This was my second visit to the Brandenburg Choral Festival, and I was looking forward to seeing younger performers tackle some challenging music. The experience outlined in the programme that Oakham School Chamber Choir have had is impressive, with the school giving over 80 concerts a year and touring recently to Dublin and Paris. This auditioned choir has around 30 of Oakham’s best singers and so they were going to have to impress.

Oakham School Chamber Choir © Rupert Conant
Oakham School Chamber Choir
© Rupert Conant

The theme of light ran through all of tonight’s pieces, and the concert marked the 70th birthday year of American composer Morten Lauridsen. As well as all the pieces being modern, the composers were also all British and American, with personal favourites Paul Mealor, Jonathan Dove and Eric Whitacre.

The concert opened with the London première of Mealor’s Matin Responsory. There were three soloists (a soprano, a tenor and a bass) standing towards the back of the church with the rest of the choir on stage. The piece was extraordinary and the choir showed it off, with good dynamic control and complicated passing notes. Of the three soloists, the bass had the best voice, easily filling the large venue, and the interaction between the soloists and the group overall was successful.

The other highlight of the concert was Lux Aurumque, a perfect example of what a talented composer Whitacre is. However a choir performs it, the composition is so good that the piece just works, but there were some problems here. The start was slightly shaky and not together, and phrases were not held for long enough, with beautiful chords being cut short. “Canunt angeli” is one of the best sections and was sung well but the balance was off, the tenors being much too loud. The piece ended well, redeemed by the sopranos. They have a drone for many bars, and it was completely seamless, with a beautiful, pure sound. Although there were some technical issues, the piece carried itself, and it was clear the singers were enjoying it.

Their performance of the Dove also showed promise, with some amazing moments. Thomas Chatterton moved the organ and had a lovely repeated oscillating motif to represent twinkling stars. The soprano soloist who opened was slightly weak, but again the sopranos triumphed with their ascending high notes, especially in the slow, chordal section. It may be the way the piece is written but the flow seemed broken by distinct and varying sections, and overall a bit choppy.

The rest of the concert was taken up by Morten Lauridsen. Conductor Peter Davis had to work far too hard in this piece, with huge gestures, and he often asked for more at the end of phrases when singers had no more to give. He also used big breaths to bring the singers in and voiced the consonants, which became quite distracting.

Nocturnes had three movements, firstly “Sa nuit d’été”. The French pronunciation was good, and the choir seemed to enjoy the moving lines which clashed with one another. The second, “Soneto de la noche”, was unaccompanied, and the choir did well here. Apart from some hesitant entries, they watched well and showed they really have mastered pianissimo singing. Their suspensions worked well and there were some incredible chords created that one couldn’t begin to analyse. After an unsure start to “Sure on this shining night”, the singers did well. The third verse was stunning, with unison boys and then the girls entering with a powerful canon. The sopranos again flourished with an awkward descant, but there were some differences in vowel sounds which they needed to smooth out.

The second Lauridsen piece is hard to criticise, as they dedicated it to Captain Peter Barnes, who had attended the school. He died the day before in the Vauxhall helicopter crash, and this gave the performance a lot of extra passion and emotion. This work had some amazing moments, especially where the piano (Peter Davis) and organ (Thomas Chatterton) overlapped, and on the words “O nata lux”, which had a fantastic melody. Some of the unaccompanied sections went a bit astray and were resolved when the accompaniment returned, but it was a hard work to end on.

Overall this was a good concert, and although the choir didn’t perform perfectly, there are some fantastic voices in there. Their choice of programme is encouraging, and it was special to have notes from the composer on all of the works, and to be celebrating four living musicians.