Dec. 22, 2016

A Joyful Mystery City Hall Concert by St John's Voices, Cambridge

St John’s Voices, directed by distinguished cellist and broadcaster Graham Walker, squeezed into the cosy Recital Room at City Hall, Central Hong Kong, with the young but seasoned violinist Julia Hwang, where they delivered one of the most eclectic choral concerts I have ever been to. The choir chiefly consists of graduate and under graduate members of St John’s College, Cambridge. The youthful countenances before us, combined with the bijou surroundings, immediately lent to the whole evening a flavour of The Edinburgh Fringe. 


We began in rather solemn fashion, with a perhaps slightly too careful rendering of a Dixit Maria by Hans Hassler, whose dense counterpoint typifies the Northern Renaissance that was to inform the style of JS Bach. I was relieved, somewhere in the better known anthems by Victoria and Palestrina that followed, that the musicians appeared physically to relax, and the warmth and variety of tone, dynamics and phrasing of which this group is evidently capable, came through much more successfully.   


Julia Hwang’s performances of the single surviving movement from Brahms’ ‘FAE’ Sonata, and two fantasies from Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess by Igor Frolov, were a delight, and I am sure that we will hear much more from this exceptionally mature and expressive young violinist.       


The choir returned, now looking far more relaxed, to sing the sublime motets Locus Iste and Sicut Cervus by Bruckner and Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring by JS Bach. The excellent intonation, sure high notes from the sopranos, underpinned by some exceptionally beautiful bass singing, made this a really moving experience. Julia joined the choir to play the obbligato to the Bach. The balance between violinist and choir was a joy to head, although the tempo made me wonder whether Mr Walker might have been late for an appointment elsewhere. 


For me, the real highlights of the evening were the specially-commissioned works and arrangements by Cambridge composers Alex Woolf (21) and Tim Watts (39). The evident joy that the choir conveyed in singing Woolf’s Nunc Dimittis and carol arrangements, was truly delightful. This young composer has clearly immersed himself in the English choral tradition and his imaginative a cappella textures, reharmonisations and surprising enharmonic key changes, did not allow the mind to wander for a second. I feel sure that a highly original and exciting voice will emerge as this young man’s career develops. 


St John’s Voices is a highly accomplished and tightly knit group of young musicians whose love of  choral music won the audience over completely in the second half. Their performance of Messiah, this evening at 7.30 pm at Tsuen Wan Town Hall, and forthcoming concert at Victora Hall in Singapore (20 December, 7.30 pm) will be well worth the trip.            


John Wright