Sea Symphony

Wind and Spray

Review of the Vaughan Williams concert, March 2016

Performances of Vaughan Williams’s music continue to come to our attention from all around the world.

I had the immense pleasure of hearing A Sea Symphony in Exeter Cathedral in March, preceded by Mendelssohn’s Overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and a new work by Andrew Millington, The Seafarer, which included a quotation from the symphony.  Andrew then conducted the Exeter Philharmonic Choir and The Sinfonietta in a marvellous performance of the Vaughan Williams, with two outstanding soloists in Catherine Hamilton and Julian Rippon.  Having had to miss John Wilson’s Royal Festival Hall concert in January, I was particularly glad to be invited to Exeter for a concert which will live long in the memory.  All concerned were on top form, with the choir enunciating Whitman’s poetry with beautiful clarity, and the orchestra fully engaged with this varied and demanding score.

Simon Coombs, Chairman, Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, in RVW Society Journal, number 66, June 2016.

The Exeter Philharmonic Choir's concert at Exeter Cathedral on 12 March, 2016 was all about the sea, culminating in Vaughan Williams' Sea Symphony.

But first a word about the première of a new work by the EPC's Director of Music, Andrew Millington composed specially for this occasion.

The Seafarer is a setting of a poem from the Exeter Book, the collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry kept in the Cathedral Library. As observed in the composer's programme note, the poem tells of the hardships of life at sea, in fact an allegory on the journey of life, with the text on this occasion interspersed with verses from the Psalms. At about 10 minutes in length, this short work is scored for baritone soloist, mixed chorus and orchestra. While not musically ambitious, the immediate impression was of an attractive work with very effective choral and orchestral colouring of the text and a sympathetic balance between the different forces; here was a real sense of the mood and movement of the sea. It could be a very useful addition to the repertoire of other choral societies. The composer led an authoritative first performance (with Julian Rippon as the baritone soloist) well received by the evening's audience. The Sinfonietta (led by Richard Studt) provided its customary support for Andrew Millington and the EPC throughout the concert, starting the evening off with a well-shaped reading of Mendelssohn's Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage. The woodwind detail of the performance was a particular feature. But the biggest challenge for both choir and orchestra was the main work of the concert, the Sea Symphony. A mixture of the exuberant and the visionary, this large work is in part (like the Millington) about the journey of life, but set to the words of Walt Whitman, the American poet whose works were much admired by Vaughan Williams. From the contrast of the huge, dramatic opening to the second movement nocturne and beyond, the music passes through many changes of mood and difficulty to challenge the performers. The well-rehearsed choir rose confidently to the occasion even if occasionally, such as in the opening bars, it was swamped by the volume demanded in places by Vaughan Williams' extrovert orchestration. Elsewhere, the choir showed its sensitivity in the more reflective passages – a nice sense of sadness and resignation at the verse, 'Token of all brave captains' in the first movement, for instance. The difficult hurdle of the scherzo was well met by the choir, with the orchestra also showing its virtuosity here in the depiction of wind and spray. In Catherine Hamilton and Julian Rippon the performance had two fine soloists, especially well matched in the long duet of the final movement. Warm applause, well deserved, greeted the end of a most enjoyable concert – another feather in the cap for Andrew Millington and the EPC. David Batty


A note by the choir’s former conductor, Raymond Calcraft

Can I also add my own particular congratulations and thanks to you all. There have been many excellent concerts under Andrew’s direction since he became Conductor in 2003 but none finer than this. It made me extremely proud of my long association with the choir, which has rarely sounded quite as splendid as in this concert, which was a delight from start to finish. And I do hope we may have the opportunity to hear The Seafarer again before too long.

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