Romance: It's Only Love - a Summer Concert by The Phoenix Singers

Review by Jenny McCubbin

Love and romance have simply got to be the most enduring themes for song through the ages!  This concert held at the Ilminster Arts Centre on 2 July was a highly enjoyable look at just some of the ways these themes have been treated musically, interspersed with short readings and pithy observations from the likes of John Betjeman and Dorothy Parker.  Andrew Maddocks, music director of the Phoenix Singers, always comes up with interesting and varied programmes which have wide range and appeal.  Ilminster Arts Centre is a brilliant town-centre venue, formerly a Chapel, and the audience was bathed in soft blues and golds as the early evening sun poured through the stained glass windows.

Madrigals and dance tunes from 16th century composers Thomas Morley and John Farmer got the concert off to a spirited start in a style which The Phoenix Singers are clearly at home with.  This was followed by a delightful setting of Shakespeare's Sonnet 18, May I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day by Swedish jazz composer Nils Lindberg, and a stunning rendition of Richard Rodgers's Blue Moon.  A couple of bawdy songs were done in colloquial Italian and French, with plenty of colour and excellent pronunciation.  The subject matter was treated more delicately in Dein Herzlein Mild (Your Tender Heart) by Brahms and So Weich und Warm (So Gentle and Warm) about a mother's love.   Both these songs were expressed with admirable clarity and no perceptible loss of tone or feeling. 

Mary Morgan, soprano, is always a delight.   This time she sang Purcell's Ah! How Sweet It Is to Love, accompanied by Kathryn Foyle on piano.  Margaret Hammel played an intriguing Vocalise Etude on flute written in 1935 by Messiaen.  She was accompanied by Keith Jones, piano.  Frances Webb played piano for 'S Wonderful by the Gershwins and Down by the Sally Gardens.  The latter is a traditional melody with words by WB Yeats and arrangement by John Rutter, and was performed with great elan, as was the closing piece, My Spirit Sang All Day by Finzi, where the crescendos really made the audience sit up and take notice!

This choir sings with obvious pleasure and enthusiasm, together with close focus and real attention to detail.  The audience can hear and appreciate the words every bit as much as the music.   The eclectic programming ensured a lively pace and sense of audience engagement was maintained throughout.   It was pleasing to see several young choral scholars singing with this choir.

The Canticle of Brother Sun

The Phoenix Singers at St John the Evangelist Church, Taunton
Saturday 19th March 2016

Review by Elaine Thorneycroft-Gibb

The Phoenix Singers performed an interesting, varied and unusual programme of English choral music inspired by the words of St. Francis in "The Canticle of Brother Sun." The programme was carefully researched and planned, with pieces spanning the 19th to 21stcenturies, and they were performed with commitment, sensitivity and passion.

"Oh What their Joy and their Glory must be," by William Harris started the evening with a strong, rousing unison bursting forth from the Singers, with a beautifully matched sound, accompanied on the Willis organ by Ed Jenkins. The choral sound throughout was very good indeed, especially in the unaccompanied pieces, and the quiet sections were very effective. A glorious climax at the end, with descending "Amens" from the four parts, was well balanced, like a series of cascading waterfalls.

The first half continued with contrasting pieces, "A prayer of King Henry VI" had some wonderfully expressive dynamics and mellifluous sound. The simplicity of the hymn tunes contrasted well with the more complex works such as the Britten's Hymn to Columba. Some of the quieter moments here needed just a little more projection over the organ. The first half ended with a favourite Rutter piece, "For the Beauty of the Earth," with the delightful addition of flute solo played beautifully by Margaret Hammel, and arranged skilfully by Andrew Maddocks.

The second half had an Easter flavour, beginning with Britten's Hymn to St. Peter. Ann Hains clear soprano solo carried through the texture of the harmonies, with sustained long phrases. The middle section was tackled ably by the choir with its fast tempo, though perhaps a slightly faster speed and lightness of touch would have further enhanced it.

The Phoenix Singers showed their technical skill and their ability to enter into the emotional feel of the pieces, and they attained an extremely high standard of choral singing, beautifully together. Georgie Rose, one of their Choral Scholars gave a fine performance, delicately rendered at the start of Bob Chilcott's, "Be Thou My Vision."

The Concert culminated in Vaughan Williams "Valiant for Truth," which had a fantastic ending echoing the "trumpets sounding for him on the other side." The final piece, Grayston Ives' "Canticle of Brother Sun" brought the evening to a close with the choir well focussed, and a very good handling of the syncopation and dynamic contrasts. A great top A at the end from the sopranos!

Ed Jenkins provided accomplished Organ solos in each half, and tribute must be paid to him for managing with a technical fault in the organ. Andrew Maddocks and the Singers should be really proud of this most enjoyable and high quality performance.

Golden Age - Stormy Times

The Phoenix Singers at Stogursey
Sunday 13th October 2013

Review by Jenny McCubbin 

In his introduction to the concert, conductor Andrew Maddocks explained how the 16th century was a difficult time for composers of church music.  They trod a difficult line between the old, ornate style, usually in Latin, and the new demand for simpler works in the vernacular.  The Phoenix Singers always produce an interesting programme - this one surveyed the century and encompassed composers from home and abroad, writing in Latin, English and German.   Singing was interspersed with organ works by Tallis and Gibbons, played by John Young.

The variety of mood and style was broader than one might have expected, with some truly joyful moments, particularly the appropriately named Sing Joyfully by William Byrd, together with the more meditative items by composers like Palestrina and Tomas Luis de Victoria.  The vocal lines balanced well in the eight part harmonies.  The Phoenix Singers have the advantage of a spectacular five tenor voices!  

Looking around the magnificent St Andrew's, Stogursey, it was good to see that interest in the classical repertoire is indeed alive and well in rural Somerset.  We are fortunate to have such a talented choir based here.  Move over Harry Christophers and The Sixteen!