Mass in Blue 16 November 2013

Will ToddTo have the active involvement of a composer in a concert of his or her works is always a great incentive and, indeed, privilege for the other performers, and so it was on Saturday evening (16 November)

when Will Todd brought his trio of musicians to perform his popular Mass in Blue with the Exeter Philharmonic Choir (conducted by Andrew Millington) at Exeter's Mint Methodist Church. To prepare the audience for the jazz idiom of the main work, Todd and his trio first performed three short numbers, two of which featured the wonderfully flexible voice of Bethany Halliday. Of the three, I wish I knew how it would feel to be free added a gospel touch, with Paul Fawcus' saxophone solo a hauntingly effective contrast to the singer's contribution.
The audience's enthusiasm for these pieces was carried over to the performance of the Mass. In his spoken introduction, Will Todd remarked on the collision in the work between jazz and the formality of classical choral music. A performance, then, by a more traditional choir is always a challenge to meet the joy, energy and flexibility that Todd looks for in the work. Were the members of the Philharmonic a little too stiff in the opening 'Kyrie' and a little uncertain in the 'Benedictus'? Perhaps, although a more restrained style well suited the 'Sanctus'. But when soloist Bethany Halliday (who premiered her husband's work) joined them in the more exuberant sections of the 'Gloria' and the 'Credo', they more obviously took to the jazz idiom, so that 'Ex Resurrexit', for instance, went with a fine celebratory swing. At the close, the 'Credo' that ends the 'Agnus Dei' brought the performance to a rousing finish, with the smiles of the Choir showing that they had thoroughly enjoyed this excursion into unfamiliar choral territory. So too had the audience! Throughout, Will Todd and his trio had provided a great level of virtuoso and sometimes improvisatory support to conductor Andrew Millington.
Preceding this journey into jazz, Andrew Millington conducted the Choir, with David Davies accompanying, in two early works by Britten and Elgar. The performance of Britten's Te Deum was confident and well balanced, with an effectively integrated soprano solo by choir member Hannah Deasy. The Choir then took us to Elgar's lively romp through southern Germany with his From the Bavarian Highlands, reminiscences of holidays that the composer and his wife took there in the 1890s. For once, the rather boomy acoustic of the church accentuated the bass-heavy writing of the accompanying piano part which hampered clarity of words. But the Choir responded well to the colour of this unfamiliar Elgar, and some momentary uncertainty in 'On the Alm' was swept away by the energy of 'The Marksmen', the work's final song.

Bethany Halliday soprano
The Will Todd Trio
David Davies organ

Conductor Andrew Millington

The Mint Methodist Church, Exeter

David Batty



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