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Choirs of Angels

Feature

Two of this season’s concerts delve into the magical combination of solo string player with choir. Amanda Holloway spoke to the performers involved.

Composers rarely explore the combination of string soloist and a cappella ensemble, but the result is often a luminously amplified sonic experience. Two concerts at Kings Place bring together these elements – cellist Oliver Coates and Tenebrae in Le temps de Noël in December, and violinist Rachel Podger and Voces8 next March.

Voces8 join Rachel for her 50th-birthday-year celebration, taking the theme of her awardwinning recording Guardian Angel, inspired by St Ambrose: ‘We should pray to the angels, for they are given to us as guardians.’ Choosing the joint works was a challenge, as Rachel explains. ‘There’s very little that combines voices with just a solo violin. So we’ve commissioned a new piece by upcoming composer Owain Park, and included existing pieces by James MacMillan – who I very much admire given our mutual love of Bach – and Voces8’s composer-in-residence, Jonathan Dove.’

‘Setting a string soloist with choir offers a luminously amplified sonic experience’

Barnaby Smith, artistic director of Voces8, started compiling a wishlist of violin works to put in the programme by listening to Rachel’s recordings. ‘I picked my favourites and sent her the playlist. It was a bit like courting a girlfriend with a mixtape in the 80s!’ Rachel is playing the Bach Partita for flute, interspersed with choral works chosen by Barnaby with texts that lead the audience on a journey. ‘I’m really looking forward to the collaborative pieces,’ says Rachel. ‘Sharing a performance is enriching for all concerned, and I have a feeling this project will turn out this way.’ The combination of cello and choir is not quite as unusual – John Tavener showed how effective it could be in his Svyati, played here earlier this year by Kian Soltani. Nigel Short, conductor of Tenebrae, says, ‘Of all the strings, the cello is the most human and melodic, but still different from our voices. I’m excited by what we might do with its sonority. For this programme we’ve chosen Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols, in which the cello keeps reappearing, and the otherworldly Lauds by Jonathan Harvey for choir and cello, which I’m happy to have been introduced to.’ Short loves the acoustic in Hall One: ‘It’s a rare place on earth where there’s no hum, you can hear the singers breathe, you can hear everything in the texture. That is so rewarding for singers and audience.’

Barnaby Smith concurs. ‘No matter where you sit, it feels very intimate. I think our programme with Rachel will sound touchingly humble, but also effective.’

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