Oratorio Chorale explores the British Isles in song

Posted Wednesday, November 23, 2011 in Culture

Oratorio Chorale explores the British Isles in song

The Oratorio Chorale, undated photo

by Gina Hamilton

Rejoice!  The Oratorio Chorale has chosen a season of choral music that shows off the talents of this incredibly talented group.

Last weekend, the first production of the season was performed at Bath's UCC on Saturday night, and, on Sunday, at Sacred Heart in Yarmouth.  We went to the Yarmouth event.  The music was 20th century choral music of the British Isles, with selections from Benjamin Britten (Five Flower Songs), Edward Elgar (The Fountain, Spanish Serenade, As Torrents in Summer, The Shower, and Deep in My Soul, all derived from poetry by Longfellow, Vaughn, and Lord Byron), Requiem by Herbert Howells, Five Poems of Robert Bridges, by Gerald Finzi, and the Funeral Hymn from the Rig Veda, by Gustav Holst.

Municipal Organist for the City of Portland, Ray Cornils, accompanied, and also played Walton's Crown Imperial March on Sacred Heart's impressive instrument.

British composers enjoyed a renaissance of sorts during the early to mid-20th century, in large part because the war years made it difficult for German and even, to an extent, eastern European composers to receive a fair hearing in England during that time. 

But there were other reasons as well.  While the well of British composers may have dried up after Handel, poetry was still a strong going concern.  It was only a matter of time before enterprising composers adapted the powerful British (and English speaking) poetry into song form.  Without a lieder tradition, England was left with its strongest form - the formal choral tradition, and each of these poets and composers admirably show off the best of English-speaking poetry and the new choral tradition for four and five part harmony with descant.

The program balanced the secular and sacred, the lightheartedness of love in spring and the pathos of the loss of a child.

Our favorite piece was Gerald Finzi's 'Five Poems' ... the best of the four-part choral tradition.  If we closed our eyes, we might have imagined ourselves at Kings College.  The nostalgic 'Clear and Gentle Stream', about the memory of a favorite childhood haunt, was particularly well-sung. 

Howells' sorrow at losing his nine-year-old child to meningitis was the impetus for his Requiem, especially the final prayer, 'I heard a voice from heav'n', in which he tries to convince himself that his precious child is at rest in the Lord.  It is a heartbreaking tribute to a father's grief, and served, no doubt, as a balm to a tortured soul.  Comparing his Requiem to the Funeral Hymn for the Rig Veda, by Holst, who flirted with Indian mythology during his life, is night and day.  The lyrics, which include the imagery of a loving mother (Earth) accepting a child at the end of a long day, with a loving send-off spoken directly to the departing soul, is in sharp contrast to the painful separation between the living and the dead in Howells' Requiem mass, and the music reflects the difference.

The Britten suite was classic Benjamin Britten ... challenging to both singer and listener, but always thought-provoking.  The madrigal-like 'Ballad of the Green Broom' was not only pleasant to the ear, but offered an amusing anecdote from an anonymous poet about a lazy boy who happened to be in the right place at the right time to continue his relaxed standard of living.

Taken together, the program was delightful, and we were especially pleased to see the Chorale return to more typical choral music, at least for the first two programs.  The next program, on March 17 and 18, is called 'Baroque Beat', and includes Vivaldi's Gloria, Bach's Mass in G-minor, and Handel's Foundling Hospital Anthem.  We can't wait to hear that program!

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