Colchester Choral Society : A Celebration of Benjamin Britten

ccsoc300Last year we were at St. Botolph’s Church in Colchester for Colchester Bach Choir’s performance of Handel’s Oratorio ‘Saul’ which we thoroughly enjoyed.

This weekend we were at the same location. We were just a few yards from the Silk Road nightclub of current Channel 4 document ‘Bouncers’ fame/infamy, but fortunately more than a few hours away from their opening time. The Colchester Choral Society were hosting A Celebration of Benjamin Britten, marking the centenary of the birth of the famous East Anglian composer.

There were four pieces before the interval. And should you wish to dip a toe into classic music as we are doing, here’s a tip : buy the programme as you’ll get much more from the evening! ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’ was first, with soloists Susan Allen, Catherine Wood, Andrew Carpenter, and Peter Bartlett, with Colchester Sinfonia providing the music. Britten set the score to Jubilate Agno, a poet and scholar who ended up in a succession of asylums through being just a bit too pious! The notes explain what would be an otherwise baffling reference to ‘my cat Jeoffry’ in the lyrics!

Second up was ‘Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings’ with Tom Raskin and Mark Bennett filling those first two roles, and Alexa Butterworth asterisked in the programme as principal violinist. The programme made mention of the horn part making use of the horn’s ‘natural harmonics’, which meant nothing to me! The reference to being able to play a Mozart concerto on a garden hose gave a clue, as it was helfpully pointed out to me later that this involves not using the fingers to make notes, but to simply blowing into the bloody thing. Talk about making life difficult for yourself!

Conductor Ian Ray did helpfully point out that the natural harmonics were not to be confused with playing off-key (as an audience member had pointed out during a previous performance many years ago), and that Britten’s instructions were clear in requiring the horn to move some distance away for the final horn epilogue. And Mark Bennett did duly do this, out through a side door! The serenade used verses from poets including Tennyson, William Blake, John Keats and Ben Jonson. However, pride of place goes to the anonymous writer of ‘A Lyke Wake Dirge’, which Britten and the performers made quite a memorable section, alternating the narrative storyline with the repeat of Every night and alle, And Christe receive thy saule. Scary stuff!

Ashley Grote then performed a short ‘Prelude and Fugue on a Theme of Vittoria’, on the organ which was on the side of the building we were on, and consequently he was out of view until he appeared to take a bow! Also worthy of mention were Nigel Clayton and Francesca Leonardi, playing on the same piano (at the same time!).

And to complete the first session was ‘A Hymn to the Virgin’, with Latin helpfully translated in the programme.

After the interval was ‘Saint Nicolas’, with libretto written by Eric Crozier, which celebrates the life of Saint Nicolas (now famous for wearing Coca-Cola red and bringing gifts at Xmas!). Tom Raskin sung the part of the adult Nicolas, with the boy Nicolas sung by George Bonham-Carter of Holmwood House School Chamber Choir, who was also one of the Three Pickled Boys, along with school colleagues Jonny Allen and Nicola Rix-Terez – all wearing school blazers, and handling the occasion impeccably.

choirWe follow Nicolas from birth, precocious in his speaking ability (God be glorified!), through Nicolas devoting himself to God, and a journey to Palestine by ship. This was another memborable piece, with the music and the singing pitching the audience into a heaving sea, with the Colchester County High School for Girls Chamber Choir in full voice (never did see any of them as they were in the balcony and out of our sight!).

Fortunately, the Pickled Boys (killed and about the be served to a bishop!), are resurrected, and what is simply ‘Alleluia! Allelulia!’ in the programme, saw several beautiful repeats of this as the three boys walked up the church aisle (there was at least one proud mum almost overcome with emotion! and rightly so!)

Britten also cleverly includes the audience twice, so that at the end the audience is standing, singing a hymn to bring a marvellous evening to a rousing conclusion.

You can find out more about the Colchester Choral Society at their website. They have their annual Moot Hall ‘Wassail!’ on Sunday 8th December 2013, and 2014 sees Mozart, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Handel, amongst others, being performed.