June 16, 2014
‘May the choirs of angels lead you into paradise’ says the subtitle to this performance by Oxford City Choir (directed by Duncan Aspden). A good summation - and excellent venue, Merton College Chapel - with its beautiful ceiling adorned with harp- and lute-playing cherubim. It looks like we might be in for a kind of ‘angelic pandemic’. The programme states that ‘Oxford City Choir is a chamber choir of keen amateurs drawn from all realms of life’. Could that be heavenly realms, as well as earthly ones?
A strange tinkling sound reminds me to turn my phone off. Some clever bods at Merton might have just completed a research thesis finding out which angelic tinkle most resembles a Nokia tinkle, and everyone in the audience reaches for their handbags.
‘Alleluiaaaaaaa’, the 34 strong choir with sopranos, altos, tenors and basses transform the English language into sweet music for ‘Song for Athene’ by Tavener. Then comes what can be called modern/classical church music by Miskinis, Gjeilo and Todd. This takes the form of Latin psalms put together with organ music, and is a highly melodic section of the performance. Director Duncan Aspen tells us in his homily the Sanctus was composed by Gjeilo on a cheap kids' keyboard and invites us to guess which 90’s pop song it pays tribute to. Wow. I’m still trying to work out if it was ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ or ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. Either way, it sounds closer to Friedrich Handel than Kurt Cobain.
The highlight of the first half for me is the Mendelssohn piece ‘For He Shall Give His Angels (Elijah). This wraps up what has been an interesting selection of celestial offerings. The Mendelssohn is serious and joyful, the choir lifts it off their music scores as though it has wings.
The second half moves further into time and space with a selection by Guerrero, Stainer, Vaughan Williams and Fauré. The trumpets are sounding again; both in English and Latin, the choir takes us through hymns, psalms, masses, and prose from ‘Pilgrim's Progress’ (the Valiant-For-Truth piece by Vaughan Williams) towards the end.
‘Over already?’ says the college porter as we leave. Anything more would have been in excessum. The angels have gone back to heaven, and we head to the pub.