Spring Concert 2013

Ham and High 25 April 2013
by David Winskill
North London Chorus and Meridian Sinfonia
Conductor Murray Hipkin
Soprano Robyn Allegra Parton
Counter-tenor James Laing
Tenor Nick Pritchard
Baritone Adrian Powter
J S Bach Mass in B minor

Choir toasts conductor's decade with an astonishing Bach Mass

For many in Saturday's audience , this would have been the second time in a week that they had seen Murray Hipkin conducting. As reported in last week's Broadway Ham & High, NLC members appeared in the first series on ITV, standing in as Morse's amateur choir. The ladies in their little black numbers from 1964 stole the show!

For television, they sang Mozart's Mass in C. In a St James's bathed in sunshine, they delivered an astonishing performance of Bach's Mass in B. The work had been the centrepiece of an ambitious Bachathon on Radio 3 on Easter Monday, where it was described as "one of musical history's towering master-works". The audience realised that this was to be a great evening as the sad but not solemn Kyrie burst from the choir. This gave way to the first of many excellent contributions by the soloists - a lively duet, between soprano Robyn Allegra Parton and the gifted countertenor James Laing, driven by the undercurrent of the double bass.

The Gloria takes the form of nine parts, some performed by the chorus as well as four solo movements. Urgent trumpets open the Gloria and the choir respond with a burst of thrilling, intense joyous singing - heads nodding and rocking, music rising and falling and quick stolen glances to reassure themselves they are on course.

The Gratias Qui Sedes was a magical pairing of James and the oboe d'amore. This was followed by the horn playing of Anneke Scott in support of Andrew Powter's delivery of the Quoniam. The Meridian Sinfonia, using period instruments, turned in a great performance although Anneke's horn looked like something from an illicit still found in the Deep South. The relationship Murray has developed with the choir over his decade with the baton (the concert was a tenth birthday present to himself) was reflected in the way, at the end of a solo piece, the choir seemed to rock forward on the balls of its collective feet in anticipation of the moment when he let them loose to sing again.

At almost two hours long, the Mass in B is a challenge to the most experienced choir. On Saturday, North London Chorus did much to enhance the respect and admiration they have earned during their relationship with Murray. I'm looking forward to their twenty-first.


Summer Concert 2012

Ham and High 5 July 2012
by David Winskill
North London Chorus and Meridian Sinfonia
Conductor Murray Hipkin
Soprano Claire Pendleton
Mezzo-Soprano Rebecca Stockland
Tenor Nick Pritchard
Baritone Wyn Pencarreg
Organ Nicholas Chalmers
Dvorak Mass in D
Howells An English Mass
Rheinberger Organ Concerto No. 1

Mass in all its drama from crystal clear Chorus

Dvorak is best known to British audiences for the passage from his New World Symphony used in the Hovis television ads. Saturday's performance of his little known Mass in D is, perhaps, his Bread of Heaven. He clearly liked England, visiting nine times. This version of the Mass was first performed at Crystal Palace, so there is a rather nice symmetry that, almost 120 years later, it is being performed in the shadow of Alexandra Palace, the northern sister of Crystal Palace.

Dvorak's anchoring in the romantic movement is evident almost immediately in the choir's rich vocals and the string accompaniment for the slow, beautiful Kyrie eleison, then giving away to a sudden outburst of a cappella in the Christe elision.

The second movement is the wondrous Gloria, proclaimed out loud by the Meridian Sinfonia - one of the largest orchestras that North London Chorus have worked with. But the Chorus was never over-shadowed, always presenting crystal clear (clipped even) and with substantial reserves of power to be called on by conductor Murray Hipkin.

The soloists were excellent and the echoed duet in the Credo between soprano Claire Pendleton and the Chorus was fabulous and will linger long in the memory of the sadly modest audience. There was also the drama of the Crucifixus - shouted by the Chorus then contrasted by the glorious whispered assertion of the divinity of Christ by tenor Nick Pritchard; a supremely powerful and tender moment.

Howell's An English Mass formed the post interval programme. Written in 1955, this mystical piece is very much of its time and sits alongside 50s' contemporary experimentation in the visual and cinema arts. The programme writes of the Howells scale: "The most distinguished components of the scale are its augmented fourth and flattened seventh degrees, transforming a traditional major scale into its modal relative." What this adds up to is that his Mass is a bit of a challenge and certainly not foot tapper!

But, even in the depths of this serious work, there were elements of humour and levity. In the Credo are the words "And I believe in the Holy Ghost.." Howells scored the music to recall a 50s sound track to a ghost film, complete with harp.

