The City of Oxford Choir gave their termly concert, Songs of Love and Loss, last Saturday in the splendid Queen’s College Chapel. It started well when a delightful lady stepped forth to sing the health and safety information about the emergency exit and the toilet location, etc. British Airways could with benefit adopt this idea, as we all paid close attention and even applauded, not something you regularly hear en route to the skies.
The concert proper kicked off with Holst’s charming setting of the Cornish folksong, I love my love. The choir responded like a finely tuned instrument, eager and enthusiastic under the gifted direction of Duncan Aspden. They watched him like the clichéd hawks. The tempo changes were breathtaking and the articulations clear through some tricky changes; we had the words in the programme, but didn’t need them.
Most of the concert was unaccompanied, so all organist Steven Grahl had to do most of the time was provide an initial note or two. However, he did get to perform two very accomplished organ solos, one in each half: the first a chorale prelude by J. S. Bach; and the second a lovely version of the beautiful Welsh hymn tune Rhosymedre. Different, but we enjoyed them both.
Highlight of the first half for me was Benjamin Britten’s Antiphon; the choir ‘calling’ primarily in unison at the altar end of the chapel, with responses from three solo sopranos like angels in the organ loft at the other end, bolstered by a worldly chorus of men down below. Just magical.
The first half closed with Morten Lauridsen’s Ubi Caritas et Amor, tricky stuff which can easily get out of control, but the choir handled it with great skill. It sounded very beautiful. You could hear just why Lauridsen is the highest selling American choral composer in history.
We enjoyed our interval drinks in the Provost’s Garden, standing near the gnarly wisteria, and went back eagerly for an equally pleasurable second half.
Following three rather sadder pieces, the choir enchanted the audience with four English folksongs collected and freely adapted by Ralph Vaughan Williams. These compositions lived up to the programme notes: ‘subtle perorations with evocative textures and masterly harmonic twists.’ The choir’s dynamics and tempo changes, to alter mood and communicate the meaning in the texts, were exemplary.
They finished off with a particular favourite of the choir and its followers: Shenandoah, in the famous arrangement by James Erb, a piece which again allowed them the opportunity to demonstrate their superb tuning and control throughout.
This was an outstanding concert, and such a privilege to be there.