Music review: Lifting the spirits

The renowned composer John Rutter reviews the third Bar Choral Society concert, performed in Temple Church on 10 June

If the Bar Choral Society didn’t exist, you would have to invent it. 

Fortunately it does exist, though when it didn’t, as little as two years ago, Timothy Dutton QC invented it, and, as with all great inventions, you wonder how we ever managed before. The Bar is a fascinating body (to your legally unqualified reviewer, at least): tightly-knit in some ways, nebulous in others, an assemblage of quite individualistic and often strongly-driven people of high gifts, who follow their calling alone or at best in small teams – rather like musicians, come to think of it – and who, you might imagine, would be glad to chill out of an evening with a glass of port watching re-runs of Rumpole or Law and Order UK. How wrong you would be. The Bar Choral Society, on the showing of their third concert, are hell-bent on the same killer excellence that has propelled them to the top in their day jobs.

Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass was the main work, and a good choice: dramatic – the Napoleonic threat to Haydn’s homeland was a dark shadow hanging over the composer in 1798 when he wrote it; challenging – his choral writing is not for the faint-hearted, sopranos having to soar to high B flats, a bit like opening up a rarely used loft extension – and it needs an excellent conductor with a grasp of the music’s changing moods and symphonic grandeur, plus four wonderful soloists, including a soprano who can deliver agile coloratura runs with the virtuosity of a Marshall Hall address to the jury (Elin Manahan Thomas indeed delivered). Ruth Massey, Matthew Sandy and DeAndre Simmons made up the rest of an exceptionally well-matched quartet. The orchestra needs to be pretty nifty too, and the Southbank Sinfonia was up to the mark. It was established fairly recently to offer top-level orchestral experience to selected young professionals in the years immediately after graduation, a kind of pupillage, and it is set to become a regular and well-matched partner to the Choral Society.

In setting up a choral society in the Temple, there are inbuilt advantages. The church itself is an acoustically and architecturally resplendent space, though I foresee a time when a bigger venue will be needed to accommodate audience numbers. There is a tradition of choral excellence already in place thanks to the continued inspiration offered by the Temple Church Choir; and you don’t have to go far to find a top-class conductor and choral trainer from the home team, Greg Morris, who is fast gaining rock star status among his singers. And, above all, there is a body of very able individuals on hand who are willing to experience the unique thrill of choral singing (the late Kingsley Amis famously described it as “the most fun you can have with your clothes on”) and who are determined not just to do it, but to do it right.

The American Bar Association has been in town, and in their honour the concert was topped off with two scrumptuous pieces of Americana: Deep River, one of the best-loved of spirituals, with DeAndre Simmons the impressive solo bass, and Summertime, reborn in a gorgeous specially-written arrangement by Iain Farrington with Elin Manahan Thomas revealing a whole other side to her vocal talents.

The prosecuting counsel is going to say “I put it to you, Mr Rutter, that as president of the Bar Choral Society, your impartiality as a reviewer is already fatally compromised, and furthermore, you have accepted no less than three excellent dinners from the Chairman”. All true. Guilty. In mitigation, I plead that in my long experience, I have listened to innumerable choirs the world over. Some I have enjoyed, and I have been happy to speak of them, others have given me pain, and in these cases I maintain a discreet silence. I did not need to exercise my right to silence in the case of the Bar Choral Society: I thoroughly enjoyed what was, by any standards, an accomplished, crisp, well-planned and thoroughly musical concert, which would have lifted the spirits of even the most jaded listener.

CHARITY CONCERT 16 November

The Bar Choral Society’s next concert is being held in aid of the National Brain Appeal on 16 November at 7.00pm in Temple Church. The concert will feature the Vivaldi Gloria, Handel Let the Bright Seraphim, and Monteverdi Ave Maris Stella (from Vespers) with soloists Grace Davidson and Will Towers, and the Temple Players orchestra. Tickets will be available via the website www.barchoralsociety.co.uk or from Temple Music Foundation www.templemusic.org.

Contributor John Rutter CBE

Composer, conductor and Bar Choral Society President

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John Rutter CBE

John was Director of Music at Clare College and now divides his time between composition and conducting. He was awarded a CBE in 2007 for services to music.