The London Festival of Contemporary Church Music
by Michael Church
Professional critics who take their hatchets to amateur performances should beware: as a member of Highgate Choral Society, I know whereof I speak. This 180-strong group has a venerable history, and a rather good opinion of itself: it learns new music quickly, and contains within its ranks some fine choristers. Recently we gave a public performance of that choral Mount Everest, Bach’s Mass in B minor, on which the critic of the Camden New Journal had some harsh things to say. We tried to laugh it off, but knew he was right: re-auditioning, much soul-searching, and extra rehearsals have resulted in a dramatic self-transformation.
So I was prepared to pull my punches for concerts by the University College London Chamber Choir and the choir of St Pancras Parish Church. The context was The London Festival of Contemporary Church Music, and UCL had opted to give us some seldom-performed carols by the recently-deceased Nicholas Maw. This music was a surprise: he gave the medievalism of his originals some harmonically skewed but easy-on-the-ear new twists. As the conductor Charles Peebles argued in his pre-performance talk, creating good, strong harmony for a cappella choral music is one of the big compositional challenges.
These young singers were clearly “amateur”, in that they lacked the spit-and-polish finesse – or vanity – of a professional choir, but they made a warm, strong sound; their violinist Wilson Cheng delivered a performance of Maw’s Stanza for Solo Violin in which the implied harmonies were expertly realised. But I was entirely unprepared for the stunning performance by St Pancras Church Choir. This group of budding professionals delivered classics by Orlando Gibbons, William Croft, Luca Marenzio and the sublime Peter Phillips with a wonderfully clean and vibrant sound. The Stanford anthem they included had none of his usual sentimentality, and the dark new work they premiered by Antony Pitts came in finely sculpted waves of polyphony. It was quite something to sit in this grand church, proofed against the traffic roaring past outseide, and hear such fabulous music free of charge.