For the concert on 10 April 2017:
It is my pleasure to welcome you this evening to this concert of music for Holy Week and Passiontide. After consecutive years performing one of Bach’s major works at Easter we have decided to take a year out and explore the wonderful music of the French late romantic genre.
As a choir trainer, I believe it is my duty to maximise the potential of the individual singers which make up the choir and to do this I felt I needed to bring the choir outside of its natural comfort zone. When considering potential music to fulfil this purpose which was at the same time also appropriate for Holy Week, it struck me that there was no better challenge than the hauntingly beautiful Duruflé Requiem. Its exposed lines, tricky harmonic progressions, and rhythmic challenges pose a test for any choir. The choir have tackled it admirably and I am sure that they will rise to the challenge this evening.
The Duruflé Requiem is often seen as an underrated masterpiece and this year we celebrate the 70th anniversary of its publication (1947). It is unfortunately – and in my opinion, wrongly – seen by many as the more introvert and less charming younger brother of the two particularly famous French requiems. There are several reasons that could explain this view. The score is certainly more challenging for choir and orchestra and whilst harmonic interest is in abundance there are arguably fewer passages of melodic interest (or “tunes”) than the Fauré Requiem. For me personally, whilst I do adore parts of the Fauré Requiem, the Duruflé Requiem is considerably more moving to listen to as a live performance. The almighty climax in the ‘Sanctus’ is one of those moments in the repertoire that every conductor looks forward to and this is a perfect example of a moment that can only be truly appreciated live.
The Duruflé Requiem has another claim to fame. Many organists consider it to be the piece that gives them the most sleepless nights due to its fiendish cross rhythms, fiddly virtuosity, and intense console management. We are extremely lucky to have Andrew Millington (former Director of Music at Exeter Cathedral, 1999 – 2015) play for us this evening. Andrew has been a great mentor to me since I arrived in Exeter six years ago and it is an honour to be able to invite him back to Exeter Bach Society.
However, before the Duruflé, we have five other works – all of which invoke the many different emotions that are reflected in the stories of Passiontide and Holy Week. I’m delighted to welcome back soprano Aimee Presswood to open the concert with Vivaldi’s ‘In Furore Iustissimae Irae’ – an incredibly passionate and fiery cantata. It is undoubtedly one of the hardest cantatas in the repertoire requiring total mastery of the coloratura but I couldn’t think of a more exciting young soprano to attempt it.
Following the Vivaldi, we will have one of Bach’s six beautiful motets – ‘Komm, Jesu, Komm’. Very little is known about this motet except that it was performed for the first time at a funeral and therefore was an obvious companion piece with the Requiem. The beautiful pleading quality of the opening few bars sets up ten glorious minutes of antiphonal music of the highest class.
Despite his beautiful compositional work, Duruflé was an organist at heart. He was assistant to Louis Vierne for many years at Notre-Dame and took influence throughout his life from J.S. Bach’s keyboard music. It therefore seemed like a natural fit to have Andrew complement this connection with a performance of J.S. Bach’s rich and harmonically complex ‘Prelude and Fugue in B Minor’, BWV 544.
Concluding the first half is Fauré’s timeless ‘Cantique de Jean Racine’ in the arrangement for strings and harp by John Rutter, followed by a larger work by a contemporary of J.S. Bach – Jan Dismas Zelenka’s ‘Miserere in C Minor’. It has been particularly exciting to discover Zelenka’s music over the past six to twelve months and this gem is a wonderfully moving and symmetrical setting of Psalm 51 – most famously set by Gregorio Allegri. I encourage you to delve further into his extensive catalogue if you haven’t come across his work before.
I am extremely grateful to several people for their continued support. Firstly, to the whole committee but particularly to Juliet Meadowcroft (Chairman) who does an incredible amount of work for the Society behind the scenes. Secondly, to Anna Cockroft (Leader) who takes considerable pressure off my shoulders by fixing the orchestra for all our events in such a professional manner as well as offering her vast experience and wisdom of all things musical. Thirdly, to John Pearce (Assistant Conductor) and Colin Pettet (Accompanist) for their invaluable support throughout the term. And finally, and most importantly, to the choir, who put up with my quest for perfectionism and always give 100% whilst offering great friendship as well.
Any performance of a requiem can be a very moving event and a conduit for grieving. I am sure there will be people in the choir, orchestra and audience who have lost someone close to them recently. Therefore, it is only right that this performance should be dedicated to them. I hope you enjoy the concert and I look forward to meeting you after the event.
Jonathan Lucas Wood