The Glorious Baroque 11 November 2017

Baroque InsetBaroque splendour welcomes a new conductor

A warm welcome to Howard Ionascu, who has recently taken up the reins as conductor of the Exeter Philharmonic Choir and who directed them for the first time at a concert on Saturday 11 November at Exeter’s Mint Methodist Church.

It was clear that he has already built up an effective rapport with the choir, with attentive eyes and a keen response from the singers. It all bodes well for the success of their future relationship.

The concert presented us with an attractive programme of works by Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. The trumpets of the Exeter Chamber Orchestra effectively launched the celebratory spirit of Bach’s Magnificat in D, which comprised the second half of the concert, making way for the choir’s vigorous, if careful, singing of the opening chorus. Elsewhere in the work, the choir maintained a lively response to Bach’s demands, slight hesitations at the start of the final two choruses aside. Amongst the soloists, William Unwin’s contribution to his commanding tenor aria was particularly striking, while he and counter-tenor Simon Clulow combined effectively in their duet. The solo team was completed by sopranos Kirsty Hopkins and Julia Featherstone and bass Julian Rippon, who all added to the pleasure of the performance.

The concert had opened exuberantly with Handel’s Zadok the Priest, which showed the well-disciplined chorus on its toes, while Let Thy Hand be Strengthened, another of Handel’s coronation anthems, allowed the choir to respond effectively to the varied demands of a more contemplative piece. Between these two works, Vivaldi’s motet, Nulla in mundo pax sincera for solo soprano, was stylishly sung, with appropriate ornamentation, by Kirsty Hopkins to an attractive lilting orchestral accompaniment.

Another substantial work by Bach, the well-known cantata Wachet auf (Sleepers awake), drew the first half to a close. The three chorale settings here were well sung by the chorus, with a good balance in the first of these between the long line sung by the sopranos and the interjections of the other voices. The soprano and bass soloists reflected sensitively and lovingly on the two dialogues (drawing on the text of the Song of Songs) between the soprano Soul and the bass Jesus (as the bridegroom of the Soul). What a lovely work it is!

Throughout the concert, the Exeter Chamber Orchestra (led by Julie Hill), the occasional lapse in intonation apart, provided able support, with particularly noteworthy contributions by solo oboe in the Bach cantata and flute duo in the Magnificat.

The Mint is not a particularly kind venue to a choir of EPC’s size (the 100 or so members plus orchestra took up half the church!). Its dry acoustic tends to emphasise the lower voices and dulls diction, robbing a large choir of some of the brightness of the higher voices which an alternative venue might support. But the capacity audience greatly enjoyed this feast of baroque music and gave a warm, well-deserved reception to the evening’s performances.

David Batty

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