The Guildford Cathedral Choir of men and boys visited Raleigh as part of its US East Coast tour. St. Michael’s Episcopal Church was both venue and host, putting up the mostly very young men – and their director and accompanist – while they were here. They’d arrived the previous Friday in New York and spent an apparently tiring weekend there, singing and sightseeing, as groups on tour are wont to do. As a result, the substantial program, printed in color by the church, was trimmed and rearranged as the concert progressed.
The place was packed, and in the audience were choristers, choral directors, organists, and scholars. There seemed to be contingents from many of the important Episcopal churches, but other denominations were there in full force, too. There was warm welcoming applause as the 23 singers and their director, Katherine Dienes-Williams (whose title is “Organist and Master of the Choristers”) processed. She avoided the keyboard on this occasion, however; the accompaniments were provided by David Davies, “Sub Organist & Director of the Cathedral Girls Choir” (which didn’t get to make the trip).
One reason the place was packed may have been Dienes-Williams’ prior work here; she’s served as artistic director of the Royal College of Music summer programs (in the Triangle) on two occasions, and she has a huge and altogether favorable reputation among church musicians. Based on the singing of the Guildford Choir, that reputation is richly deserved. She’s a highly animated director, and she elicited some of the most remarkable “church choir” singing heard hereabouts in a long time. If at the outset it was too rich, too full, and perhaps deficient in dynamic contrasts – this is a grandiose way of saying the singing was too loud at first – then in fairness one must report that the ensemble’s (and its director’s) measure of the room found adjustment as the concert progressed, and by the end the musicians dazzled pretty much all the time. The director has been at Guildford only a little over a year, having been appointed in January 2008. She’s broken many gender barriers in the UK – she’s the first female member of the Cathedral Organists Association and the first female director of music in an English cathedral.
Things got underway in Raleigh with a richly-varied Haydn motet (“Insanae et vanae curae”) that left many members of the audience awe-struck. (Texts and translations were not provided.) A trio of a cappella works by Tallis, Byrd, and Gibbons followed, all of which gave ample evidence of the choir’s expert diction, balance, and blend. The clarity of the lines was remarkable, too – and there were no shrinking violets in the ranks, making one wish that our boys choirs (and their directors!) could have heard these visitors. Moore’s short “Ubi caritas” was alas marred by a cell phone (despite a pre-concert prompt by the church’s Kevin Kerstetter). Fortunately, Herbert Howells’ extraordinary – and extraordinarily personal – Requiem was unmarred by audience noise; this six-section work, with two separate settings of “Requiem aeternam,” and several psalm texts along the way, was the evening’s major work and for this listener its highlight as well. Howells’ better known “Magnificat and Nunc dimittis” brought the first half to a close.
Following the intermission, the choir turned to Purcell (“I was glad”) and Mendelssohn (an exceptional reading of “Hear my prayer,” with an exquisite solo). Sub Organist Davies played a brilliant organ solo by Francis Jackson, giving St. Michael’s instrument a fine work-out. More Haydn followed; in “The heavens are telling,” the singing was so splendid it would have been a good stopping point, bringing us full circle to where we’d come in. Instead the choir’s eight men produced “Something for the weekend…” – the offering was “Blue Moon,” of all things, in a sort of mid-‘30s pre-crooner arrangement. John David’s “You are the new day,” a Kings Singers favorite, brought the entire choir back to center stage, and the concert then ended with a rousing performance of Handel’s coronation anthem, “Zadok the Priest,” which, the Very Reverend Victor Stock, Dean of Guildford Cathedral told us, the choir had had the opportunity to sing for the current monarch, not too long ago. A standing ovation – from the heart, for sure – resulted in a single encore, a reading of “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” complete with a few Britishisms not often heard on this side of the pond. As was often the case during this generous program, despite their travel fatigue and lingering jet lag, the singers clearly had a wonderful time with this number – and so did the audience.