At the end of Bachtrack’s choral month, St. George’s concert venue helped me to discover some hidden gems brought overseas from Venice. After Giovanni Croce’s Deus in adjutorium meum was sung from the balcony to hush the audience, conductor David Ogden opened the evening over the microphone by telling the audience to “prepare to get all Italian”.

Exultate Singers © Louise Broom
Exultate Singers
© Louise Broom

Bristol’s accomplished chamber choir joined one of the world’s leading period instrument ensembles for an evening of music from St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice after their inspirational tour to Italy in October of last year. The Exultate choir played alongside His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts, performing some works that haven’t been heard for over four hundred years in their appropriately titled concert ‘Splendours of Venice’.

Although choral music can be traced back as early as the 14th century in St Mark’s Basilica, its peak as a liturgical powerhouse of sacred music was during the 16th and 17th centuries, which went on to influence Baroque in Germany and the likes of J.S. Bach. The programme for the evening showcased this time period, juxtaposing works from different eras against each other. It was impressive to hear works by the lesser-known Venetian composer Gioseffo Guami (1542-1611), whose works were compiled and arranged by one of the cornett players. The different parts of the pieces had been split up over time and were reunited from several different libraries over Europe from Bologna to Oxford.

David Ogden was as informative as possible, taking great care to explain the about the works and the composers in between pieces, which definitely added to the enjoyment of the concert. Ogden’s explanations served as a contrast to the music, where although different time eras were juxtaposed, there wasn’t quite enough variety between the different pieces. The main contrast musically, was between the instrumental pieces and choral works. His Majesties Sagbutts and Cornetts played works by Giovanni Gabrieli, Giovanni Battista Grillo and Gioseffo Guami.

The choir demonstrated real flexibility in separating into different groups and in their movement around the stage. For each piece, the staging appeared to be different and although in some cases it enhanced the effect of the music around the room, in some circumstances it served as a distraction. Sadly the sensitive nature of the acoustics in St George’s meant that the instrumental Canzon II by Giovanni Gabrieli was disturbed by the footfall of the choir walking down from the balcony to the stage. The staging worked well for the Magnificat à 33 where the singers were divided up into seven separate choirs, spread between the balcony and the stage. The music was written in 33 parts making the piece a real feat for Ogden to coordinate and conduct. Venetian composer and Maestro di Capella of St Mark’s from 1564, Andrea Gabrieli who was also Giovanni Gabrieli’s uncle, inspired Ogden’s choice to move the musicians around the stage. Gabrieli provided variety and a theatrical aural experience in the Basilica. For the unheard In die tribulationis by Guami, the lights of the venue were dimmed to aid the impact of the music. The choral melodies slowly unfurled and were beautiful in this environment.

One of the real highlights of the evening was a performance of the better-known Claudio Monteverdi piece Beatus vir. The vocal soloists throughout the piece were strong and the more lively rhythms and call and response between solo and chorus melodies made it stand out from the rest of the pieces.

All in all, the journey to St Mark’s Basilica was achieved within the evening. David Ogden always manages to add extra elements to the Exultate singers' concerts to make them superbly engaging and historically relevant. This time was no exception. The quote from Leonard Bernstein on the back of Ogden’s shirt summed up the evening: “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time”.