REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on The Chapter House Choir’s Carols By Candlelight, York Minster, 17/12/2022

The Chapter House Choir

THE Chapter House Choir’s Carols By Candlelight concert was again set in the nave of York Minster, rather than the Chapter House of days past.

The Choir was augmented by the Chapter House Youth Choir – superbly directed by Benjamin Morris and Charlie Gower-Smith respectively – the choir’s Handbell Ringers and York organist William Campbell.

The concert, touchingly dedicated to the memory of Dr Alvan White, the choir’s Candlelighter-in-Chief for these concerts for so many years, opened with Tasmin Jones’s simple but affecting ceremonial procession.

The Choir’s delivery of Gaudete was a dancing delight but Yshani Perinpanayagam’s In Bethlehem Above did suffer slightly with jarring high soprano intonation. William Campbell clearly relished David Willcocks’s Postlude on Mendelssohn and so did we.

The performance of Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque was one of the night’s highlights: beautiful soprano singing, nigh-perfect close-harmony pitching creating a delicate, musical glow.

Cecilia McDowall’s Of A Rose’s use of the Choir’s upper and lower voices came across very effectively, as did the linear singing and moments of rhythmic togetherness. Well written, well performed.

Darius Battiwalla’s Suo Gan was simply lovely, as were the gently falling musical snowflakes of John Hastie’s O Come, O Come Emmanuel for handbells. The Youth Choir’s performance of John Joubert’s ever-infectious Torches was very well judged, even understated, to suit the Minster acoustic and enhance both clarity and enjoyment.

For your reviewer, however, the most rewarding offerings were the two versions of Jesus Christ The Apple Tree: the famous Elizabeth Poston setting and the new one composed this year by the Choir’s founder, Andrew Carter.

Both embraced the freshness, simplicity and fluency of the anonymous 18th-century New England text, both had a sweet, seemingly effortless delivery and both stayed in the memory after the concert itself.

Personally, I prefer the intimacy of the Chapter House itself, but a huge audience seemed perfectly happy here and were richly rewarded by this ever-present Christmas event. An event that continues to embrace a spiritual counterpoint to the season’s materialistic saturation of today. Maybe.

Review by Steve Crowther

Chapter House Choir to premiere Andrew Carter carol at Saturday’s Carols By Candlelight. Dr Alvan White tribute too

The Chapter House Choir, with director Benjamin Morris in the foreground

CHAPTER House Choir’s Carols By Candlelight concert returns to York Minster on Saturday night.

Directed by Benjamin Morris, the choir will be joined in the nave by the Chapter House Youth Choir, directed by Charlie Gower-Smith, the choir’s Handbell Ringers and York organist William Campbell for a feast of festive music, combining familiar carols with new and exciting compositions.

The 7.30pm programme with no interval includes the premiere of Jesus Christ The Apple Tree, a carol composed specially for the choir this year by distinguished founder Andrew Carter.

Andrew Carter: Premiere of new carol Jesus Christ The Apple Tree

The 90-minute concert will be dedicated to the memory of Dr Alvan White, the choir’s Candlelighter-in-Chief for these concerts from 2003 to 2018. He died in August 2022, having suffered for some years with Lewy body disease.

To mark his long and happy association with the choir, the collection at the end will be in aid of the Lewy Body Society, the British specialist charity that raises awareness and funds research into this poorly understood and often misdiagnosed disease.

Dr White’s daughter, choir member Rachel Hicks, says: “When we needed someone to light the candles for our concerts almost 20 years ago, I knew this would be the perfect job for my Dad.

Dr Alvan White, who died in August, undertaking his Candlelighter-in-Chief duties, a post he held for the Chapter House Choir from 2003 to 2018

“He was a retired chemistry lecturer, who had learned the skill of glassblowing to mend lab equipment, so my childhood memories of visiting him at work were of him working with fire!

“Who better to come to the Minster and light hundreds of candles for our concerts? Dad loved classical music, so this was an ideal combination. As a family, we are honoured that his contribution to the life of the choir is being recognised in this way and that we can support further research into what we know, first-hand, to be a challenging and complex condition.”

Jacqueline Cannon, the Lewy Body Society’s chief executive, adds: “We are very grateful to the Chapter House Choir for the opportunity to raise awareness of Lewy body dementia. There are around 130,000 people living with the disease in the UK, yet it is often described as the most common disease you’ve never heard of.

Donations at the Chapter House Choir’s Carols by Candlelight concert will be given to the Lewy Body Society, in memory of the late Dr Alvan White

“Through our research programme, we support studies that help us to better understand, diagnose and treat the disease, and to date we have funded more than £2 million in grants. The donations made at the concert will help us to continue this work, as well as providing specialist information and support to families, like Alvan’s, who are affected by the disease.”

