Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Angel Voices

Just as the Christ Church girls' choirs took over the sung services at Exeter Cathedral for a week this past summer and took the city by storm, so too the choir of St. Paul's Girls' School, London, has now taken Greenwich by storm.

But the choir of SPGS is much more than just a vocal ensemble. Each girl seems also to be able to play two or more different instruments as well as sing. Thus we were treated to everything from a chamber trio to a full-fledged finale of a Haydn symphony (the "London", of course) to an a cappella octet to a performance of Franck's Panis Angelicus with orchestra and organ. The elite singing groups of Greenwich Academy, the Madrigals and the Pro Arte singers, joined with the St. Cecelia's girls' choir of Christ Church and our SPGS guests on the latter piece, and the result was truly emblematic of the concert's title: "Angel Voices".

SPGS brought over some 40 girls, along with four conductors and a music administrator (of whom more later). The programme [all spellings in this post will be Anglicised in tribute to our guests] opened with six short Roumanian Dances by Bartok, arranged by SPGS faculty member Angus Meryon. Composed originally for the piano, Angus transcribed them for the School's wind and brass ensemble. The quirky and striking tonalities gave new life to Bartok's music, thanks in particular to some brilliant scoring for the flute and piccolo. Young Emily Harper played the latter instruments superbly, and Angus Meryon himself conducted. Some in the audience were so impressed that they interrupted the set with applause after each piece, but the very professional young ladies did not allow this aberration to break their concentration.

There followed A Shakespearean Sequence of seven songs by Gardner, performed by the full chorus and accompanied by piano prodigies Chloe Lim and Gloria Lin. One again some in the audience insisted on interrupting the set with applause between the pieces, which was somewhat annoying; however, the spirited renditions were certainly worthy of the much louder and longer applause at the end. In particular, "It was a lover and his lass" was memorably performed. The group was conducted by Mark Wilderspin, SPGS assistant director of music and composer in residence. Great stuff!

The Trio pathetique by Glinka gave us a slice of Russian romanticism at its best. The piano, clarinet, and bassoon harmonised in a quite lovely manner, in a combination of rich sonorities rarely heard.

Torelli's popular Concerto in D for trumpet and strings was brilliantly performed by Charlotte Meakin on the trumpet and Emily Harper--yes, that same Emily Harper who played the flute and piccolo in the Bartok--as concertmistress. SPGS head of strings Hilary Sturt conducted.

Then the Close Harmony Group gave us their a cappella rendition of More than a feeling, arranged by Mark Wilderspin. The girls came right down to the front row of pews to add to the intimate feeling, and even managed a very passable American accent in their superb singing.

Moving straight from the small group to the large ensemble, the SPGS Symphony orchestra played the final movement of Haydn's "London" symphony, the last work he finished before his death. To see a full orchestra comprised of exclusively female players is an unusual sight, and to realise that they are all teenagers makes the sight even more unusual yet. SPGS director of music Yeo Yat-Soon conducted with the same spirit and energy that the girls evinced in their playing. "Papa" Haydn would surely have been pleased, had he been able to be present. Bravo!

Then it was time for Franck's Panis Angelicus, as mentioned above. The three different sets of singers from different sides of the ocean had less than half an hour to rehearse together. It was a tribute to these young ladies' professionalism that they melded their voices so beautifully together. Mark Wilderspin conducted his own arrangement of the piece, which was both shorter and peppier than Franck's 1872 original. One felt as though great waves of purest sound were washing from the chancel over the whole church. The deep notes of the Christ Church organ gave a firm musical foundation for the ethereal treble voices of the girls, such that one indeed felt that the bread of angels was being brought down to humankind.

The evening's finale was Gustav Holst's great hymn, I Vow to Thee, My Country. Holst was the first music master at SPGS, serving from 1905 until his death in 1934. To hear the girls talk about him, he is still a very real presence at the School. His hymn was sung at both the wedding and the funeral service of Princess Diana, as it was one of her favourites. The text was written by Ambassador Cecil Spring-Rice, His Majesty's envoy to the United States from 1912 to 1918. He was instrumental in persuading Woodrow Wilson to abandon his position of neutrality and to support Britain and France in World War I. You can find the full text and music in this link, as performed by the Westminster Abbey choir at Diana's funeral:


The Holst was performed by the SPGS Choir and Chamber orchestra, again joined by the singers of Christ Church and Greenwich Academy. It seemed as though these British and American teenagers were pledging allegiance to a common country here on earth, as well as the heavenly country of the second verse. Well, we all know that the Anglo-American alliance is alive and well here at Christ Church, Greenwich; this was merely one more glorious proof of that fact.

The audience rose to its feet in a well-deserved standing ovation. Mr. Yeo then conducted a reprise of the Holst as an encore, asking us all to join in. And, like our local St. Cecelia's girls, who had only first heard the hymn just a few moments before the concert, we in the audience were equally quick to pick it up. Does that now make us all honourary Britons? If so, so be it.

One of the most remarkable performances of the evening was non-musical, carried out by a young Oxford graduate named Alexandra Godfree, who seems to be something of a cross between a Christmas tree angel, a chess grandmaster, and a Royal Marines drill sergeant. Alexandra was the factotum, the stage-director genius, who organised the myriad details of a very complex concert and brought order out of chaos with the kind of effortless ease that the Italians define as sprezzatura. Each and every musical selection had to be separately choreographed, with additional music stands here, moving the piano there, and organising the different vocal sub-groups so that the programme flowed seamlessly from one number to the next. Hers was a truly mind-boggling job, and she performed it flawlessly. SPGS is lucky to have her.

Mr. Yeo concluded by thanking the host families of Greenwich Academy, and inviting us all to come and visit SPGS when we may next be in London. Let's see, how does next May sound...?


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