Review: King’s College Music Society

JOE CONWAY : ‘A concert is more than just a musical performance. It’s more like a cocktail of things – the works on the programme, the way they’re approached, the setting, and the atmosphere.’

Bach Bethan White Fra Rustumji Julian Azkoul King's Peter Cleobury

14th June 7pm at King's College Chapel. £16/£12/£8/£5

A concert is more than just a musical performance. It's more like a cocktail of things – the works on the programme, the way they're approached, the setting, and the atmosphere.  In this May Week Concert by KCMS these elements came together to make a really happy and moving occasion which I've no doubt will live on in people's memories, mine included.

Let's take the peripherals first. The Antechapel at King's is not only bigger than many a church or concert hall, it's also one of the loveliest rooms in the world. We all know about the fan vaulting, the Tudor glass, and the great screen. But it's one thing to learn about heritage and another to experience the architecture, light, and colour while listening to live music.

And yet another to make the surroundings work for you. No two works on the programme had the same line-up, so that musicians needed to come and go, stands had to be moved, and stage blocks manhandled. (Oops, woman-handled!). It was all done quickly and efficiently, gaps between the items were minimised, and it was obvious that people were rooting for each other and the common good.

Which takes us to the music. At the heart of this concert were two works by Bach. Cantata No 54 consists of two extraordinary arias linked by a kind of explanatory recitative. The KCMS orchestra led by Fra Rustumji took the brave decision to have only one or two players per part, and the light textures meant that James Neville's pure-toned alto voice was unforced and easily heard. The authoritative conductor was Stephen Cleobury, Director of Music at King's. Personally I wish he'd gone on to conduct the Bach Concerto for Violin and Oboe which followed, with soloists Julian Azkoul and Bethan White. This wonderful piece contains one of the most sublime slow movements ever written framed by two miracles of fiery contrapunctal writing. But for me some of the character of the music was lost in the overly fast speeds and slightly sketchy playing.

There's no doubt that Bach was a major influence on Poulenc's stunningly gothic Organ Concerto which began the programme. Peter Stevens, King's Organ Scholar, was the highly effective soloist, producing some fascinating sonorities and performing this taxing piece with faultless efficiency. Again, the strings were relatively few in number giving the music an intimate, chamber-music quality, while Stephen Cleobury's ultra-reliable conducting was a tower of strength.

The concert ended with three English works, one brand new and two familiar. Kate Whitley's Anne Bronte Setting for Tenor and Orchestra is a very musical response to a heart-felt text from An Orphan's Lament. Fluently sung by Matthew Sandy and sympathetically conducted by James Mawson, it was lyrical and colourfully scored. According to Kate's programme note the work started out as an academic exercise. Personally I always have a slight problem about 'dropping into' other styles. Firstly because it takes untold years to find your own voice as a composer even without distractions of this sort, and secondly because it can't really be done except on a superficial level. Nevertheless if this piece was an exercises it was a top-quality one and made me eager to hear more of Kate Whitley's music.  

Tippett's Five Spirituals from A Child Of Our Time was the only unaccompanied work on the programme and was given a near-perfect performance by King's College Choir, including a full contingent of trebles. It was again directed by Stephen Cleobury, while Simon Brown conducted the last work on the programme, Vaughan Williams' magical Serenade to Music – a score of almost unbearable beauty.

After the concert the audience moved from the sacred chapel to the sacred turf of the King's lawn. Of course strawberries and cream is everyone's favourite, but I'll readily admit a free glass of bubbly always ensures a good review! (Did I really write that?)