The Choir and Meridian handed in a first-class performance. However, Murray suddenly stopped them during the Credo and they started again - he had spotted a flaw in the performance. This indicated his professional and intellectual honesty and did him great credit.

Spring Concert 2012

Ham and High 29 March 2012
by David Winskill
North London Chorus and Meridian Sinfonia
Conductor Murray Hipkin
Soprano Lucy Roberts
Soprano Kristi Bryson
Counter-Tenor Iestyn Morris
Tenor Peter Kirk
Tenor Nick Pritchard
Handel Israel in Egypt

Chorus takes plagues in their stride

This 1739 Biblical oratorio has long been popular with choral societies and audiences. Saturday was no exception: arriving at St James's, the audience was greeted by a sold out notice pinned to the door - quite an achievement, bearing in mind that at least two other local choral groups were performing that night.

Led by conductor Murray Hipkin, the North London Chorus had turned out one of their largest ever choirs to pack the raked seating over the altar.

Handel's text, from Exodus and Psalms, deals with the Israelites' exile in and flight from Egypt. The sombre funereal opening (played by the excellent Meridian Sinfoni with their baroque assemblage of period instruments) quickly gave way to And The Children of Israel Sighed and signalled a busy and special evening for this confident chorus.

Part the First contains extensive and well worked references to the seven plagues (although a count up of the horrors visited on the unfortunate Egyptians reveals at least a dozen unpleasantnesses). Water turned into blood, locusts chomped, fiery hail fell, much smoting of the first born - all were solemnly listed. It might have just been me, but there was something a little comic about 90 singers in dinner jackets and black dresses singing about frogs, flies and lice!

The work comprises mainly of eight part double choruses - a difficult form for even a professional group. However, Murray took the challenge as an opportunity to show what a close relationship he has forged with his singers. Both before and after the interval, there are several "runs" for the chorus: the interplay and interweaving between the singers really showed off the high standards that the NLC is increasingly setting. He leads by transferring his enthusiasm for the music to his eager and attentive choir.

His sensitivity to moments of high drama propelled the choir to show their ability to articulate and project in fragments such as He Rebuked The Red Sea. Pure theatre.

We got to hear much more of the soloists post interval: a beautiful duet between sopranos with The Lord Is My Strength then a heartfelt The Lord Is A Man Of War from the tenors. Iestyn Morris, the counter tenor, was amazing, If you don't want to be greeted with a sold out sign at their next concert, visit their website to see how to get advanced tickets.

Winter Concert 2011

(:div1 class="span12"); Ham and High 1 December 2011
by David Winskill
Conductor Murray Hipkin
Mezzo-soprano Catherine Hopper
Baritone Derek Welton
Organ James McVinnie
Cello Jonathan Few
Soprano Robyn Allegra Parton
Tenor Peter Kirk

Duruflé Requiem
Britten Rejoice in the Lamb
Tavener Svyati
Messiaen L'ascension Parts II and III

Organ's welcome return for an evening of brilliant performances

For their summer concert (Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle) North London Chorus had to ship a charming harmonium called Rosie down from Yorkshire. For last Saturday's concert the magnificent St James' resident organ was again available after a 13-year fundraising effort and 18 months of intensive restoration. The sound it produced was worth every penny of the £223,000 bill.

The opening work was Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb which is based on a poem by Christopher Smart. It is described in the programme as idiosyncratic and includes the fabulous lines: "For I will consider my cat Jeoffry" and "Let Ithamar minister with a chamois". It has a whispered start with a single, sustained note from the organ (James McVinnie) that seems to offer a promise of so much more to come.

And indeed it does with the astonishing Svyati (1995) by John Tavener. Johnathan Few played the solo cello, representing the voice of the Eastern Orthodox priest, as Murray Hipkin drew a sustained, almost basso profundo, drone from the men as the women chant Holy God, Holy and Strong. This produced one of the most intense experiences I have had in a church and was warmly appreciated by the almost full house.

Duruflé's Requiem really allowed Murray to work with the choir and organ to produce some wonderful moments - especially the tender and powerful contrasts on the Domine Jesu Christe.

All the soloists contributed much to the evening but mention must be made of the incredible Catherine Hopper (heavy with child) and the ethereal magic she brought to the Sanctus.

Murray has exploited the fabulous rapport he has with this choir, giving them the confidence to deliver some brilliant performances of some challenging and very complex pieces.


