REVIEW: Vaughan Williams and Peter White

Vaughan Williams – Overture “The Wasps”
Peter White – Te Deum
Vaughan Williams – The Lark Ascending
Vaughan Williams – Hodie

There was some brave programming for the Chichester Singers’ concert on 12th November.   Not only were there four works in the programme but one was a cantata by Vaughan Williams which is not often performed, and another was a completely new choral work that the Singers had commissioned for this concert.  Chichester audiences are fairly conservative and are cautious about going to listen to modern music, so it was no surprise to see a number of empty seats in the cathedral for this event.  But it was an excellent concert, the Singers and orchestra were in fine form and gave enjoyable performances of the unfamiliar works.

The opening work, appropriately, was an overture, The Wasps, given a spirited performance by Southern Pro Musica, full of familiar tunes.  Later in the programme, the orchestra played a second short orchestral work by Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending, said to be the nation’s favourite piece of classical music  It is magical how just listening to the music conjures up in one’s mind a vision of English countryside.  Sophie Langdon, leader of Southern Pro Musica, played the violin solo, relishing every note.

Between these two well known works, the audience was treated to the world premiere of Te Deum by Peter White.  Although the composer kept the Latin title, he used the English text of this hymn of praise, describing the many peoples who praise God, with varied musical themes.  Between verses of the Te Deum, Peter White has added poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, the intensely religious poet who converted to Catholicism and became a Jesuit priest and who believed his poems were written to the greater glory of God.  Certainly his writing was inspired and should be read with the ear, and Peter White has placed the poems as a contrast to the loud certainties of the Te Deum.  They were mostly sung by the two soloists, who conveyed the poet’s feelings of joy at nature and anxiety about man’s place.  The tenor, Alexander Aldren, must be congratulated in particular for his fine performance, when he was a stand-in who had just a few days to learn his part, and he was well matched by the soprano soloist, Bibi Heal.  The Singers and the orchestra performed the work with great confidence, and the composer must have been pleased with the performance and with the audience’s enthusiastic response.

The second half of the concert was Vaughan Williams’ Hodie, or “on this day”, a cantata which tells us the Christmas story.  It was one of the last works that Vaughan Williams composed and he brought to it all the experience of his long career.  He also seemed to bring in almost every instrument he had written for, with a very large orchestra, including powerful brass and percussion sections, as well as a full chorus and a semi-chorus of boys’ voices.  The conductor, Jonathan Willcocks, controlled these forces with his usual skill and fluency, though there were moments when the orchestra overwhelmed the soloists and even the chorus.  But it was always enjoyable music, as the audience followed the Bible story, narrated with bell-like clarity by the Cathedral Choristers (invisible on top of the screen), interspersed with songs sung with gusto by the chorus and soloists.  The baritone Frederick Long sang two of the gentler solo movements in a charming, personal manner, and joined the soprano and tenor for the splendid March of the Three Kings and the final Epilogue.

The orchestra and the Chichester Singers kept up the high quality of their sound throughout these demanding works.  The concert was a creditable and enjoyable piece of English music making.

Bill Witts