Royal Holloway: Into the Night

Into the Night
Choir of Royal Holloway
St John’s, Smith Square, 26 March 2018

As part of St John’s, Smith Square’s Holy Week Festival, the Choir of Royal Holloway College (part of the University of London) gave an early evening recital of a programme that was probably better suited to a later time slot. Their programme, ‘Into the night’ featured sacred and secular music by contemporary composers from Latvia, Lithuania, and the USA, reflecting issues of night and death. They opened and closed with music by Ēriks Ešenvalds. Evening evokes the ‘shimmering sound’ of birds at sundown, with little snatched rhythmic phrases floating above evocatively scrunchy harmonies, ending with a delightfully sung soprano solo and the line ‘Oh let me like the birds / Sing before the night’. The closing Ešenvalds piece was Long Road, with two recorders and the tinkle of little bells added to the choral clusters and a final descent into sleep.

The first of a number of well-managed choir repositionings preceded the second piece, A clear midnight by René Clausen setting words by Walt Whitman. The sopranos were now positioned at the back of the 23-strong choir, an interesting choir layout that worked well, their very high notes projected well over the men. Morton Lauridsen’s Nocturnes was described as a ‘triptych’ although it had four distinct movements, three of which included piano accompaniment from an un-named pianist. Themes of love and night were explored in French, Spanish, and English, the second movement Soneto de la noche being the most musically interesting with its close harmonies moving around a series of upper and lower pedal points.

The only sacred pieces of the concert were by Vytautas Miškinis. His Dum medium silentium is a setting of the Vespers introit for the first Sunday after Christmas, not the most obvious choice for a Holy Week Festival, but there we go. Using a number of repeated phrases as a foundation, the piece becomes increasingly complex, with references to medieval compositional practices such as organum. His Tenebrae was a more appropriate piece for the occasion, a powerful setting of the fifth Responsary at Good Friday Matins reflecting the death of Jesus

The Latvian composer Arturs Maskats wrote his short Lugums naktij while still a student. A ‘Prayer to the night’, sung in Latvian, it uses the repetition of the word nakts (night) to underly a vocal depiction of night, from slumber to morning dew on cobwebs.

The student Choir of Royal Holloway were very impressive in what must have been some pretty tricky music and seemingly anarchic harmonies to get their heads around. I was also impressed with a concert they gave in 2015 during the Spitalfields Festival, reviewed here, also including music from countries bordering the Baltic. As with that concert, none of the soloists were named, or acknowledged, but they included some impressive sopranos. They made a fine consort sound, with no individual singers seeking prominence. The standard of UK student choirs is extraordinary, not least considering the age of the singers, the fact that personnel change every years, and that some of them would only have had a couple of terms of rehearsals.

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