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Jazz Classics at the RNCM and Will Todd’s ‘Mass in Blue’ : St George’s Singers, RNCM Jazz Collective and Tina May, Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 8.11. 2009 (RJF)

I have extolled the virtues of the St. George’s Singers in the great choral classics such as Bach’s B Minor Mass (see review) and St. Matthew Passion (see review). This time the choir tackled a recently composed work in the jazz genre, which whilst new to me, was such a rare kind of event for a group who sang Ellington’s Sacred Concert in 2006. However, I hardly expected a jazz version of the Latin mass, but then that’s my limitation, since it seems that in contemporary church worship almost anything goes musically, particularly in the Evangelical wing. Will Todd’s Mass in Blue was premiered in 2003 and has received over twenty performances in the UK as well as others in Europe and the USA.

Born in 1970, Will Todd is already a prolific composer. Well versed in composing for the musical theatre and choral forces, he has worked with the Hallé Orchestra, who have recorded his oratorio Saint Cuthbert. He has also worked with The Sixteen, the BBC Singers and smaller opera companies including Welsh National Opera Max whilst his opera The Blackened Man, which won first prize at the 2002 International Verdi Competition, was performed at the Buxton Festival in 2004. Mass in Blue is set in the standard six parts with the Credo being reprised in the Benedictus and despite the reprise, at little over the half hour it’s a relatively short work. So, although this concert was owned, if that is the right word, by the St George’s Singers, the concert’s first half involved the RNCM Jazz Collective and also gave the audience the benefit of hearing Tina May sing some jazz classics with the Collective’s backing before talking aboute demanding solo part in the Mass.

The RNCM Jazz Collective largely comprises of new undergraduates strengthened by one or two more experienced players. In the first half, when they played eight jazz classics including Koko by Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gilespie’s A Night in Tunisia, the band comprised four trumpets and trombones, a front desk of five saxophones, four of them women, along with drums double bass and piano. What struck me most was the sheer enjoyment of the Collective’s membership in making their music, as well as their obvious skills. Many of them are eighteen and nineteen year olds, yet to benefit extensively from the specialist teaching within the College. This is a pleasing indication that music and instrumental teaching in UK schools is somehow managing to survive the constraints of the National Curriculum and budget cuts, although equal amounts of parental support are doubtless required too.

The Jazz Collective was prepared and conducted by the saxophonist Mike Hall, who along with a flourishing performing career, heads up the jazz studies department at the College as well being tutor in jazz saxophone and teaching improvisation, theory, history and directing the RNCM Big Band. The Collective’s performance, with some members changed for the Mass, was of a very good standard indeed, with rhythmic vitality and instrumental verve being the order of the day.

Tina May, who has sung all over the world, started off with the Peggy Lee favourite The Folks who Live on the Hill, following with Johnny Mercer’s Autumn Leaves - in French as to the manner born - and concluding with Kansas City Blues. By the end of her virtuoso performance, her strong mezz-oish voice, with its free top extension, left the audience in no doubts about her capacity to deal with whatever Will Todd’s version of the Mass had in store.

After that first half with the silent St. George’s Singers sitting behind, and a full Concert Hall in front, the second half’s involvement of the choir in the Mass was eagerly anticipated. The Kyrie opened with piano, bass and drums with the choir’a altos and then the men in counterpoint joining in before the full choir gave it their all - as they needed to do when the brass was a little strident and the soloist came in to ride the vibrant beat. In the Gloria, the sound of the full choir and the beat was viscerally exciting after which Tina May sang out strongly across her extensive vocal range in the very jazzy Credo. We all needed a breather at that point and it was as well that the Sanctus began quietly with bass, piano and small drums before a solo clarinet led the choir into a particularly expressively sung section with a solo flute soaring above the choral phrases; a quite magical musical effect. The vocal solo for the Benedictus was like a song without words as Tina May’s voice soared on and above the melody; I was very much reminded of Carmina Burana at this point. The Agnus Dei and its Credo reprise, with the latter’s phrases from the soloist echoing from the choir, concluded the evening except for the extensive applause and the introduction of the composer who had been present in the audience.|

St George’s Singers, now under the direction of Neil Taylor, Organist and Musical Director of Sheffield Cathedral and regular broadcaster, lacked none of the quality that so distinguishes their work in the classic oratorios. As a non-singer, I would hazard that the demands on the choir in this piece were as arduous as anything in the classic repertoire and I am pleased to report that they were fully up to all of them, a fine reflection of Neil Taylor’s work on rehearsal nights and elsewhere.

The St George’s Singers’ schedule over the next few months starts with Carols and Brass by Candlelight, including extracts from Messiah, at their headquarters at St. George’s Church, Buxton Road, Stockport, on December 5th. Then they sing Monteverdi’s Vespers with a Baroque Orchestra and soloists at The Monastery, Gorton, Manchester on March 20th and German Masterworks including choral works by Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn back in Stockport on 26th June.

Robert J Farr

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