“Brass & Voices”
Yorkshire Philharmonic Choir with Rothwell Temperance Band
Saturday July 12 2008
Since arriving into Leeds (temporarily) earlier this year I’ve attended four opera performances, just one out of town in Clare College Cambridge and several concerts one as far afield as the Snape Maltings concert hall. Without doubt what I heard last night was the best musical event on the calendar for me since the beginning of 2008. The enthusiasm of the choir and the technical skills of the band particularly in combination were just simply superb. The evening started with a personal favourite admirably introduced on a cordless microphone from the back of the choir stalls by Graham Heley. I enjoyed listening again to his powerful Yorkshire accent and a well researched note of introduction to every single choir item. Zadok the Priest, surely on everyone’s short-list of favourites, was stunning and there’s a moment at the end when the basses rarely strike all the semiquaver notes accurately but they did and the sound resounded throughout the cathedral. But it was the soprano line that astonished me most – more about that later. I’m always anxious for the organist with his long orchestral introduction but Thomas
Moore, as deputy musical director of the cathedral, really knows his instrument well and shone
throughout. He shares with me the experience of Leicester Cathedral as a choirboy where as I seem to recall the organ console is very distant from the singers up in the gallery at the back. Not so in Wakefield and Tom was in the midst of the band seating. The Mozart Ave Verum brought tears to my eyes but Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine was very special indeed with an almost stately tempo portraying an ethereal and unearthly calm. It suggested that death as the ulitmate purpose of life was really a reward. I sang under John Rutter in Venice in 1978 when he wrote the next piece and he would have marvelled at the delivery of his ‘Gaelic Blessing’. The music highlights a personal philosophy of an agnostic with a few worries.
The band didn’t waste any time getting into concert mode. Their delivery of the fanfare Olympics and the two solo players in ‘Brillante’ lived up to the title of their piece. I never before realised the virtuoso qualities of the euphonium which I’ve always likened to an elephant in the middle of a crowd of 64 foot organ pipes. What a feat of magic and we should thank our lucky stars for the introduction of valves into the brass family of instruments!
The choir returned to combine forces immediately before the interval and invoked the subject of death in the midst of life but with a vengeance. Dylan Thomas’s rendering of the words was convincingly portrayed by Ben Olivers’ music and matched the virtuoso qualities of the band well. Fortunately tuning is not a problem for the singers but certainly could have been in matching the text of Death is nothing at all with its rather less appealing music. I used these words after the funeral of my 105 year old mother last year and felt they are better read out verbally or just seen as a card purchased from a stationery store.
Jesu, joy of man’s desiring needs no introduction but I would have enjoyed a second verse of such a familiar piece to rivet my attention even further. Mendelssohn’s Hear my prayer under the leadership of 11 year old James Micklethwaite was yet another revelation. I was never aware that the human voice could be made to sound so sophisticated at such an early age and clearly Andrew Padmore has not only achieved wonders with James but with his choir members throughout Yorkshire. We need teachers of this calibre throughout the musical world.
The band returned to emphasise that America is one big Disneyland with its cardboard cartoon image – pretty realistic if you live there (as I did for two years) and rapidly spreading elsewhere alongside the hamburger. But the quality of the playing was quite remarkable though I did wish at one moment for my BOSE noise-reducing headphones. The choir reacted on stage to the terrific rhythm of the playing. There’s certainly no likelihood of the band experiencing a shortage of players with the quality and high standard that they most successfully achieved last night.
But the climax of the evening was still to come. Sweet and low continued the lilt of the previous band numbers but My love dwelt in a Northern Land and The Bluebird were quite remarkable for the fine intonation by one of the finest of soprano lines. I’ve always thought of Stanford’s Bluebird having a soloist intone the top line but the choir soprano line managed this most admirably. I prefer The Lost Chord to The Long Day Closes by Sir Arthur Sullivan but one could not fault the delivery of the piece. I recall Sir David Willcocks saying at a 2001 rehearsal of Carmina Burana in the Albert Hall, ‘I think the ladies over 55 might volunteer not to sing that particular high passage’. Not so in the Philharmonic Choir – all the glorious sopranos were just fine.
The concert closed with a rousing rendering of the Chorus from the Hebrew Slaves by Verdi. Unbeatable! In fact the whole evening was excellent value for money and included a glass of wine at the interval. The collection of bishops present (there must be a collective word for them like flock) will return to their respective seats and positively applaud what can be done by such a magical band and resounding choral forces just five weeks after singing the Verdi Requiem in Leeds Town Hall where I too was privileged to be singing with this truly thrilling choir.