For the concert on 2 December 2017:
It is a great pleasure to welcome you to our concert Christmas Baroque this evening. Unbelievably it has been almost six months since the choir’s romping performance of Will Todd’s Mass in Blue in St Margaret’s Church, Topsham and the choir have enjoyed a well-deserved break at the end of what I hope you will agree was a successful 2016/17 season. Since September, we have been working on trying to recapture that aspect of performance that comes so naturally when performing works such as Mass in Blue and transferring that to our singing of traditional repertoire which is much more prevalent in tonight’s programme.
Tonight’s concert really is a feast of music fit for the opulence, splendour and excitement at the birth of Christ that the season of Christmas celebrates. When J.S. Bach was Director of Music in Leipzig, additional brass players were often brought in for occasions such as Christmas Day and I am delighted to inform you that we are doing the same this evening with three trumpets providing fanfares aplenty. There are even a few congregational carols in which I hope you raise the roof!
The music encompasses an exciting combination of styles the choir excels in, as well as new challenges such as a selection of ‘a cappella’ pieces which provide a different test in terms of intonation and ensemble. For example, whilst the concert celebrates many of the Baroque masterpieces often sung around the seasons of Advent and Christmas, such as Vivaldi’s Gloria and J.S. Bach’s Cantata for Christmas Day BWV 63, I am equally excited for the choir to tackle pieces such as Morten Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium: a 20th Century masterpiece influenced by the beautifully haunting melody of the original Gregorian chant often sung as a responsory at Matins on Christmas Day and which evokes the great mystery of Christ’s birth.
In addition to O Magnum Mysterium, it wouldn’t be Christmas without some of John Rutter’s music and it is very exciting to present the original orchestral arrangements of two of his most loved carols: an arrangement of Il Est Né Le Divin Enfant – a nineteenth-century French Christmas carol based on the melody of the 17th-century hunting song “La tête bizarde” – and What Sweeter Music – Rutter’s 1988 setting of the poem, “A Christmas Carol, Sung to the King in the Presence at White-Hall,” by the Anglican parson and poet, Robert Herrick (1591–1674). The latter mixes a beautifully mellifluous melodic line, luscious harmonic shifts and an evocative text which creates a beautiful synergy between the description of the birth of Christ and the imagery of the northern hemisphere’s ‘dark and dull nights’ being turned to Spring by this exciting news.
As always, we are very fortunate to have the excellent Exeter Bach Society Orchestra playing for us led by the brilliant Anna Cockroft. Whilst the March 2018 performance of St Matthew Passion is an immensely exciting project in the pipeline, I was passionate that this concert allowed the orchestra their own moment in the spotlight. Therefore, in the spirit of Christmas we present not one but two brilliant and contrasting concerti grossi: Arcangelo Corelli’s Concerto Grosso in G minor, Op. 6, No. 8, often known as the Christmas Concerto and bearing the inscription ‘Fatto per la notte di Natale’ (made for the night of Christmas), and J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2. In F Major which consists of a concertino of Trumpet, Flute, Oboe and Violin with the Trumpet part considered to be one of the most difficult in the repertoire with its fiendish runs and high register. We are delighted to have Dublin and Exeter based Trumpeter, Will Palmer, returning to the Orchestra as one of the soloists in this piece to take on this exciting challenge.
In addition to the instrumental soloists within the concertino groups, I am excited to welcome a stellar line-up of vocal soloists who will add the icing on top of the proverbial Christmas cake in this concert. Many of you will be familiar with both Soprano soloists if you came to our events earlier this year: Aimee Presswood amazed us with her fabulous interpretation of Vivaldi’s In Furore Iustissimae Irae in the Spring 2017 concert and Josie Walledge sang the Soprano solos in our liturgical performance of J.S. Bach’s Cantata BWV 14 at St Margaret’s Topsham with such beauty and poise. Juliet Curnow has been a Mezzo-soprano soloist on several occasions in the past and we are thrilled to have her back singing with the society for both this concert and St Matthew Passion in March 2018. It was also a particular pleasure for me to invite our Tenor Andrew Henley to join us, as we studied together at the University of Exeter. He has since gone on to achieve great things having just started at the prestigious National Opera Studio earlier this year. Finally, it is great to have local Baritone Tim Mirfin singing with the Society once again. Tim has been in great demand since moving to Devon and it is very exciting to have him onboard for two of our concerts this season.
In addition, we have excerpts from the timeless Handel’s Messiah, Schütz’s Hodie Christus Natus Est – an exciting work combining solo and ripieno choral textures and conducted by Assistant Conductor John Pearce – and our own tribute to the 450th anniversary of Claudio Monteverdi’s birth which opens the concert.
As ever, I am extremely grateful to the committee for all their help and advice, and the choir for their patience and hard work. I am also immensely grateful this term to our Librarian, David James, who has had to sort scores for the many different pieces we are performing tonight. I hope you enjoy the concert and look forward to meeting you afterwards.
Jonathan Lucas Wood