A festival of music by contemporary composer Judith Weir doesn’t exactly have ‘crowd pleaser’ written all over it. But the first visit from the BBC Singers to the Royal Northern College of Music in more than a decade might reasonably have been expected to draw audiences in, so it was disappointing to arrive at this concert to a half-empty auditorium.
It’s a common choral joke to talk about falling asleep during the organ pieces, but in Weir’s ‘Wild Mossy Mountains’, a chaotic background of urgent high notes against a sinister, bulging low part was interrupted with a sudden loud chord guaranteed to wake any audience members from their slumbers
Tigers under the Table was a two-day festival at the RNCM exploring the music of Weir, one of the UK’s most successful contemporary composers. Weir is known mainly for choral and operatic works, and her music is more tonal and accessible than that of many of her contemporaries, often drawing heavily on traditional folk music.
The RNCM festival opened on Monday with a lunchtime concert featuring works for solo soprano and solo cello, with a world premiere from RNCM PhD student Gillian Menichino sandwiched in between. Other events over the two days included an open forum and a collaboration with the University of Manchester for a concert of music drawing on Chinese folk tradition.
But the pièce de resistance was undoubtedly the appearance of the BBC Singers on the first night. As the UK’s only full-time professional choir, they might reasonably be expected to be the best choir in the country - and if that’s a lot to ask, they did not disappoint.
Although best known for their large-scale choral concerts with the BBC orchestras, the BBC Singers tackled this largely a cappella repertoire like a seasoned chamber choir, producing beautifully floaty, ethereal sounds in the quiet passages as well as more gutsy, operatic-style singing in the louder parts. Conductor James Morgan shaped the music very capably throughout, with attention to detail and dynamics apparent in every bar.
The opening piece, Weir’s ‘All Ends of the Earth’, produced some pleasing contrasts, with smooth tenors and basses providing a springboard for some ringing, bell-like soprano lines. Like many of the pieces in the programme, it included a subtle percussion accompaniment, in this instance from a twanging xylophone.
In the ensuing three-part ‘Vertue’, it became clear that what really distinguishes the BBC Singers from an amateur choir is the quality of the soloists. Instead of slightly nervous, breathy sopranos overshooting the top notes, we got professional, well-executed solos from clearly very accomplished singers.
The next piece, by Michael Finnissy, was more dissonant and difficult to listen to, but was tackled competently with some impressive diction. As appears to be customary in choral concerts, we were then treated to a work for solo organ – Weir’s ‘Ettrick Banks’. This was a cacophony of strange noises, from haunting fairground playfulness to earth-shattering bass notes.
‘A Blue True Dream of Sky’ provided a pleasant contrast, with some pleasing harmonies sung to the highest standard. Two soloists on the balcony performed difficult duo passages with poise and professionalism, although another solo soprano at ground level produced an almost Wagnerian vibrato that did not quite suit the contemplative nature of the piece.
There was more percussion in ‘Little Tree’, a three-part piece for female voices and marimba. This produced more satisfying harmonies, and further evidence of attention to detail was apparent in the impressively well-placed consonants. Continuing the nature themes, this was followed by a work for female voices and organ, Jonathan Harvey’s ‘The Tree’.
It’s a common choral joke to talk about falling asleep during the organ pieces, but in Weir’s ‘Wild Mossy Mountains’, a chaotic background of urgent high notes against a sinister, bulging low part was interrupted with a sudden loud chord guaranteed to wake any audience members from their slumbers.
Two more melodic pieces by Howard Skempton provided another contrast in a well thought-out programme, although this beautiful, haunting music was not performed with quite the subtlety it deserved. The second piece, with organ accompaniment, gave James Morgan another chance to show his ability to carefully shape each phrase.
The closing piece of the concert was Weir’s unusual setting of ‘Psalm 148’ for choir and solo trombone. There was some impressive diction in the staccato passages and some satisfyingly hearty passages for the men’s voices, although the trombone seemed to confuse and distract rather than add anything to the music.
At the end of the concert, Weir herself emerged from the applauding audience to take a smiling bow and bask in energetic applause indicating that, even if the event was not a crowd-pleaser, the small crowd gathered to hear this music performed at its best were certainly going away pleased.