Little over a week after our first introduction to choral music, we found ourselves yesterday at St. Botolph’s Church in Colchester, for Colchester Bach Choir’s 20th Anniversary Concern – Handel’s Oratorio Saul.
St. Botolph’s Church is hidden away off the bottom of Queen Street, only dedicated in 1837, and a much more spartan interior than older churches. It was a good setting for the performance, the two dozen plub members of the choir seated below the three stained glass windows, and the similar number of members of the orchestra in front of them. The soloists took centre stage when they were performing, very close to the audience.
The programme gave useful notes, outlining the story, which was in Three Acts, with the ‘scenes’ from each act listed in order, helping you to keep up with what was happening. Having the words in English was a great help! The story features David, who famously slew the goliath, being lionised by the Israelites for this act, but falling prey to the envy of the king, Saul, who vows to kill him and charges his son, Jonathan to do the deed. There’s also the love of David with the king’s daughter, Michal to put into the mix.
These four primary characters moved on and off stage as they sung – and the performances were excellent. Lindsay Gowers was the soprano, sung the role of Michal, Saul’s daughter. Jonathan, Saul’s son, was a young tenor, Jonathan Hanley, who gave a performance beyond his years, clearly showing the emotion of being charged by his father to kill his best friend.
The role of Saul was given gravitas by bass Roderick Earle, who demonstrated the angst and anger of the king. There was a memorable scene where he calls upon witches to summon the ghost of the prophet Samuel, who duly appears in the shape of bass Richard Fallas, up in the balcony, telling Saul that his time has come and that he will fall in battle, along with his son Jonathan, the next day.
Pride of place though goes to counter-tenor Robert Cross, who played David. Truth be told, I didn’t know a counter-tenor from a counter-terrorist before the concert, so when he stood up, playing the noble warrior, young and bearded and with a touch of Gerard Butler from the film 300 (about the Spartans), his voice came as a wonderful surprise, making the most of the high ceilings. The scene with him denouncing the Amalekite who put Saul to death gave him the opportunity to display his emotional range.
The full choir had got the oratoria off to a flying start with the opening praises for victory in battle and were strong throughout, with the final chorus bringing things to an epic conclusion.
Musically we had a wonderful harp solo, a notable harpsichord sequence, and the timpani did sterling work in the Death March, which was the orchestral highlight of the evening. One chorister showed off her range of abilities by popping down into the orchestra to take up her flute at one point! (I won’t namecheck Catherine Wood to avoid embarassing her!)
And finally of course a word of praise for conductor Patrick McCarthy, who started the Colchester Bach Choir 20 years ago – and without whom there would not have been the concert. Speaking to one of the members of the orchestra at the interval, it was a surprise to find out just how quickly the orchestra had been brought together for the performance – we would have imagined weeks and weeks of rehearsals for such a quality performance, so even more praise for the members of the orchestra and Patrick McCarthy!