Choirs: Huddersfield Choral Society, Huddersfield Choral Society Youth Choirs
Orchestra: Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor: Paul Daniel
Choral Director: Gregory Batsleer
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
The Huddersfield Choral Society’s final concert of the 2018-2019 season had several unusual features. It was only the second time that the society had presented a major concert without vocal soloists. The major work was, to quote Malcolm Hinchliffe’s programme note, “in an idiom quite unlike anything we have previously essayed.” Finally, the concert reunited the Orchestra of Opera North with Paul Daniel whose very successful tenure as its Principal Conductor ended over 20 years ago.
Given the first two features mentioned, the fact that the concert was a decided success is a tribute to the versatility and open-mindedness, as well as the musical quality, of one of the country’s finest choruses, but one associated more with Messiahs than minimalism.
Oddly the evening began very conventionally, with an assured performance of Parry’s Blest Pair of Sirens, accompanied only by Neil Taylor at the Father Willis organ. Then the orchestra took over with Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, leader David Greed soloing with notable delicacy.
Then came the less predictable fare. Tarik O’Regan wrote A Celestial Map of the Sky on commission from Manchester Grammar School in 2015 since when this was only the third performance. The first impression was how crowded the stage was, with a large orchestra required and the Huddersfield Choral Society Youth Chorus – excellent! – joining their seniors. O’Regan’s music proved direct and accessible, leading to at least one very surprised audience comment, “I enjoyed that!”.
A Celestial Map of the Sky, inspired by a 16th-century engraving by Albrecht Durer, sets poems relating to the stars and our world by five different poets, often in interlocking fragments, in a crowded 15-minute piece. Under Daniel’s direction, both chorus and orchestra explored the shifting moods from the hushed mystery of the opening from Hopkins’ After Observing Tempel’s Comet to the percussive explosion of sound in the Whitman extract (“I see the cities of the earth”) that then served as a recurring motif for the whole piece. A particularly evocative segment came with the “lost in space” feel of the setting of Mahmood Jamal’s Work-in-Progress.
After the interval, another orchestral favourite, Delius’ The Walk to the Paradise Garden, preceded the most substantial – and most challenging – work on the programme, John Adams’ Harmonium, a setting of poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. Dating from 1980, at a time when Adams described himself as “a minimalist bored with minimalism”, it contains the typical pulsing motor rhythms of minimalism, often passed around between sections of the orchestra or between voices and instruments, but much else besides.
The chorus’ command of the idiom showed from the opening of Donne’s Negative Love when a single note grew and developed through a gradual accumulation of wordless voices and instruments, building into a climax of great complexity which then contrasted with the bleak restraint of the setting of Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop For Death. The final setting, of Dickinson’s Wild Nights, preceded by a shattering orchestral crescendo, found the chorus encompassing Adams’ stratospheric demands before the final quiet of the closing bars.
Perhaps the programming was a bit unbalanced, but the concert proved above all that, under the direction of Gregory Batsleer, the Huddersfield Choral Society’s range extends far beyond the more familiar choral works for which it is so well-known.
Reviewed on April 12, 2019 | Image: Contributed