NOT only is choral director Andrew Nunn bringing about a clear incremental improvement in the standard of the community choir from Glasgow’s affluent northern suburb, he is also insuring, through his other activities, that it is keeping the very best of company.
With the excellent Christopher Nickol at the organ, the soloists for this Christmas Concert were all undergraduate students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and — just as significantly — trained by the National Youth Choir of Scotland, all three being in the choir that sang Berlioz for conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner at New York’s Carnegie Hall last year.
In fact this music was not especially Christmassy, but in Vivaldi’s Gloria and the Faure Requiem the choir chose to tackle two of the shorter major works of the established choral canon on which younger voices can often teach the adults a thing or two. Bearsden Choir emerged from that challenge with great credit. This West End church is a spacious, vaulted building which still proved a tight squeeze for both audience and chorus, but from the opening bars of the Vivaldi it was clear the acoustic suited the choir, and that Nunn had the sections of it under careful dynamic control.
The 18 tenors must take particular credit. By far, as usual, the smallest section, they have a very exposed role in both works, especially at the start of the second movement in the Gloria, and pretty much throughout the Requiem. But the women of the chorus also deserve praise for their well-modulated performance in achieving the balance their conductor sought. Perhaps the Faure could have begun a little more quietly, but the choral diction of the church Latin was generally on a par with that of the youngsters, which is praise indeed.
Those soloists are all indeed “ones to watch”, as Nunn has said. Soprano Karla Grant and mezzo Rebecca Pennykidd combined beautifully in the Vivaldi, and the former had a beautiful tone for the party piece that is the Pie Jesu in the Faure, while baritone Daniel Barrett was poised and precise in the Libera Me.
City Halls, Glasgow
IT was less dramatic than the fainting soprano soloist in last December’s performance of Handel’s Messiah, but when a light bulb loudly exploded over the City Hall stage during the Credo of Bach’s B Minor Mass at the start of the second half of Sunday afternoon’s concert, some might have feared momentarily that Bearsden Choir’s 50th anniversary season was jinxed.
You certainly cannot fault the ambition of chorus director and conductor Andrew Nunn for his choir. The Bach is a big, bold undertaking for amateur singers, with some very tricky music to negotiate, and if the Cum Sancto that had ended the first half of the evening suffered from some wayward phrasing, it had gelled again by the closing Amen. The ensemble sound of Bearsden’s sopranos, often a weak link in large choirs of mixed ages, displayed an admirable consistency.
The choir was joined by a quintet of young soloists, with soprano Gemma Summerfield fitting this concert into her schedule between the Glasgow and Inverness runs of her role as Pamina in Scottish Opera’s current production of The Magic Flute. The standout contribution from the front of the stage came from one of those who had also sung Messiah, mezzo soprano Penelope Cousland, who brought the light touch that Bach requires, even to the rich lower notes of her range.
But the piece is all about the chorus, in this performance in particular, and it was a rare treat to hear it performed by such a large number of voices, the Kyrie at the start sufficiently powerful to render the McOpera Ensemble of musicians from the Orchestra of Scottish Opera momentarily inaudible. From them on, however, the players brought a huge variety of orchestral colour to the table, with solo turns from leader Katie Hull, Sue Baxendale on horn and Janet Larsson on flute. It was particularly the contribution of the reed players on oboes and bassoons that added variety and vivacity to the continuo of lower strings and Christopher Nickol’s keyboards.
City Halls, Glasgow
THE SOUVENIR programme for the Bearsden Choir’s Golden Anniversary concert of Handel’s Messiah (itself something of a bargain at a mere £2) included memories of earlier concerts from choir members. Sunday afternoon’s performance of the work which the choir was convened to perform in Bearsden’s Rio Cinema 50 years ago went out of its way to add to the story.
With tenor soloist, and the choir’s honorary president, Jamie MacDougall, indisposed, and the pre-advertised bass Tristan Hambleton also absent, the event had already recruited two high-quality deps in Ben Smith and South African baritone Dawid Kimberg.
Then soprano Monica McGhee fainted during her first aria, Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, and chorus master and conductor Andrew Nunn called an early interval while she was revived and led backstage. Although that process was dealt with professionally, and Ms McGhee has happily able to return to the stage for the curtain call (to relieved cheers from the capacity house), it did necessitate a hastily re-edited performance.
Smith took on But Thou didst not leave His soul in hell, but a Messiah without How beautiful are the feet and, particularly, I know that my Redeemer liveth, to begin Part Three, is inevitably diminished.
The chorus did seem a little unsettled on His yoke is easy, after the enforced break, but quickly recovered composure for the challenging sequence in Part Two. The choir’s altos were a particularly coherent ensemble for their opening entries throughout the score, and the gentlemen of the tenors were also a very precise pack when it really mattered. Instrumentally, all the singers were hugely helped by the choir’s regular accompanist Christopher Nickol, nimbly leaping between harpsichord and chamber organ, with the McOpera Ensemble cellist Sarah Harrington adding crucial continuo playing.
The sole soloist appearing as advertised was mezzo Penelope Cousland, whose beautiful tone and nicely measured ornamentation made He was despised one of the highlights of the performance.
The major credit, however, has to go to Nunn, whose first Messiah this was, but whose direction of the work would have been worthy of high praise without the afternoon’s added excitement.