For me, Jubilate are Oxford’s premium chamber choir. It would be hard to beat them for affordable quality classical music. Their most recent concert, An Oxford Elegy, was no exception, even given its unusual namesake piece.
First word has to go to first impressions. The concert venue, St Barnabas Church, makes a strong impression indeed. Turn into the church and you are greeted by a stunning (and massive) ceiling fresco of Jesus against a blue starry background. This is surrounded throughout the church by bold mosaic-style pictures and glittering giltwork. Amazingly, it manages to be both opulent and highly tasteful. If you’ve not been yet I urge you to drop in, concert or not.
As a stage for choral music, St Barnabas could not have been better. Jubilate performed a range of pieces for choir, string and organ to a very high standard. Soaring voices filled the vaulting space, and delicate sections were clear as mountain stream even from the back of the church. Complicated harmonies were delivered such that each element could be distinctly heard, and no one instrument or voice drowned out the others.
The ‘An Oxford Elegy’ concert included a mix of orchestral and choral music, mostly with a religious theme, and ending with the highly unusual piece from which the concert took its title. An Oxford Elegy, the piece, was for me quite challenging. It is a 20-25 minute-long performance where the choral and orchestral elements accompany a narrator who reads out excerpts from Matthew Arnold’s poems (mostly The Scholar Gypsy). The skillfully performed accompaniment was disconcerting and haunting, almost creepy. The narration, masterfully delivered by Brian Kay, was to me a litany of weighty yet incoherent proclamations. I had never heard anything like it before. Though I was delighted to have had the experience, in the end it left me feeling that I hadn’t quite ‘got it’. Perhaps had the piece come earlier in the concert I might have had more resources with which to engage with this challenging piece.
Other than an Oxford Elegy, Jubilate performed pieces by Holst, Elgar, Finzi, and Parry. Did I mention that they are very good at what they do? The pieces were well chosen for the setting, and a special mention has to go to the rendition of Holst’s Two Psalms. The effect achieved by starting with lighter voices or solos which then quickly built to shaking crescendos was quite arresting.
I left the concern with a broad smile (and a numb bottom - bring a cushion!); an edifying, well spent evening. I very much look forward to Jubilate’s future performances.
P.S. Many thanks to Simon Littlewood, who wrote the excellent and comprehensive programme, which helped with the writing of this review.