REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Micklegate Singers, St Lawrence Church, York, March 24

Micklegate Singers: “Laying out a typically adventurous menu”

IN a Lent-themed programme entitled Beyond The World, the Micklegate Singers under Nicholas Carter laid out a typically adventurous menu built round the first complete performance of A Quaker Trilogy, featuring three composers responding to a text by William Penn.

Renaissance motets framed mainly living composers reflecting on life and death. At the start, Manuel Cardoso’s setting of a lesson for Maundy Thursday matins showed admirable restraint, well suited to a slow-moving soprano line against more active polyphony in the lower voices. His style typified the mid-17th century Portuguese penchant for colourful harmony, which was conveyed neatly here.

At the end of the evening, dynamic contrasts and smooth metre-changing lent Byrd’s Haec Dies plenty of excitement. Owing more than a little to its style was Howells’ setting of the same text, heard immediately before, with its leaping octaves before the final climax every bit as exultant.

Rhythmic spice was less evident in many of the modern works. The various sections of Matthew Martin’s Missa Brevis (St Dominic), interspersed through the first half, were a welcome exception, with a particularly lively ‘Gloria’ and carefree abandon at the first ‘Hosanna’ in the Sanctus.

On paper, the Penn trilogy looked like an excellent idea. But the chosen passage, doubtless well known to Quakers from its use at memorial meetings, but less so to those of other faiths, was heavily freighted with eschatological philosophy and not an obvious choice for musical setting. For its meaning to remain clear, it required delicate handling and minimal use of polyphony, a severe handicap to the University of York composers concerned.

The poster for the Micklegate Singers’ Beyond The World concert

David McGregor took some time to thin his texture into clarity, before reaching a spacious close evoking eternity. Joe Bates began chordally and was alive to the flow of words, even introducing some humming, before a thoughtful finish. Frederick Viner, the only one to set the entire passage, also took a mainly chordal approach, concluding with a low-lying intimacy that respected the text’s vision.

All three settings had something positive to offer. But it is doubtful whether they should be heard consecutively; they were not on this occasion. Having the same text set by three composers simultaneously is perhaps not such a great idea: who wants to hear the same message three times over? But don’t take my word for it. The three versions will be heard together on June 8 at The Mount School, at 1pm, as part of the York Festival of Ideas (entrance is free).

Other contributions, all tastefully handled, came from Ivo Antognini, whose modal Lux Aeterna benefited from gentle counterpoint and close harmony, and Ben Parry’s thoughtful Lighten Our Darkness.

James Whitbourn, who had died at the age of 60 only 12 days earlier, was represented by He Carried Me Away In The Spirit, a slow-moving meditation from the Book of Revelation memorable for its ecstatic phrase on ‘holy Jerusalem’.

Best of all these, however, was James MacMillan’s Who Shall Separate Us?, which keeps its words from Romans paramount. Its very high forceful Alleluia before an extremely hushed Amen were superbly done.

The Micklegate Singers are Yorkshire’s most adventurous chamber choir. Long may they remain so.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Micklegate Singers to give first complete performance of A Quaker Trilogy by University of York composers on Saturday

The poster for Micklegate Singers’ Beyond The World concert

MICKLEGATE Singers will give the first complete performance of A Quaker Trilogy, William Penn’s words of comfort, set by three burgeoning York composers at Saturday’s concert at St Lawrence’s Church, Lawrence Street, York.

Those works will be Frederick Viner’s The Truest End, David McGregor’s They That Love and Joe Bates’s Absence.

“Over the last season or so, the Micklegate Singers have been drip-feeding a set of three commissions into our concert programmes by wonderful new composers from the University of York,” says chair Sarah Sketchley.

“These are based on Quaker words of comfort by William Penn, chosen by the commissioner, and are about to be performed as a full set for the first time since being published by University of York Music Press (UYMP).”

Directed by Nicholas Carter, Saturday’s Beyond The World programme also will feature music of mourning by Manuel Cardoso (Et Egressus Est A Filia Sion) and James MacMillan (Who Shall Separate Us?), through music of the light from Ivo Antognini (Lux Aeterna) and James Whitbourn (He Carried Me Away In The Spirit), to the brightness of Herbert Howells’ Haec Dies and William Byrd’s work of the same name.

Matthew Martin’s Mass of St Dominic and Ben Parry: Lighten Our Darkness will be performed too. Tickets for the 7.30pm concert will be available at the door with free admission for anyone in full-time education and accompanied children.

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Micklegate Singers, Unitarian Chapel, York

Nicholas Carter: Musical director of the Micklegate Singers

Late Music presents Micklegate Singers, Unitarian Chapel, St Saviouragte, York, December 3

LATE Music’s latest double-header – two concerts in one day on the first Saturday of autumn and winter months – welcomed the Micklegate Singers under Nicholas Carter at mid-day.

They belong under the Late Music umbrella: they established a reputation early on, under their founder-director Dennis Freeborn, for tackling new and often challenging repertoire.

This one was seasonal, entitled And There Were Shepherds…, but wisely included several Renaissance pieces alongside some 20th century favourites and others on which the ink was barely dry, the most recent being a new commission from James Else enjoying its premiere.

The Road Of Evening is a setting of Walter de la Mare’s Nod, which speaks of an old shepherd and his dog, Slumber-soon, and by inference of God tending his flock through the ages. Its Christmas message is negligible, but Else’s modal evocation of serene solitude is effective, if without focusing on any one aspect of the poetry.

Another premiere came with Absence, a setting by Joe Bates of various texts taken from William Penn’s More Fruits Of Solitude. This was the second of three pieces commissioned by the Micklegates from student composers at the University of York.

Bates’s penchant for parallel fifths is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams, although his use of two texts in conjunction, one in female voices, one in male, is certainly unusual – but it works. Humming later contributes to a sense of resolution from the conflicts of life; again, not specifically seasonal, but offering imaginative food for thought.

There were four other 21st century pieces. Bob Chilcott’s moving setting of Clive Sansom’s The Shepherd’s Carol (2000) was smoothly atmospheric, while the angular lines and bouncy rhythms of Cecilia McDowall’s Now May We Singen (2008) were the best projected of the evening.

The climax of U A Fanthorpe’s stunning poem BC – AD was not quite captured by David Bednall’s chordal setting of 2013. More effectively meditative was Alexander L’Estrange’s Epiphany Carol of the same year.

A Jonathan Dove lullaby joined other established favourites by Holst, Leighton, Poulenc and Richard Rodney Bennett, whose sensitivity to words was especially notable. The three Renaissance pieces, healthy reminders of a 500-year tradition of Christmas music, were by Palestrina, Lassus and Dering, all keenly negotiated.

The Micklegates tended to go easy on their diction in slower numbers, but in general we should rejoice that they are back from lockdown in fine fettle.

Review by Martin Dreyer