Thursday, December 09, 2010

Jesus Comes to Christ Church

Well, He's actually a frequent presence here, what with all the numerous celebrations of the Eucharist, but last night His namesake college from Cambridge, England also came to visit. The conductor was Mark Williams, who himself is no stranger to Christ Church; see

The choir of Jesus College, some twenty-five voices strong, were arranged in mixed quartets, which helped to ensure a smooth blend of sound. Each of these singers seems to possess a solo-quality voice, as indeed became clear during the occasional solos and duets, but their firm sense of teamwork resulted in a crisp and even group dynamic.

Your scribe sat in on part of the pre-concert rehearsal, during which the choir worked on the opening selection, Purcell's Hear My Prayer. Mark urged them to use this piece to "grab hold of the audience and not let go." They did. The early bars, sung in a crystal-clear pianissimo, swelled into a fuller mezzoforte, climaxing in a rich fortissimo before fading back to the softness of the opening. Right away we in the audience knew we were in the presence of an extremely accomplished group of singers.

The selections spanned the centuries from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and right up to the present day. Particularly noteworthy were Benjamin Britten's Hymn to the Virgin, the Magnificat quinti toni of Hieronymus Praetorius, John Tavener's The Lamb, and the long-time Christ Church favorite, John Gardner's Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.

Mark singled out William Byrd's Vigilate for special mention. Byrd, a closet Roman Catholic during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, would use his music to send coded messages to his fellow believers. In this case, the message to those celebrating the mass in secret was "Watch out! Be careful lest you get caught!", according to Mark.

Harold Darke's version of Christina Rossetti's lovely poem In the bleak midwinter brought tears to the eye. The choir sang the original words as Rossetti and Darke intended, with none of the "PC" fiddling with the text one sometimes encounters these days. Simply gorgeous.

The greatest hit of the evening was Jingle Bells, in the stunning arrangement by Ralph Allwood, Precentor and Director of Music at Eton College. Your scribe has heard this piece sung many times here in Greenwich by the Chamber Singers at the High School, and had always (wrongly) assumed that the arrangement was of American origin. At dinner afterwards Mark was quick to set him straight. Allwood will be retiring in 2011 after more than 25 years at Eton, during which he has doubled the size of the music program.

Senior Organ Scholar Tim Lambourn is a student in geography at Jesus College, and thus music for him is "merely" an academic sideline. He accompanies the College chapel services, teaches theory to the choristers, and has toured many countries in Europe exhibiting his skills on the piano and violin (the latter as concertmaster of the Richmond Youth Symphony Orchestra). Not bad for a lad of a mere twenty summers or so. He treated us to a performance of Bach's Wachet auf!, using the gallery organ in the rear of the church.

The choristers of Jesus College (the choirboys) will arrive in the States tomorrow, and the full combined choirs will be singing at services and concerts in New York City, Philadelphia, Delaware, Virginia, and Washington, DC over the course of the next ten days. They are clearly not here on holiday. And yet, it must be said, the young people who sang for us last night were obviously having a good time, and enjoying themselves every bit as much as we in the audience were enjoying hearing them.

So, many thanks to them for coming here, and to Mark Williams for bringing them, and to Jamie Hitel and Simon Preston Jacobs for sponsoring them, and to Linda Austin-Small for making the arrangements, and to the numerous local families who hosted them for two nights. The icing on the cake—or rather, the ganache on the ice cream—was provided by Wendy Claire Barrie and her irrepressible son Peter, who graciously co-hosted a lovely dinner afterwards for Mark, John Hughes (Chaplain and Acting Dean of the College Chapel), Amanda Bauman and Rachel Flamm (the two young ladies who are organizing the transportation logistics of the tour), and your humble scribe. All in all, it was a wonderful evening long to be remembered!


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