Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Year Douai Abbey Britten Rodolfus Choir

"....the flowers have their angels". The title of a concert by the Rodolfus Choir at Douai Abbey on New Year's Eve. Flowers were perhaps the last thing I was thinking of heading through floods, intense rain and insane traffic. But the Benedictine abbey is a haven. The Church is modern, but beautifully designed. Here, one feels, faith is genuine and lives on strong and refreshed. Those who believe don't need fancy trappings, but an environment where true spirituality prevails. "Please don't applaud after the last song" asked the officiating monk. "But leave with the silence that is this house".

Inside the Abbey Church, there's an unusually high dome. It's aesthetically pleasing, with pale gold timbers and steep buttresses. The acoustics are superb. Sound circulates rather than hitting blind corners as can sometimes be the case in churches with deep side chapels. Voices blend, accentuating polyphonic richness. An ideal place for a programme like this, which favoured voices with individuality. Benjamin Britten : Rejoice in the Lamb, A Hymn to the Virgin, Antiphon, There is no Rose  and Five Flower Songs.  How beautifully Britten highlights the singer within the group, and keeps his textures clean. Soprano, Alto and Tenor make their mark and Bass enters after being heralded by the ensemble. Everyone gets a chance to shine in Britten, which is why he's such a joy to sing.

Ralph Allwood founded the Rodolfus Choir in 1984. It's no ordinary youth choir. Its members are for the most part choral scholars or studying in music college, hoping to make careers in music. Their average age is around 19 - past the age when voices have a naturally untutored innocence,  but still young enough that their voices feel fresh and spontaneous.  I kept following individuals, even when they were singing in ensemble. There are some potentially distinctive singers here, and not just the ones given bigger parts.

Just as the Doaui Abbey Church shows that real faith thrives in modern settings, this concert included a new commission from Paul Mealor, Praise. This latter relied heavily on percussion special effects, Ross Gunning (age 18) alternating on tubular bells, cymbals and a variant of Tibetan bowl, ground in a circular movement to create a whirring sound. More successful was Mealor's earlier song cycle Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal. Naturally one hears the connection with Britten's Five Flower Songs and indeed, Roger Quilter and Herbert Howells, but as part-songs these have charm, and must be pleasant to sing.  Britten's Prelude and Fugue on a theme of Vittoria was played by Tom Winpenny, and was enjoyable heard between Tomas Luis de Victoria's Ecce Sacerdos Magnus and Salve Regina.

The best part of the evening, though, was the finale. Members of the Rodolfus Choir stood around the circumference of the church singing a variation of Silent Night, Holy Night, with delicious descant soaring angelically above refined harmonies. Most definitely not stolid, foursquare hymnal. 

 Photo : Pam Brophy

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