REVIEW: A cracking evening as Ely Choral Society light up the cathedral

“It’s going to be a truly cracking evening,” said Canon Alan Hargrave, welcoming the audience to A Choral Celebration! I thought to myself ‘it jolly well better be’ because minutes before I’d dragged myself away from a blazing fire and Strictly Come Dancing.

You don’t often hear choral music described as ‘cracking’ – more usually it’s ‘uplifting’ – but I can’t think of a better way to describe the programme that conductor Andrew Parnell put together for a concert that marked the tenth anniversary of his association with Ely Choral Society. This is Ely and district’s largest choir which is open to anyone who wants to sing. On Saturday the choir was around 130 strong and included 30 members of Kempen Protestant Church Choir who had travelled from Germany for this special occasion. After only a brief opportunity to rehearse over the previous 24 hours, this was a remarkable vocal demonstration of European co-operation.

The programme opened with Haydn’s Missa Brevis Sancti Johannis de Deo (The Little Organ Mass) with guest soloist Rebecca Duckworth, a wonderfully sensitive soprano, in the Benedictus section.

Faur�’s Catinque de Jean Racine was written in 1864 when the composer was only 19. Appropriately 11 members of Ely Youth Choir (Ely Choral Society’s community choir for 11-18-year-olds) added an extra dimension to this lovely melodic piece.

The Choral Society is fortunate to have an accompanist as accomplished as Jonathan Lilley who has been Assistant Organist at Ely since 2002. His first organ solo was Recessional by William Mathias, the composer who wrote the anthem Let the People Praise Thee, O God for the wedding of the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1981. Jonathan knows the cathedral’s magnificent instrument so well that it has almost become an extension of his being. This was a terrific, vibrant piece which was a highlight of the first half.

J S Bach’s O Jesu Christ, meins Lebens Licht was followed by Mendelssohn’s Hear My Prayer. This cantata-in-miniature concludes with the oh-so-familiar O for the wings of a dove. Sung by Rebecca Duckworth it was awe-inspiring.

Andrew Parnell is earning an enviable reputation as a composer as well as a conductor and the second half of the programme began with his latest work, The Dew of Heaven. This had been commissioned by Ely Choral Society with the help of a bequest from a long serving contralto member of the choir, Mary Shelbourne who was a skilled calligrapher and a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. Her bequest was augmented by a grant from the Stationers’ Foundation and donations made by members of the society who should be delighted with their investment.

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This was the first public performance and the choir, joined once again by the members of the Youth Choir, approached it with an intensity that was almost palpable. It is a challenging but accessible piece which deserves a wider audience which I’ve no doubt it will receive. Bravo, Mr Parnell! I hope the composer enjoyed the choir’s performance as much as the audience.

Jonathan Lilley’s choice for his second solo in the second half of the programme – Prelude and Fugue in G minor by Marcel Dupr� – offered an even better opportunity to showcase his virtuosity. It was a fiendishly difficult piece which started with a whisper and ended with a roar. Magnificent!

The organist took a break for the concert’s penultimate item , Jauchzet dem Herrn which Mendelssohn wrote for four-part a cappella chorus and which gave the Kempen visitors the chance to sing in their native language.

The beautiful melody of John Rutter’s The Lord bless you and keep you was probably being hummed by most of us as we walked out of the cathedral into an icy wind whipping past the West door. It really had been a ‘cracking’ evening.

Liz Sayers