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Reviews / Review: Spring choral concert left me uplifted

Exceptional spring choral concert: Members of the Shetland Choral Society with conductor Philip Taylor - Photo: Chris Browm

Shetland Choral Society, St Columba’s Church

There is not much that would tempt me out of a garden on a fine voar evening, but the Shetland Choral Society is an exception. Its May concert last Friday promised to be even more exceptional with a debut performance of conductor Phil Taylor’s Requiem.


Perhaps this thought was shared by many others, as the seats in St. Columba’s Church were well filled, and it was encouraging to see not a few young faces in the audience.

The spring-like atmosphere was reflected in the bright lime green scarves and ties worn by the choir, while Arthur Watt, in his introduction, reminded himself to appreciate the orchestra of violins, viola, cello and double bass.

The programme opened with one of the best known of Bach’s works, Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring, followed by Elgar’s interpretation of Ave Verum, and Tchaikovsky’s Crown of Roses, the latter being performed without orchestral accompaniment

Then Phil Taylor introduced his Requiem. He wrote it, he told us, not out of morbidity, but as a challenge, “to see if it can be done”. Helpfully, the libretto was printed in both Latin (in which it was sung) and English in the programme notes.

This actually enabled a better understanding of the dramatic and cathartic nature of the mass, and to my untutored ear, the composer certainly succeeded in his challenge.

With sparse piano accompaniment by Deidre Hayward and excellent solo juxtaposition of soprano Helen Robertson and tenor Martin Naylor (a towering performance), the movement through prayer for absolution, fear of day of judgement, supplication, praise and peaceful blessing was effectively conveyed. I was especially moved by the section from the Sanctus to the sublimely tranquil ending.

Maybe it’s morbid and pretentious to wonder if one would consider the composition as an option for one’s own funeral, but I must say that I would.

The second half of the concert opened with another old favourite, Verdi’s song of the Hebrew slaves, Va Pensiero from the opera Nabucco. It still amuses me that among the many guests on Desert Island Discs who have chosen this piece, you will find both Arthur Scargill and Norman Tebbit, adversaries in the 1984 miners’ strike.

Whatever their political differences and reasons for their choice, there is no doubt of the song’s spine-tingling effect, which both orchestra and choir produced on this occasion.

Phil Taylor then told us that the remaining works would be more lightsome, beginning with the Humming Chorus from Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the words to which the choir had taken months to learn.

That was lightsome indeed, but I’m not sure that the opera itself, followed by a musing on exile from Chess, and a medley of songs from the musical Les Misérables could be considered cheerful.

The orchestral Capriol Suite by the eccentric 20th Century English composer Peter Warlock (who also featured in the last Christmas concert), was a welcome break. The orchestra was supplemented by an extra viola and cello for the six dances, based on a French Renaissance composition. The piece includes a dazzling pizzicato ensemble, including even the double bass, and a sword dance transformed into a discordant fight in conclusion.

The last two works, Nella Fantasia, based on an Ennio Morricone theme for the film The Mission, and the universally popular You Raise Me Up, returned to the prevailing sombre mood – though filled with hope.

One must remember, however, that the May concert is, in Christian terms, a celebration of Easter, so suffering, hope, prayer and redemption are appropriate subjects.

The Choral Society, under the baton of its conductor, with its accompanist and guest musicians gave these a magnificent rendering, and venturing out of the kirk into late evening sunlight after two hours of music, I felt uplifted.

James Mackenzie