Cath Barton gets into the Christmas spirit when she visits the Borough Theatre, Abergavenny for a seasonal performance by the New Oxford Consort.
Christmas lights may appear earlier on our streets, but Advent Sunday marks the start of the Christmas period in the liturgical calendar, an occasion for anticipatory and joyful music. The Advent Carol Service sung by the choir of St John’s College, Cambridge, is traditionally broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 3pm on Advent Sunday. This year in Abergavenny we had an alternative at that precise time – a concert of choral music for Advent and Christmas given in our Borough Theatre by a visiting group of young singers, the New Oxford Consort, in their debut performance in Wales.
Director Freddie Crowley draws singers from a pool of young professionals for concerts. For this one we had 8 singers, giving a programme of mostly well-known religious music. Nothing wrong with the well-known, well done. Audiences always love the Coventry Carol, Ding dong merrily on high and In the bleak midwinter. There were other pieces in this programme which would have been familiar to anyone who has attended or listened to Advent Carol Services over the years, but with spatial separation of the singers adding aural interest to some of these. In Britten’s antiphonal A hymn to the virgin the second quartet sang from the theatre balcony which, it turns out, has a warm acoustic. In the piece which followed, Michael Praetorius’ Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen, the soprano and alto from the quartet which had been in the balcony moved to the sides of the auditorium to sing. All returned to the stage for Herbert Howells’ setting of the same text as the Praetorius in his lovely carol-anthem A Spotless Rose.
It was good to hear male voices showcased in Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of This is the truth sent from above and bass John Lee was in fine voice in The Three Kings, written by Peter Cornelius as a solo song and here sung with an 8-part choir accompaniment (the consort being augmented by their director). Among the lesser-known pieces, I particularly enjoyed Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds’ O Emmanuel, a rare and welcome showcase for alto voices in the ensemble.
There were occasions in the programme when a more resonant church setting would have supported the intentions of the music better, notably in James MacMillan’s O radiant dawn, which requires a developing welter of sound that it is difficult for 8 singers to achieve in a dry acoustic. I enjoyed hearing Poulenc’s Quatre motets pour he temps de Noël, although the transition from Victoria’s setting of O magnum mysterium to the radically different tonality of Poulenc’s setting of the same text took a while to settle on the ear.
As an encore the group gave us a gloriously slushy arrangement of Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
In a group of this size, made up of singers who are all aiming to make careers as soloists, the challenge is to achieve balance and blend. This consort achieved some lovely soft chording, but when the parts were moving separately there was not always an evenness of sound between the voices. The New Oxford Consort, formed only in 2018, has some way to go to find its own niche in a field which is getting crowded with first-rate vocal ensembles. They have an energetic and enthusiastic director in Freddie Crowley, who also has an engaging manner with an audience, and it will be interesting to watch their progress.
Cath Barton won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella with The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint. Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published by Louise Walters Books in September 2020, and in early 2021 Retreat West Books will publish her collection of short stories inspired by the work of the Flemish artist Hieronymus Bosch.