Monday, 4 March 2013

In Review: Manchester Chamber Choir at Live at LICA

Manchester Chamber Choir
Manchester Chamber Choir at Live at LICA
Saturday 2 March 2013
in the Great Hall, Lancaster University.
reviewed by Sally Ryde

The American lady sitting nearby had the better idea. “I’ll read those later,” she replied when asked before the concert began why she was not ploughing through the 10 pages of programme notes. She was there to listen and enjoy. There would be time later for learning.

It was too late for me to adopt her sensible approach. I had already learned a great deal from the programme notes and the pre-concert talk. But after only two or three bars of the first piece, I had forgotten everything. I forgot that Britten’s opera Gloriana had been composed for the coronation of Elizabeth in 1953 and that not even the Queen liked the piece. But then of course the audience would have comprised (I also forgot) “visiting diplomats and other dignitaries who may not necessarily have had particularly sophisticated musical tastes.

I suppose this could mean that those of us present in Lancaster University’s Great Hall on Saturday night did possess “sophisticated musical tastes” because we certainly liked everything we heard - from Gloriana right through to Britten’s ‘Hymn to St Cecilia’, including pieces along the way by Holst (both father Gustav and daughter Imogen), Poulenc, Welshman John Thomas and one by North of England’s Stephen Wilkinson composed specially for the tenth anniversary of the choir. But I don’t think we were “particularly sophisticated”. Instead, I think we were simply captivated by the skills of these twenty or so exceptional musicians.

The programme notes contained the vital clue as to why the evening was so well worth the effort all of us had made to be there. “The choir“, the notes say, “is driven by a love of singing to an excellent standard and its raison d’ĂȘtre [is] to fulfil its members’ musical desires.”

This choir is excellent. As individuals, they excel and their conductor knew exactly how to help them to excel as a group. Justin Doyle was clearly in his element.

Singing is more difficult than instrument playing. A singer has nowhere to hide. His or her voice is unique and to insert it into the sound of a choir takes nerve. Choirmaster Doyle supplied the assurance that each singer needed to achieve the magnificent phrasing and near-perfect intonation that we witnessed - the two qualities that render singing generally more challenging than orchestral playing.

To judge a choir’s phrasing is not difficult. But for a concert goer to confirm that a choir’s pitch remains true and does not drift during the performance of a section of music is nearly impossible. My ear was telling me that the pitch was not drifting but I sought ways to prove it. I listened, for example, for pitch corrections being derived from the conductor’s tuning fork and fed to the choir at the beginning of sections, perhaps lifting a flattish E-flat back up to a true E-flat. I even considered that the conductor’s tuning fork could be sounding a different pitch to the one he was humming to the choir: a deceit justified by the artistic judgement that the existing pitch was “near enough” and probably could not so easily be erased from the choir’s collective memory. But all to no avail and I finally gave up trying to spot any sleight of hand (or ear). Truth be told, I don’t think there were any fudges. This choir’s intonation was simply almost faultless. What a pleasure!

Possibly the biggest threat of the evening to pitch stability was posed by “slithering chromaticism” (!) in the ‘God’s Grandeur’ section of Britten’s “A.M.D.G”. Written for four professional singers amusing themselves at the kitchen table in the Red House in Aldeburgh (Beware the dog!), I expected this choir to laugh with relief at its conclusion, as did Joe Morello when Brubeck’s quartet successfully negotiated the complex rhythms of ‘Unsquare Dance’ on “Time Further Out”, but this ensemble took it all in its stride. (A Helsinki choir demonstrates the challenge.)

It is always gratifying to hear individuals step up to solo duties. There were not many solo opportunities in the programme but when the most of them arose in the ‘Hymn to St Cecilia’, the performers acquitted themselves well. Lovely individual voices, each with its own timbre and style.

AnnaKate Pearson’s two harp solos and her accompaniment to Holst’s ‘Choral Hymns’ were a delight. (How could she execute all those harmonics so consistently? Isn't that difficult? I must find out.)

Live at LICA events were everywhere on Saturday night. In addition to the Great Hall choir concert, Dance Cuts had taken over the Nuffield Theatre next door as well as most of the foyer! Plenty of excitement to be sure but a little attention to space planning would not go amiss. The cafe area was almost inaccessible at times. For addicts of the delicious made-in-Kendal cake and coffee deal, that counts as a near disaster!

S. Ryde

Tickets for the concert cost: Adult: £17.50, Seniors, unemployed and disabled (essential companion free) £14.50, students and under 16s £7.

To find out about future Live at LICA events visit: or
Tel: 01524 594151

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