Summer Concert 2011

Ham and High 30 June 2011
by David Winskill
The North London Chorus and Orchestra
Conductor Murray Hipkin
Soprano Janis Kelly
Mezzo-soprano Rosie Aldridge
Tenor Adrian Dwyer
Bass John Molloy
Harmonium Jonathan Scott
Pianos Jeremy Silver and Catherine Borner

Rossini Petite Messe Solennelle/Lauridsen O Magnum Mysterium/Barber Agnus Dei/Adams This is Prophetic/Karg-Elert Totentanz

Far from being a Messe, this is beautiful

For the first time for ages North London Chorus blessed us with sunny weather. And conductor Murray Hipkin added to the blessings with an ambitious, varied evening of works by Some lesser known composers – Lauridsen, Karg-Elert, Adarns, Barber and Rossini.

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No orchestra though: instead, two Imposing black grands and a charming little harmonium called Rosie (guess what wood she was made of!). The programme was probably planned with an eye to the cost of hiring the pianos and getting Rosie down from her Yorkshire home. After the choral version of Adams' Adagio for Strings (the desperately sad piece played at funerals and solemn occasions) came the main work - Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle.

A longish piece, said by Napoleon III to be “...neither petite, nor solemn, nor a mess!". It starts in an almost jaunty way with the harmonium (beautifully played by Jonathan Scott) punctuating the Kyrie. This was a theme of the work as the solemn grand notes of the grands contrasted with the cheekv almost humorously comic noises produced by Rosie.

At times it was possible to imagine being on a seaside pier or in a music hall rather than a church. With fantastic support from a gifted line up of soloists (including the incredible NLC patron Janis Kelly) 'the chorus continues to get better and better. It shows not just in the sounds they make but in the seemingly effortless way they tackle the demands of the evening's complex music and also how' laid back and relaxed they are becoming.

Desert Island Discs featured this work in February when Jon Snow picked the Messe as his favourite. I understood why as I listened to NLC giving excellent voice to the Cum Sancto Spiritu in one of the chirpiest and optimistic interpretations of this part of the Mass I have yet heard.

I wonder if Mahler ever wrote songs with harmonium accompaniment? He might have called them Lieder with Rosie.

(:flickr northlondonchorus 72157627118040535 scale=0.8:)
North London Chorus in rehearsal on the day

Spring Concert 2011

Ham and High 31 Mar 2011
by David Winskill

The North London Chorus and Orchestra
Conductor Murray Hipkin
Soprano Laura Mitchell
Soprano Claire Watkins
Tenor Gareth Dafydd Morris
Baritone Derek Welton

Mozart Davidde Penitente

Beethoven Christus Am Ölberge

Beauty of Little Known Works Revealed

The first piece of the evening, Mozart’s Davidde Penitente, was... an example of recycling. Mr M had signed up to two concerts in March 1785 and, not having time to compose a new Psalm setting, he recycled music from his C-Minor Mass. The finished result was wonderful. We were treated to a welcome audition of the fantastically talented soprano Laura Mitchell early on in the Alzai le flebili. The Chorus followed with the Cantiam, almost shouted but wonderfully controlled. Claire Watkins, the second soprano also showed what a magnificent voice she has and... took the opportunity to give full vent during the Lungi le cure aria, dazzling the audience with her power and range. In the subsequent duet they worked brilliantly, sparking off each other filling the church with beauty. The conclusion of the work, Chi in Dio sol spera, 'gloriously showy' (as the programme puts it) was an opportunity to shine taken by the chorus with all hands.

The next piece, Beethoven’s Christus am Olberge continued the recycle, reuse theme. The excellent programme notes told us that on the morning of the concert's premier in 1805, Beethoven realised that the orchestra had two trombonists with no parts to perform. So, to prevent their being paid for but unused, he wrote music for them. Waste not want not! The Christus is a wonderful piece of music and it is a mystery to me why it is not more regularly performed. It takes the form of a sombre, brutally honest meditation by Christ in the Garden of Gethsemene on the horrors of what is about to happen as he fulfills the Father's will for man's salvation. The start is a long, grim orchestral piece (the trombonists and all the NLC Orchestra earning a well deserved crust) then Gareth Dafyyd Morris as Jesus delivers one of the most emotionally profound performances I have yet heard in any setting. The recitative and the aria are a desperate monologue with the Almighty – accepting but terrified at the prospect of what is to come. For some reason Beethoven thought this as one of his lesser works but, for the St James' audience, it was a deeply moving and affecting piece. During the performance, the Chorus managed to change the voice it had during the Mozart piece to one with greater gravitas - deeper and heavier, less emotional, more narrative driven.

... the quality of the music and the control of the choir, under the energetically supportive Murray Hipkin, shone through. He had chosen the programme well – two relatively little known pieces that presented the Chorus with a challenge. With the NLC Orchestra and soloists they responded with confidence, passion and great technical competence.

A superb evening...

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