STRATHAVEN CHORAL SOCIETY – Sunday, November 18, 2012
There were two works in Strathaven Choral Society’s concert last Sunday and both of them were new to me and, I would guess, to the majority of the large and enthusiastic audience in St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hamilton.
Their Musical Director, Christopher Barr, was as usual at the helm and he seems to get better every time I see him in front of the Choral Society. He conducts with real authority but has a sensitive, delicate touch when required and he is a real “singers’ conductor” – he knows instinctively what the choir or a soloist needs, in order that nothing gets in the way of high quality music-making. Long may he continue to make music in Strathaven.
I Landed with Seven Men was the illustrated story of Charles Edward Stuart and the Jacobite Rebellion, told in words, with a clear narration by Ann Williams and in music, with some sparkling arrangements of well known Scottish songs by Ken Johnston. I really enjoyed the whole piece and Ken Johnston’s arrangements had a refreshing new approach to tunes familiar and not so familiar. The choir embraced the tricky harmonies and the slightly funky rhythms with enthusiasm. But I make no apologies in saying that the star of this part of the evening was the pint size soloist, Cameron Black. What an amazing talent at nine years old! A bright, well-focused treble voice, fantastic breath control and legato singing coupled with a musical insight far beyond his tender years. He looked supremely confident as he delivered Will ye no’ come back again and we sincerely hope he does! He will surely go far in his musical life and we at St. Mary’s that Sunday, can say that we heard him first with Strathaven Choral Society!
The Armed Man by Karl Jenkins is probably one of the most, if not the most performed piece of modern choral music in the repertoire today. I have to say although I enjoyed much of the work, I found it a bit too self conscious for its own good and overlong in places. However, with the different languages and musical styles, it is a real challenge for any choir and one to which the ladies and gentlemen of the Strathaven Choral Society rose admirably. It certainly demands every choral colour that a conductor can bring out of a choir – luscious harmonic textures and clean unison singing along with clarity of diction and the ability to conjure up expressive or at times, almost frightening sounds, when required. Like so many modern composers, the lines are verging on the instrumental at times and he didn’t help the sopranos with some awkward words on some very high-flying lines. They coped admirably!
It was heartening to see some new men in the ranks of the choir and they really made a significant difference in The Armed Man and brought a real depth to the four part sound – Alan Mathew and Iain Sinclair were outstanding in their solos. As were the other soloists who joined the choir for this concert – Penelope Cousland has a rich mezzo quality, which she used to excellent effect (And congratulations to her for being part of the choir, Les Sirenes who won the prestigious BBC Choir of the Year earlier this month!) and Brianna Robertson was a real find – not only a truly beautiful soprano voice but some atmospheric singing of the highest order, especially in the Kyrie.
Christopher Barr was terrific throughout – not only in keeping the choir together in some very tricky corners but also managing to balance in a drum and an organ, when they had no real contact with each other and a solo cello and trumpet. Heather Lynn played extremely well in the calm Benedictus and Joseph Young delivered an atmospheric Last Post. I can’t finish without mentioning the wonderful playing of Razvan Luculescu. Whether on the organ or the piano, he is one of the best pianists and accompanists I ever hear and he manages to combine musical authority with great sensitivity and awareness.
All in all, another excellent evening of music-making from Strathaven Choral Society.
Linda Ormiston, Honorary President

For their main concert this season, Strathaven Choral Society took on the daunting challenge of Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem; sung, for the first time in their 39 year history, in German.
This is a difficult work at the best of times and to learn it – or to re-learn it, as in the case of some of the longer-standing members – in German is a a Herculean task. But to quote the old adage, “It was all right on the night”! In fact, it was much more than all right – it was a triumph for all concerned, with the choir sounding absolutely at home in the German language, with clean vowels and clearly defined consonants.
I cannot praise Christopher Barr enough – not only does he conduct with complete authority, but he is so articulate in his introductions and really brings the music we are about to hear, to life. Believe me, this is a rare talent in musicians – so often, they can fill the music-making with their enthusiasm and talent but to be able to do that with words as well is a real gift. Sitting behind him in the audience, I could follow his every instruction to the choir and his beat is particularly clear – a necessity in a work like this. And even on the rare occasions when the boat rocked a little, he was instantly in control, pulling everything back on track. And to think that the last time this work was performed by the Choral Society, was the year in which he was born – a prodigious talent indeed!!
