Summer in the Abbey May 2018

Summer in the Abbey Inset
An evening of French and English music, Buckfast Abbey, 19 May 2018
If a diversion were required on Saturday 19 May 2018 from a Royal Wedding, the Devon County Show and various major sporting events, then the Exeter Philharmonic Choir certainly provided one. In a departure from their usual venue, Exeter’s magnificent Cathedral, the setting for the choir’s summer concert was the more intimate surroundings of Buckfast Abbey. However, on such a beautiful late spring evening in full sunshine, the Abbey and its surrounding grounds were no less impressive. With the prospect of a mixed programme of English and French music from the mid-1800s to the present century, how would the choir sound without the generous acoustics of the Cathedral?
The concert began with Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine, written while he was still a teenager but showing considerable maturity and with hints of the Requiem to come. With accurate diction and long, flowing melodic lines from all sections of the choir, this was a restful start to the evening.
This was followed by the Gloria from Jean Langlais’ Messe solennelle, with the Sanctus and Benedictus performed after the interval. Howard Ionascu, the choir’s Director of Music, provided the audience with an informative introduction to this mid-20th century work in which rousing bursts of the organ sounded from the rear of the church, punctuated by choral episodes from the choir. The work is characterised by melodies which, although original creations, show a distinct affinity with plainsong, using astringent, more dissonant chords and modes.
As a total contrast to the Langlais, Hubert Parry’s Crossing the bar provided a tranquil return to tonality. Howard described this as a ‘sorbet’ between the Langlais and the next work on the programme by Gabriel Jackson. The choir clearly enjoyed singing this inspirational setting of Tennyson’s poem, with its smooth lines and hushed tones.
And so to Jackson’s Orbis patrator optime. For any group of musicians, choral or instrumental, it is a musical director’s responsibility to recommend challenging works and new directions, and the Jackson was no exception to this rule. Written relatively recently in 2006, it was obviously the most difficult and technically demanding work of the evening for the choir and understandably lacked the confidence that came across so easily in the Parry or Vaughan Williams. The first half of the work provided some wonderful soaring lines from the sopranos. Midway through the piece both soprano soloists (Alice Cross and Ashleigh To) joined the choir and the work progressed with more exploration of various vocal textures, both sung and spoken, until ending quite abruptly. This was followed by a slight pause until the audience were reassured that the work had indeed ended! 
The Abbey’s recently installed Ruffatti organ was ably showcased by the resident organist, Richard Lea, in a performance of Saga VI ‘Icarus’ by Jean Guillou. This unusual composition tells the mythical story of Icarus, who attempted flight with a set of waxen wings, only to drown in the sea after flying too close to the sun. It is based on a falling 4-note motif that recurs throughout the work, with a final crescendo and sudden silence portraying Icarus’ demise. Richard’s introduction described the piece as ‘modern and aggressive’ and one must commend him for tackling a work that is not only technically, but also physically, demanding.
And so to the final work of the evening: a rousing performance of Parry’s I was glad. First performed at the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, this is one of the staple works in the choral repertoire and the choir did not disappoint. It was a fitting work for the day and the choir had undoubtedly stored up some energy for the end of the evening as here was a rendition full of passion and confidence. One could revel in the soaring lines and beautiful harmonies when performed at a relaxed pace that suited the resonant acoustics of the Abbey.
To end the evening the choir moved to the rear of Abbey under the bell tower, where they performed a reprise of Crossing the bar. Here in their ‘scrambled’ positions (all performers randomly mixed up) the sound blended beautifully into a distant parting farewell.
It is testament to the ability and reputation of the choir that it can perform over 25 miles from where it is based and still fill a church to capacity; they can be commended for providing such a varied and uplifting evening of music.
Andy Henderson
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