A Royal Occasion II
The Choir of St James’, Sydney Youth Orchestra
June 30, 2011

In the second of its 2011 Royal Occasion concerts, the choir of St James’ joined forces with the Sydney Youth Orchestra to present some highly traditional British fare, lightly seasoned with the topical. With Warren Trevelyan-Jones at the helm, proceedings opened with Purcell’s music for the funeral rites of Queen Mary. This seemed a little undercooked early on, with the choir falling somewhat short of its usual cleanness of articulation, and seemingly trapped in the middle ground between liturgical and madrigalian rhetoric – the chromaticisms of In the midst of life, for example, were too politely negotiated.

Nonetheless, and largely due to a standout bass section, a certain amount of expressive intensity was built up, and the choir hit its stride with a strong, albeit highly safe, performance of the famous homophonic setting of Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts. The instrumental marches, meanwhile, were somewhat monochrome, as was the orchestral contribution to the succeeding Walton bracket. The delicate siciliana lilt was largely missing from the twice-played pastoral string interlude Touch her soft lips and part, a deceptively simple piece that exposed an anaemic tone lacking the depth necessary to render the composer’s rich writing effectively.

The choral Set me as a seal, by contrast, was impressive, featuring excellent intonation as well as the forthright execution of gestures more tentatively grasped at in the earlier Purcell. The coronation anthem My heart is inditing, which rounded off the first half, provided a welcome injection of liveliness, and both choir and orchestra responded to Handel’s rollicking setting with a pleasingly full-bodied sound. Especially noteworthy were the versatility shown by the female voices and the rock-solid continuo; however, the string playing in the slower central movements once more lacked precision.

A tastefully chosen trio of motets opened the second half. McKie’s We wait for thy loving kindness nicely showcased the choir’s rich sound, and Vaughan Williams’ brief O taste and see, though not best suited to mixed voices, was delicately and satisfyingly sung. Mealor’s Ubi caritas, a piece composed for the most recent royal wedding, was certainly the standout, with the choir exhibiting wonderful sostenuto control, skilfully balancing a variety of sounds and textures, and wholly doing justice to a stunning piece of contemporary choral writing.

It was then back to Handel for the duration, starting with the young orchestra’s performance of the Musick for the Royal Fireworks: a tough ask, though also no doubt a valuable experience for performers without too much Baroque music under their belts. The musicians’ enthusiasm –  especially the obvious commitment of the wind players – was commendable, but the imprecisions of the lengthy overture suggested a need for a tighter rein to be kept in rehearsal. While Handel deserves its share of oomph, majesty need not overspill into bombast. That said, the bourrée was gracious and light, and the later movements were certainly not without their charms (it was particularly agreeable to hear some well-defined hemiolas).

Finally, choir and orchestra came together once more for the obligatory Zadok the Priest. It’s hard to go wrong with this surefire crowd-pleaser, but there was much to like in the details of this performance, particularly the relaxed rendition of Handel’s witty and jubilant final Amen. An enjoyable end to what was, despite the persistent mismatch in the quality of the two participating ensembles, an enjoyable concert.