University of Plymouth Choral Society
Minster Church of St Andrew
December 9, 2017
When Sir Alex Ferguson retired from Manchester United, he wisely did so when the iconic football club was at its peak, back at the end of the 2012-2013 season. While this ensured that he left right at the top of his managerial career, it then made him a considerably harder act to follow. Simon Ible stood down as Musical Director of the University of Plymouth Choral Society (UPCS) just this summer, and similarly when the choir was riding high.
In fact there is a clear parallel between these two events, though with one subtle difference. While a football manager will have some input on daily training and strategy, it is at the match itself that they can really earn his money – or risk the sack. Choir Directors, on the other hand, not only have to take the rehearsals themselves, but are also usually required to co-ordinate things on the day of the performance, which normally involves rehearsing and integrating the orchestral accompaniment, as well as certain other expected niceties, like talking to the audience, and generally topping and tailing the whole kit and caboodle. However, unlike the football manager, there is rarely someone to assist with all the hard work in rehearsals, or someone to waltz in on the day and conduct the orchestra – such luxuries are rarely the lot of most amateur-choir directors.
New UPCS Musical Director Alice Dennis BEM started working with the choir back in September. This has involved rehearsing the singers, and gradually bringing everyone on side. To do this in well under four months is hard enough, but when there is a pre-ordained concert in a fairly rigid format at the end, which takes place in one of the city’s most prestigious venues – and with an orchestra of initially unfamiliar faces – then ‘hard enough’ starts to look more like ‘mission impossible’.
Alice had made the bold decision to bring her men down from the back of the nave, where they were probably closer to former Bretonside Bus Station than the conductor’s podium, and now integrate them at the front. This certainly made the sound more homogenous and better-balanced, even if it was now the surfeit of ladies destined to stand marooned at the back. Logistically, though, there’s little leeway here, when an orchestra is used.
The first half followed the well-tried mix of congregational carols, carols from the choir – where it was good to see the men having their own spot, something that wouldn’t have otherwise been feasible had they not been repositioned further forward – and some contributions from the four soloists. While this worked up to a point, the repertoire as a whole might have been a little more upbeat, perhaps reflecting Haydn’s stance that you don’t have to be miserable to praise God.
Soloists can always be an unknown quantity. They may well include one, two or more who have already sung with the choir before, or – as on this occasion – four complete new-comers. It’s largely the luck of the draw, but this year’s quartet of soloists arguably wasn’t one of the best ones the choir had appeared with.
As in previous years, the second half was given over to various arias and choruses from Messiah, all rounded off by the obligatory Adeste Fidelis. Handel’s much-heard oratorio did encounter a few glitches along the way, and while it was evident that the choir sang with gusto and enthusiasm at times, they seemed to need clearer directions for their entries, as well as tempi that were robust from the outset. A nod in the direction, say, of the tenors, might suffice in the rehearsal room, with just piano accompaniment, but in performance with full orchestra this really needs to be more definite and visible, lest confidence quickly evaporate.
The contribution from the orchestra cannot be too highly praised. In Mary Eade, Alice simply couldn’t have asked for a more sympathetic, helpful and assured leader, who, along with her colleagues on every part worked untiringly on the night to minimize those moments where the ensemble seemed shaky. As one of the most expensive commodities, time spent working with the orchestra is always going to be at a premium, but that’s the nature of the beast, and audiences expect to have them present most, if not all of the time.
Of course there were lessons to be learnt, but if these are identified, and implemented in future performances, then, together with Alice’s obvious enthusiasm and genial disposition, the university singers should be back at their best before very long, once more raising the roof with some of the kinds of works they tackled so successfully in the past, and which were always such crowd-pullers, too.
Philip R Buttall