And the sound of the choir just gets better and better. I was especially impressed with the male sections last week – there was a real, firm foundation to the choral sound from the basses and a ringing, effortless quality to the tenors which they all managed to sustain from start to finish. And that is to take nothing away from the sopranos and altos, who were in top class form. Perhaps the sopranos tired a little with the onslaught of Brahms’ unforgiving, high-lying lines but when they needed to pull out the stops, they managed to summon up all their energies for the climaxes and the altos go from strength to strength, supplying a real quality sound to the inner parts. I thought that under their previous conductor, Tomasz Pawlik, the choir had made enormous musical strides and it is wonderful to hear it continued and more under Christopher’s tutelage
No orchestra this time but the amazing pianistic abilities of the Choral Society’s regular accompanist, Razvan Luculescu along with his sister-in-law, Ancuta Nite-Doyle. Once they were settled in after the Mozart opener of Laudate Dominum, it was a treat to hear piano-playing of that order – the fireworks of the 6th movement were particularly impressive – and to anyone who has ever played or tried to play with 4 hands at one piano, you will know how difficult it is to be exactly together as Ancuta and Razvan were – knowing each other as well as they do, undoubtedly helps synchronization!
The soloists were excellent in the Brahms. I felt that Roxana Nite sounded a little nervous and not quite at ease when she started the Laudate Dominum but she soon settled into the long flowing lines of that and was terrific in the Brahms – the high-lying and seemingly endless phrases were delivered with authority and a keen musical sense. There was also fine accomplished singing from Andy MacDonald and his clear baritone sound was well focused with immaculate diction.
All in all, a rare musical treat for all who made the journey to the gleaming acoustics of St Mary’s Episcopal Church and another proud moment to be Honorary President of such a talented musical organisation!
Linda Ormiston, Honorary President

A Concert for Advent – December 5, 2010
Bach’s Magnificat and Saint-Saëns’ Christmas Oratorio
in St Mary’s Episcopal Church, Hamilton. Conductor~Christopher Barr, Organ~Geoffrey Woollatt, with soloists~Eilidh McEwan, Lucinda Stuart-Grant, Catherine Pope, Ronan Busfield, James Birchall.
Those of us who battled the elements to reach St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Hamilton last Sunday to hear Strathaven Choral Society’s Concert for Advent, were richly rewarded for their efforts with a veritable feast of music.
This was Christopher Barr’s first concert as Musical Director and what a musical find he turned out to be – bags of personality, always in control, he conducted with great authority and musicality throughout Bach’s magnificent Magnificat and the much rarer Christmas Oratorio of Saint-Saëns. He had obviously drilled the choir to perfection and they made a real impact with everything they sang, whether in the crisp definition of the elaborate Bach lines or in the more lush textures of the Saint-Saëns and it was especially rewarding to hear all the voices really balanced. Real balance is always difficult for a choir which, like most choirs these days, has a surfeit of women, especially in the soprano section but I was extremely impressed that one was able to pick out the inner parts and, at the same time, hear the sound as a homogenous whole. Christopher Barr is to be hugely congratulated on what he has achieved in such a relatively short time.
The five soloists were excellent. It is so important that young singers at the start of their careers get the chance to sing with established choral societies “in the real world”, away from the rarified atmosphere of the conservatoire, and Eilidh McEwan, Lucinda Stuart-Grant, Catherine Pope, Ronan Busfield and James Birchall all grabbed the opportunity with both hands. It was particularly impressive given that it was such a cold evening – not ideal for singers! – and that the layout of the church meant that the soloists had no real contact with the organist. The fact that it made no discernible difference is due to the musicianship of the singers, the expertise of the organist and of Christopher himself, who made sure that all the solo arias and ensembles were perfectly together. I should also mention that the young organist, Geoffrey Woollatt, who studies with Strathaven Choral’s former Musical Director, David Hamilton, played amazingly well throughout the evening – a name to be remembered.
But I suppose, the real stars of the evening were the choir members themselves. They have obviously taken their new conductor to their hearts and they sang with great intensity and a real sense of enjoyment. There was good articulation in the intricate parts of the Bach and some lovely legato singing which built to a glorious climax in the Gloria Patri. They were equally impressive in the Saint-Saëns, with the final chorus a particular highlight culminating in the fine climax of the last Alleluia. All in all, a resounding success for all concerned.
Linda Ormiston, Honorary President