Tickets are available at: yorkminster.org/whats-on/event/chapter-house-choir-carols-by-candlelight. Doors open at 6.45pm.

Did you know?

The Chapter House Choir first performed Carols by Candlelight in York Minster in 1965, when the choir was formed to raise funds for the York Minster Appeal.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Carols By Candlelight, Chapter House Choir, York Minster, December 15

Chapter House Choir musical director Benjamin Morris

WITHDRAWAL symptoms were widespread last year when Carols By Candlelight succumbed to Covid. For it has become a tradition without which no York Yuletide is complete.

This year it was back with a vengeance, transplanted from the Chapter House to the Nave of the Minster to allow a larger audience. Even if the candles did not flicker quite so intimately, the move was a resounding success: the building’s wide-open spaces were encouraged to co-operate.

Musical director Benjamin Morris had chosen a typically eclectic programme. Admirably, more than half of the 18 choral pieces were either composed or arranged by living musicians. In addition to the main choir, we enjoyed the Chapter House Youth Choir, conducted by Charlie Gowers-Smith, the traditional Handbell Ringers and three organ interludes from Asher Oliver.

The combined choirs opened with Andrew Carter’s tasteful arrangement of the Advent plainsong hymn, Veni Emmanuel, sung in procession. The Advent responsory that followed featured a beautifully crystalline soprano soloist (unnamed). Muscular contrasts came with Joubert’s Torches and in the crisp syncopation of Matthias’s arrangement of Sir Christèmas, the oldest carol here and reaching back to the 15th century.

At the other end of the spectrum, we had Master of the Queen’s Music Judith Weir’s setting of William Blake’s My Guardian Angel, with its cleverly repeating Alleluia, sung by the combined choirs. Even more atmospheric was Holst’s In The Bleak Midwinter, with the alternating choirs widely spaced. The sweet harmonies of Sally Beamish’s In The Stillness stood up well alongside Warlock’s tasty Bethlehem Down.

The choir’s final group was the best of all. After tenderly caressing The Shepherds’ Farewell, from Berlioz’s ‘L’enfance du Christ’, there was a lovely calm in Nicola LeFanu’s Saint Ita’s Lullaby and much feeling in Rutter’s melodious Candlelight Carol. We finished as we began, with founder-director Andrew Carter’s Make We Merry, spirited and heart-warming.

Along the way, the Handbell Ringers brought their mystifying skills to bear on four numbers, with Carter’s arrangement of Good King Wenceslas and John Hastie’s of We Wish You A Merry Christmas drawing especially warm applause.

The Youth Choir launched into the Vaughan Williams arrangement of the Yorkshire Wassail with special vigour. Oliver’s three contributions were gracefully restrained – we might have had a little more in the way of fireworks – although he had to do battle with a reed stop on the newly-restored organ speaking rather less than cleanly.

At ten minutes less than two hours despite no interval, the concert might have been a touch shorter for audience comfort in the chill, but it was wonderfully energising to have this great tradition back where it belonged.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Next performance by Chapter House Choir: Festival of Carols, St Michael-le-Belfrey, York, December 18, 7.30pm.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Chapter House Choir, York Minster Nave, 13/11/21

Composer Lillie Harris: “Commissioned piece will stand alone well as an introit or anthem”

ON the eve of Remembrance Sunday, there could be no more perfect choice of repertory than A German Requiem, Brahms’ non-liturgical memorial to the dead. It was given in the original German to the composer’s own piano-duet version, alongside a short unaccompanied new work commissioned from Lillie Harris.

Like so many performers during lockdown, Chapter House Choir under Benjamin Morris has struggled to stay together and survive. So this was a test of its mettle, as well as being the first post-lockdown ticketed musical event at York Minster itself.

While it is true that Brahms intended a “human” requiem, he did not mean a humanist one, as implied by the programme note. The two words are not interchangeable. He selected exclusively biblical texts for his work – as did Miss Harris, who used only texts selected by Brahms, understandably but also courageously, given that comparisons were bound to be made between old and new.

Her motet, entitled Comfort, began with a prolonged hum incorporating a three-note motif. At first this seemed to be the link between the five brief sections of text. But like the grass withering, it faded and the tonality became more diffuse, in a manner reminiscent of Eric Whitacre, with a slight loss of focus.

Alex Ashworth. “Forthright at the top of his range”. Picture: Debbie Scanlan

The ending – “so will I comfort you” – resolved beautifully, speaking of a technique capable of offering more challenges than were on offer here. My feeling is that this piece will stand alone well as an introit or anthem but will tend to be overshadowed in the company of a whole requiem, like a tugboat sheltering beside an ocean liner, largely overlooked.

