CUMS Chorus and Prime Brass

CUMS fails to live deliver like a Cambridge’s Chorus should. Oh dear, writes HARRY HICKMORE

alex berry choir chorus cums east anglia fanfare harry hickmore i was glad jesus college chapel magnificat parry patterson prime brass sing along two stars

Saturday 25th February, 8pm, Jesus College Chapel, £5/£12


The problem for a choral society like the CUMS Chorus it is impossible to avoid comparison with the city’s excellent college choirs. Whilst the chorus in no way seeks to compete with these choirs, the label of a choral society brings with it numerous negative associations, which are magnified by this contrast.

However, CUMS chorus has a reputation as one of East Anglia’s finest choral societies, and in an attempt to break away from the typical choral society routine of putting on a single large-scale work we were presented with a variety of choral works. In the programme notes an attempt was made to pass the concert off as some sort of “Patterson sandwich”, with the British composer’s works framing the line-up. But after the brevity of the opening Paris Fanfare, any possibility of this theme making a lasting impression vanished.

The Fanfare, played meticulously by the Cambridge-based brass ensemble Prime Brass, acted instead as a short prelude to the evening’s first choral work, Hubert Parry’s Coronation anthem I was Glad. After a rousing introduction from Queens’ College’s Senior Organ Scholar Alex Berry, the chorus got off to a sluggish start, immediately lagging behind tempo. This was not entirely their fault: the tempo was difficult to discern, as a result of conductor Stephen Cleobury’s unorthodox technique, which seemed more suited to a spinning wheel than a baton. Despite this, the chorus settled into a steady pace and made a valiant effort evoke to the grandeur of Parry’s Victorian setting. But the outstanding choral sonorities and textures that were promised in the programme notes never really surfaced.

The programme was filled out with a host of anthems and organ voluntaries that seemed more at home in a service setting than on a concert bill. Again, this led to inevitable comparisons with college choirs that the chorus just couldn’t quite match; the repertoire seemed uneasy and foreign. Berry’s organ voluntaries were, however, extremely impressive. His programme of Bach and Stanford was nothing out of the ordinary, but his playing was so technically proficient and musically aware that this did not matter.

What was billed as the main event of the evening, British composer Paul Patterson’s Magnificat, inspired a momentary burst of renewed vigour. For the first time in the evening, the choral singing was intense and authoritative – percussive interjections from Prima Brass and Berry seemingly inspiring the Chorus.

These moments of excitement were short-lived, however, and the chorus was once again back to its old tricks by the second movement of the Magnificat. Their determination to sing only at the loudest dynamic came back to haunt us: their wall of sound did not engulf me, it merely struck me, relentlessly. To give the chorus their due, this was an extremely exhausting programme and, at the volume they were singing, it’s no surprise that their voices became strained and tired. In the end you could have been forgiven for mistaking this as a sing-along rather than a concert.

The chorus brand themselves as “East Anglia’s most ambitious choral society”, and this may be a fair representation. But their ambition went one step too far here. Stick to Verdi and Handel, before more listeners are turned off.