Betsy Cook Weber
The London Blitz, Part 1
So, it is the final week of Choircrawl 2021, and I am squeezing in as many London choral concerts as possible — a blitz, if you will. There is a lot to choose from.
The first night of the blitz was monumental — John Eliot Gardiner, the Monteverdi Choir, the Orchestra Révolutionnaire et Romantique, Trinity boys, and soloists in a performance of Berlioz' L'enfance du Christ in the storied St. Martin-in-the-Fields.
A full house
I've looked at the Berlioz many times because, like all choral directors, I am always looking for something to sing besides Messiah during the Christmas season. The Berlioz is a wonderful work, but the chorus parts are too modest for my purposes. In addition, it's not really a Christmas piece, since it begins after the birth of Jesus at the point at which Herod dreams about the threat arising from one tiny infant. Of course, most of Messiah isn't a Christmas piece either, and that hasn't stopped us from performing it at Christmas...over and over and over. The Berlioz tale focuses on the plight of the holy family trying to find shelter (again), this time in Egypt, ending with the reflection that it was the Ishmäelites who offered them ten years of shelter. "Thus it came to pass that by an unbeliever was our Saviour saved." I was struck by how relevant this refugee tale is today. The excellent program notes gave no inkling that the piece was scheduled as a political statement, but I can't imagine that anyone could have missed the parallel to current events.
As my grad students know, I am a fan of JEG. When I begin preparing a new choral-orchestral work, I always check to see if he has recorded it, because the choral work is always impeccable, interesting, and inventive. Often, he has video-recorded performances, which are even more enlightening because, among other things, I can observe placement of forces, numbers of strings and size of the chorus. Because of these video performances, I know what JEG's conducting looked like when he was much younger. He is now 78. Has he lost his step? Spoiler alert: NO!
Last night's performance was video-recorded for later distribution, and St. Martin's was full. Everyone in the audience was masked, but there was no distancing. The singers and players walked onstage masked, but removed them once the music began.
The performance was glorious, but it was not perfect. One of the oboe players had problems with their reed. The usually-wonderful boys had some moments of insecurity. And some of the seams of the work — moving in and out of various tempi and meter changes — were a bit ragged. And this was the fifth performance of the work. They had performed it in Zürich, Barcelona, and Ely, UK. Because I am so accustomed to the perfection of the Monteverdi ensembles recordings, those imperfections were my biggest take-aways from the evening. I am so hard on myself when things don't go well, but it happens even to the biggest names in the business, and the audience clearly didn't care one bit. Note to self: It is OK to be imperfect.
The Monteverdi Choir was perfect to my ear. For the most part, this music was a piece of cake for them. They sang with more vibrato than I expected, probably because of the period in which the piece was created, and I longed to hear them really sing out, which never happened. Still, ensemble and intonation were impeccable, and the singers were wonderfully expressive visually. I was mesmerized by the diction. Of all the standard classical singing languages, French is my weakest, so I can't vouch that the diction was absolutely correct. I can tell you that it was perfectly unified.
Back to JEG. The physical demands for the conductor in the evening's 95-minute, performed-without-pause, performance were formidable. He was clearly in command throughout, however, employing a varied gestural vocabulary. He did take a few minutes to walk offstage during a brief, beautifully played, flutes/harp trio, and I imagined him sitting down, toweling off, and chugging Gatorade during those minutes. I did wonder if some of the tempi were more languid than they would have been 20 or 50 years earlier, and if so, if that was the result result of physical maturation and/or interpretive evolution.
I realize that I haven't mentioned the soloists, whose performances ranged from fabulous (particularly the narrator) to good. I expected nothing less, and, knowing that I am giving them short shrift, I beg your indulgence of this unabashed choir geek.
I walked out of St Martin's feeling a little bit cranky that my one live hearing of this famous ensemble didn't contain more choral work, but in the cool (and, typically, cloudy) light of a London morning, I feel undiluted euphoria that I was in the audience to experience this legendary conductor and his legendary ensembles in person.
The London Times reviewed the concert, calling it "stunning." The review began, "There’s an ominous feeling of carpe diem about concerts at the moment, and particularly choral concerts. It seems only a matter of time before the germ police re-impose silence on our great choirs."
Carpe diem, indeed.