ('Leave not the bridegroom quiet – no happiness must he have now with his bride'), the music violent. The baritone (Julian Empett) seems more positive but his lyrical notes again belie the brutality of war: 'Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage'. The choir comes marching back, every now and then interrupted by the sorrowful soprano and the upbeat baritone, building up in the end to a powerful crescendo of hope.The acoustics of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin are wonderful. Sitting at such close proximity to the orchestra and singers, you can wonder at the richness of individuals, the double bass in the Elgar, the solo violin, the singers etc. while being absorbed in the beauty of the whole. What a privilege to hear such outstanding soloists, what a joy to listen to the Jubilate Chamber Choir and Berkeley Sinfonia. An evening of pure pleasure.