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Music review: A Festival of Church Music (St John’s, Smith Square)

21 June 2024

Fiona Hook attends a choral concert in St John’s, Smith Square


THE Vox Anima organisation aims to provide opportunities for amateur choirs to sing modern music in fine venues. Their showcasing in St John’s, Smith Square, of three composers demonstrated that new music for the Church — in “A Festival of Church Music” — doesn’t have to sacrifice accessibility for novelty, and that tonality still has its place in the repertoire.

K. Lee Scott, who is 74, is a widely sung American hymn-writer with more than 300 published works to his credit, including appearances in eight hymnals. His larger works include a Christmas Cantata and a Te Deum. Birmingham Voices, from Alabama, under Quint Harris, performed two short works by Scott,Most Glorious Lord of Life” and “Prayer of St Augustine”, and his best-known piece, the 16-minute Gloria.

Unusually, this has only three movements, but the shifting metres throughout enabled him to move through the text with exhilarating swiftness. Repetitive rhythmic motifs provided coherence, from the brass’s reiterated two notes at the beginning, creating a positive rather than triumphalist mood, to the sombre timpani beat throughout the “Miserere”, and the bouncing syncopations of the final “Quoniam”, with its impressive fugue.

There was a hint of Orff’s Carmina Burana about the Gloria’s final bars, and a whiff of Schubert in the gentle Shalom that followed.

The evening’s major work was the London première of Dallas-based Heather Sorenson’s Requiem, a gentle vision of the afterlife without a Dies Irae, commissioned in memory of lives lost during the Covid pandemic, and performed by St Louis Festival Chorus, Missouri, and Vox Populi Kent, under Kevin McBeth. Skilful use of instrumental colour and diversity of styles are Sorenson’s hallmarks, and there was much here, with a peaceful, Fauré-esque opening with the occasional tolling bell and a perky Sanctus, its glockenspiel suggesting the joy to come.

The Latin text was interspersed with quotations from hymns and psalms, finishing with “and they who trust Him wholly find Him wholly true.In the Pie Jesu, listeners were invited to join the choir in naming lost loved ones. Sorenson, once an early-years teacher, now a full-time composer and lecturer, says of herself: “My heart is leading the Church in worship, and I feels that my greatest calling is using my music to connect people with God.” This listener was calmed and uplifted.

The Canadian Sarah MacDonald, Director of Music at Selwyn College, Cambridge, conducted the Vox Anima London Singers in her own unaccompanied Crux Fidelis, with its repetitions of “crux fidelis”, words drawn from the Passiontide Office hymn sung especially during the veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. No fatigue in Parry’s “I Was Glad”, in which the alteration of the usual orchestra-heavy balance in favour of the massed choirs brought a much more reflective quality than usual to Parry’s joyous anthem.

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