Nigel Jarrett was at Coleg Gwent to watch the award winning Risca Male Choir, conducted by Martin Hodson with baritone Jason Howard and soprano Laura Parfitt.
Few in Wales can have played a more striking part in a singer’s early career than Martin Hodson and Kenneth Loveland. Dame Gwyneth Jones told me on her appointment as a judge at Cardiff Singer of the World how her beginnings as a professional had much to do with the recognition and promotion of her amateur efforts in Pontypool by Loveland, then editor and music critic of the South Wales Argus, when she was being awarded ‘little leather purses full of cash’ for winning competitions at eisteddfodau.
International baritone Jason Howard was a fireman ablaze with song when Martin Hodson, the conductor of Risca Male Choir and later Director of Music at Cross Keys College, saw his potential and began helping him realise it. Having retired from the college and as conductor of Cross Keys Choral Society, which he’d resurrected, Hodson has now said farewell to the male choir too. Howard was not his only charge: Risca soprano Laura Parfitt, a splendid Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville for her Welsh National Opera debut, and now popping up everywhere in music-theatreland, was a part-time barmaid working for the Benefits Agency when Hodson detected her lurking musical gift and shed light on it. Loveland’s function as talent-spotter was to follow a career and write it up in august journals as well as in his own newspaper; Hodson’s has been to encourage those endowments, at the same time bringing the choir to peak musical fitness and keeping it there.
Like Loveland, Martin Hodson has earned the continuing gratitude of those he helped, as this farewell appearance demonstrated. Howard and Parfitt were there to perform as he completed his 36th and final annual concert with the choir, and so was its accompanist, Julie Bevan, who was retiring after 29 years. (For the record, the choir was founded in 1970 and this was its 41st ‘annual’.) But there, apart from the geography shared by their professional lives, similarities ended. Loveland grew to regard male choirs of the Welsh kind with scarcely-concealed distaste. He believed their limited repertory and lack of adventure had ossified their singing. He left it to me, his successor at the Argus, to discover that Martin Hodson and Risca Male Choir had confounded his opinion by retaining the best of the tradition, singing contemporary work, seeking the new and neglected, and taking on opera and the extended choral heavyweights. But, above all, Hodson has been a peerless male choir trainer.
Perhaps that should be ‘living’ composers, not ‘contemporary’. In Psalmody and Bristol Roads, Richard
Roderick Jones and Mervyn Burtch respectively moderated their compositional inclinations to retain and celebrate but also enhance the spirit of Welsh male-choir singing, which embodies both lustiness and often violent dynamic contrast, elements Hodson has to some extent tamed. He proved there was more to it in the Kyrie from Gounod’s Mass No. 2, a piece reprised here and reviving memories of Cherubini’s Requiem in D Minor for male voices, which the choir has sung in its entirety. He’s always been able to reveal the intricate weaving behind density of sound, as in Rosephanye Powell’s The Word Was God; keen to follow fashion in a non-pejorative sense, as witness Eric Whitacre’s The Seal Lullaby; and willing to encourage his choir to sing testing arrangements, such as Robert Shaw’s of The Drunken Sailor. Hodson is a skilled arranger himself, his treatment of D. Emlyn Evans’s hymn Trewen, dedicated to his parents’ memory, being suffused with what can only be described as valedictory feeling. On that account alone, its choice on the night was a coup-de-maître.
On show were other qualities that helped Risca win the Welsh Male Choir of the Year competition and others. Hodson has always insisted on balanced forces, something often out of a conductor’s hands, and achieving them in performance as well as on paper. He’s done it by softening martial textures and creating conditions in which choir members are aware of what their colleagues are up to. The result has been many finely-tuned performances concealing the discipline required to bring them about. He’s had some fine choristers, not least baritone Andrew Jenkins and tenor Henley Cegielski, who stepped up for the duet from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers to blur the pro-am distinction between what the choir could do and what Parfitt and Howard did.
Jason Howard must have surprised many with his announcement that he was winding down his performing career to concentrate on teaching and other activities. The speech he couldn’t resist making was a paean to Martin Hodson, the man responsible for his having a vocation in the first place. He showed us what we’ll be missing, notably a melting lyric baritone of irresistible command and still unshakeable sturdiness, as here in Riccardo’s cavatina ‘Ah! Per sempre io ti perdei’ from the opening part of Bellini’s I Puritani, and the sans-culotte Gérard’s ‘Nemico della patria’, another monologue by a man in hopeless thrall to a female, from Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. No such lovelorn nonsense from King Arthur in ‘How To Handle A Woman’ from Camelot by Lerner and Loewe, and certainly none from the narrator of R.S Hughes’s Y Dymestl!, a Welsh Romantic inhabiting the rocky heights somewhere between Cader Idris and the realm of the Erl-King, with his accompanist teetering on the ledge below.
Parfitt let rip from the off with ornament and bull’s-eye top notes in Elvira’s cavatina ‘Surta e la notte…Ernani, involami’, another meditation on love’s course, this time from Verdi’s Ernani. Like Jason Howard, she gave hints of a lighter touch; but her bias on the night was towards the serious business of dames in distress of one sort or another – the eponymous Rusalka in her ‘Song To The Moon’ from Dvorak’s opera and the title-heroine of Tosca in ‘Vissi d’Arte’ from Puccini’s. The storming duet for Leonora and the Count in act four of Verdi’s Il Trovatore that begins with the recitative ‘Conte…ne cessi’ saw the two guests being led by Fate towards the opera’s melodramatic ending.
After the baton was ceremonially handed to the new conductor, Geraint Davies, it was announced almost in passing that Martin Hodson would start singing rank-and-file with the choir under its new MD. He already sings with the choral society, now re-named Coleg Gwent Chorale. You can take the choir away from the man but you can’t take the man away from the choir.
Header photo courtesy of Risca Male Choir.
Coleg Gwent, Cross Keys, September 19 2015
Risca Male Choir
Jason Howard (baritone); Laura Parfitt (soprano)
Conductor: Martin Hodson MBE
Accompanists: Julie Bevan, Ingrid Surgenor, Stephen Rose
Presented by Beverley Humphreys
Music by: Richard Roderick Jones, Verdi, Lehár, Gounod, Kurt Bestor, Fauré, Bellini, Giordano, Mervyn Burtch, Dvořák, Mozart, Puccini, Trad., arr. Robert Shaw, Eric Whitacre, Rosephanye Powell, Lerner/Loewe, R. S. Hughes, Bizet, Trad., arr. Martin Hodson, D. Emlyn Evans.
Nigel Jarrett writes and reviews for Jazz Journal magazine, and contributes a column called Count Me In. Based in Monmouthshire, he also writes on many subjects for Wales Arts Review. He is the winner of the Rhys Davies Prize and the Templar Shorts Prize for short fiction, and the author of three books of stories, a poetry collection, and a novel. In the last year, he has completed a second novel-type work of fiction, a second poetry collection, and a fourth collection of stories.