an exhilarating debut with the GCOS
Carmina Burana is a work that celebrates excess, both in Nature and human nature. This last Saturday in May, with the island almost promiscuously in bloom, skin bared to the warmth of late spring and the sun flaring like trumpets through the glass of St James, the timing for this magnificent sensual cantata could not have felt more appropriate.
Rachel Wright, head of vocal studies with the Guernsey Music Service, had already directed six choirs before she took over as Musical Director of the Guernsey Choral and Orchestral Society in its 75th Anniversary year. So when she sparkled onto the podium in front of a packed St James, there was a lot of anticipation, not to mention high expectations, on both sides of the stage.
If the launch into ‘Fortuna Imperatrix Mundi’ shows how she means to go on, the GCOS (and audiences) are in for a spine-tingling future of choral music. The opening salvo struck your chest like a musical bomb blast: to extract that level of electrifying drama requires an inspirational leader; no holding back from the fray! The shift to urgent chanting felt sinister and irresistible, the ruthless working of Destiny in sound.
‘The First Spring’ in its constrained plainsong pulls back as though to draw breath and provide a formal frame for the first soloist. Joe Ashmore’s resonant baritone (and appearance) suggested a monkish purity… with distinctly sensual overtones. From these first green shoots, the choir broadens into a full-throated celebration, exhorting us to ‘Behold the pleasant spring’, glorifying in the music and the season. ‘On the meadow’ opens with an instrumental rustic dance, full of freshness and energy, and then to the sumptuous ‘Floret silva’ – ‘The woods are burgeoning’. The infinite variety of Nature is echoed in the vivid changes of vocal colour and movement; particularly that exciting bounce between male and female voices – crisp and fearless, and well weighted against the orchestra.
The women skittishly demand rouge for their cheeks in anticipation of the revels of spring, which leads forth into the Round Dance. This starts off as a demure parade – whirling ever faster (round the maypole?) as high spirits are released to skip and cavort with a Breughel-esque energy. ‘Were all the world mine’ was sung with magnificent confidence.
We now moved into the Tavern, where the effect of drink unleashes extremes of character: Joe ‘Burning inside with violent anger’ kept his eloquent tone while negotiating the tortuous turns of the piece. ‘Once I swam in lakes’ gave us counter-tenor Dominic Mattos doing a wonderfully theatrical pantomime-goose with a fabulous pitch-perfect voice throbbing with emotion. ‘I am the Abbot’, showed Joe Ashworth’s versatility, here embodying a superior cleric in love with his own voice and vibrating with self-importance… delicious.
‘When we are in the tavern’ expresses (no surprise!) the rip-roaring pleasures of drinking. With so many fast-moving parts it showcased Rachel’s ability to hold together and balance the hyperactive dynamics of orchestra and voices. This requires great focus, and the trust of your musicians: multi-tasking of the very highest order.
What is springtime without sweet lovers? ‘Love flies everywhere’ is a gentle foray into affairs of the heart. Young soprano Anusha Bobby, gorgeous as a rose in her scarlet frock, carried an air of sweet
fragility that unfurled into full bloom when she sang: notes of velvety richness that almost scented the air. Her solos, and the baritone’s ardent ‘Day, night and everything’ seemed to suggest two not yet lovers soliloquizing about their hopes, dreams and desires. They are interrupted by the impatient urgency of the choir thrusting the whole company forward into action – ‘Come, come, O come’, ‘This is the joyful time’ – leaving all in no doubt that those rosebuds aren’t going to gather themselves! In ‘O sweetest boy’ the soprano’s ecstatic lovesong with its shimmering top notes, we may assume that our lover’s courtship has been fruitful.
The last great anthem, ‘Hail, most beautiful love’ and its conclusion ‘O Fortuna’, draw together all the glittering, earthy, joyful, bacchanalian strands into the final hair-raising outpouring of… love? Lust? Sensuality? It embraces our humanity, warts and all, and I for one felt my heart racing from the thrill of being alive. The only disappointment was being unable to call for an encore…
Carmina Burana is a most challenging work. That a choir founded 75 years ago, whose director has led them for only four months, was able to pull off a performance of such youthful freshness, power and exuberance is a triumph for Rachel and everyone on the stage – and for Guernsey.
Heartful appreciation and thanks to The Swallow 2018 Charitable Trust, whose sponsorship has made this, and so many other concerts, available to us.