South West Philharmonia & Chorus – ‘The Great War Symphony’
The Minster Church of St Andrew, Plymouth
In 2020, Plymouth will be officially involved in the Mayflower 400 celebrations to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower setting sail from the city for America – carrying the pilgrims who would then go on to found the modern United States.
But before all that happens, South West Philharmonia & Chorus (SWPC) has been extremely fortunate in that its burgeoning musical prowess has been recognised, and this has resulted in them being invited to perform The Great War Symphony in New York City’s legendary Carnegie Hall this Armistice Day, alongside similar community choirs from around the world, under the baton of the work’s composer, Patrick Hawes, and organised in conjunction with Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY). That almost half of SWPC’s songsters will this week be flying to the Big Apple, very much attests to the community spirit among the choir-members, and who clearly feel proud and privileged to be part of this imminent international performance.
The Great War Symphony – for choir, orchestra and two soloists – was written in aid of SSAFA The Armed Forces Charity, to remember the centenary of the First World War, and was premiered in London’s Royal Albert Hall earlier last month, in partnership with Classic FM, as part of the national celebrations to mark the centenary’s end.
Confident leadership and abundant musicality
SWPC gave the work’s regional premiere to a capacity audience in the city’s mother church, following on from the Royal British Legion’s annual Remembrance Festival, which very appropriately comprised the evening’s first half. It’s a substantial work in four movements, which would certainly be very demanding at times even for a fully-professional ensemble, let alone an essentially community-based outfit. True, in some of the more discordant sections, or passages of rhythmic complexity, they sailed quite close to the wind, but the faultless direction at the front from Marcus Alleyne ensured that everything was largely kept on an even keel throughout, and it was so abundantly evident that singers and performers alike had the utmost confidence in his leadership and abundant musicality, which was significantly boosted by having such a clear, straightforward beat – none of the flamboyant, yet largely wasteful arm-waving we sometimes encounter.
Refreshing overall sound
I had previously reviewed the choir in the same venue, just over two years ago – when they sang under the banner of Plymouth’s former Palace Theatre – and was suitably impressed at the time. But the progress made since then was so noticeable both in the evening’s first half, and in the War Symphony. Marcus has clearly worked so hard on improving the overall sound, which is really a refreshing mix of conventional classical voice-production with elements of music-theatre, where the sopranos, in particular, have such a pure timbre, not the kind of oratorio choral singing where it’s evident that some firsts should really consider dropping down to the seconds. It was indeed something that really helped the choir to maintain good pitch and attack at all times. This, in fact, was very noticeable in some of the excellent first-half contributions, too, like Dan Forrest’s Eternal Father, and How Great Thou Art, and John Cornish’s immensely more-appealing modern setting of Abide With Me.
Sections of great beauty and serenity
World War I was not only one of the largest wars in history, but it was definitely also one of the deadliest conflicts, too. Perhaps, for this reason, the composer felt the need, on occasions, to match this in sound, with some really musically-harrowing passages for singers and players alike, some of which worked, and some which, frankly, didn’t quite. But taking the work as a whole, there was an overall balance between good and bad, and many sections of great beauty and serenity.
A sense of tranquillity and calm
The two soloists were equally confronted by a similar challenge, especially in terms of pitching some difficult entries, or in negotiating a high, and often quite angular line, where the tenor was concerned. Both, though, were in top voice, with soprano Catherine Hamilton delivering her part effortlessly, and bringing a sense of tranquillity and calm to the proceedings. Tenor Colin Arthur did have the less-rewarding part to sing, often where sheer brute force power was more the order of the day than pure finesse, but again he rose to the occasion with aplomb.
A final word of praise must go to the evening’s compere – BBC Radio Devon presenter David FitzGerald – whose eminent experience ensured that the gravity of the Remembrance Festival was never compromised, but he was equally able to bring some levity and humour to the proceedings overall, where appropriate.
Tremendously moving evening
This tremendously moving evening was, of course, a commemoration of the tragic loss of millions of lives over some four years. But it was also a celebration of life, too, and, as such, SWPC’s contribution and The Great War Symphony were absolutely germane to this on the night.
Meanwhile we wish all those musical pilgrims shortly jetting across the pond a safe journey, and hope that their next performance, in midtown Manhattan, might even eclipse last night’s already truly-memorable experience.
Philip R Buttall
top image: SWPC (with Catherine Hamilton and Colin Arthur inset)
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