Commercial nous was what drove Brahms to write this four-hands at one piano version of his Requiem, which was quickly demanded after the success of the orchestral original. It makes for a more intimate atmosphere but should not be regarded as a complete replacement.

A smooth line was immediately apparent in the choir, with sopranos pinging their high notes satisfyingly. In ‘For all flesh is as grass’, each return of the opening unison was progressively firmer and the closing fugato appeared in a crisp staccato.

Soprano Susan Young: “Maternal, consolatory tone”

In the first of his two contributions, baritone Alex Ashworth was forthright at the top of his range while sustaining an impressive legato. The mood-change at “the souls of the righteous” was almost jaunty; no reason why not, given Brahms’ positive attitude and keenness to avoid prolonged lugubriousness.

It was in “How lovely are thy dwellings” that it became clear that the pianists, Eleanor Kornas and Polly Sharpe, who were otherwise unfailingly tasteful, needed to come to the fore at moments when the choir was not involved rather than remain in the background. They were not, it should be added, blessed with a piano in ideal shape: it sounded particularly tinny in the upper reaches.

The maternal, consolatory tone that soprano Susan Young found for “You now therefore have sorrow”, suggesting that a silver lining lay round the corner, was just about ideal. She polished it off with a beautifully controlled piano that distilled the very essence of Isaiah’s words of comfort.

If the last trump fell slightly short of sending shivers down the spine and the fugue that followed it lacked clarity because individual entries were not given enough prominence, there was considerable compensation in the finale, ‘Blessed are the dead’, which was clean, confident and comforting. The Chapter House Choir is back and in fine fettle.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Chapter House Choir to perform Brahms’s German Requiem and Lillie Harris world premiere at Saturday’s York Minster concert

Baritone Alex Ashworth: Soloist for Brahms’s Ein Deutsches. Picture: Debbie Scanlan

THE Chapter House Choir performs Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem at York Minster on Saturday night.

This 7.30pm concert is a rare opportunity to hear Brahms’s own arrangement written for piano duet (the ‘London version’ premiered in 1873), revealing the work in a new light: more intimate and transparent, exposing a wider variety of choral timbres and textures.

Baritone Alex Ashworth, who also teaches singing at the Royal Academy of Music, joins soprano Susan Young, who has sung notable roles at English National Opera and Opera Holland Park, to perform the Brahms work alongside pianists Eleanor Kornas and Polly Sharpe.

Soprano Susan Young

“Hearing the Chapter House Choir is never just about the music; it’s about the whole experience,” says choir publicist Richard Long. “That’s why this performance of Brahms’s German Requiem promises to be a remarkable concert, combining one of the best-loved choral works of all time with the magical ambience of York Minster, four outstanding soloists – and a world premiere too.”

Musical director Benjamin Morris, York Minster’s assistant director of music, says: “The opportunity to explore this piece in its more intimate version for piano with four hands accompaniment has been really exciting for all of us.

“Together with the unique acoustics and incredibly grand architecture of York Minster’s Nave, this will offer an exhilarating and emotional experience of the German Requiem.”

Chapter House Choir musical director Benjamin Morris

The world premiere will be Comfort by award-winning emerging composer Lillie Harris, specially commissioned for Saturday’s concert.

Lillie says: “Reflecting the strong themes in Ein Deutsches Requiem of love, loss, acceptance, and human mortality, I have sought to bring these ideas together in Comfort: music to create an embrace of warmth, love and understanding, that acknowledges the sadness of loss but also celebrates the joy and memories in a life well lived, and that brings voices together to express support and comfort.”

This weekend’s concert will be dedicated to the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tickets can booked on 01904 557200 or at yorkminster.org.

Composer Lillie Harris: Commission for Chapter House Choir

Who is composer Lillie Harris?

LILLIE graduated from the Royal College of Music in 2016, studying composition with Haris Kittos and winning the Elgar Memorial prize for her final portfolio.

Musical from a young age, her interest in composing grew out of learning instruments, a flair for languages and a love of creative writing. Narrative ideas and complex emotions are often a core element in her compositions, and perhaps explain her increasing interest in choral music.

Her pieces have been workshopped and performed by ensembles such as York’s Ebor Singers, the Assembly Project, Florilegium and Ensemble Recherche, and she has participated in young composer schemes with Psappha, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, National Youth Choir of Great Britain and London Symphony Orchestra, who commissioned her to write new pieces for its Elmer’s Walk Under-5s concert.

In 2017, she was awarded the Tenso Young Composers Award for her song cycle setting poems by August Stramm; in 2019, she was the joint-winner of Echo Choir’s composition competition for her setting of an Alice Oswold poem; in 2020, two choral works written on the NYCGB’s Young Composer Scheme were released on NMC Recordings.