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Grace & Light

24 had a warm welcome to their Summer concert on a coronation day in a dmap summer. Left with a resounding standing ovation from St MAry's Adderbury, here's what the evening covered:

From sun rises to sunsets, Tudor and renaissance pieces to romantic and contemporary ones, we'll help you find some peace, solace, and perhaps also some fun and renewal through this music.

The different approaches taken by composers through the ages will become clear, but this is essentially all about how music is the food of love, sure, but also transformational in all its styles.

On a coronation week-end it is fitting to start with a regal theme, and the first three pieces tackle King David’s complex Psalm50; a fitting parable for a monarch. ‘Miserere’ is a term much misunderstood as it appears to have the same root as ‘miserable’ or ‘misery’. It doesn’t, in fact, as it comes from ‘misereor’ which means to take pity or have compassion. (‘Misera’ is the linguistic root of ‘misery’, and means wretched or pitiable.) Splitting hairs? Maybe, but the three treatments here show different approaches to the route to forgiveness, mercy, or just plain pity for the messes we can all find ourselves in.

We follow this in the first half with perhaps the biggest range we sing - the three treatments of the Song of Simeon (Nunc Dimittis). The bare Tallis version contrasts with Rachmaninoff’s rich Orthodox tapestry, while Holst is clearly lining us up for a stellar crescendo.

Our second half starts with some fun. It’s Byrd’s 400th anniversary, so here are examples of Tudors and Jacobeans having a laugh. There will be lots of opportunities to hear Byrd over the coming year, and it’s important to remember that even amongst the civil strife and wars of the C16th they found time for joy and music making.

We then move into several treatments of light (Lux), mostly from modern or contemporary composers. For a brief spell the upper voices get to show off with Quartel’s Lux, while the lower voices get to revel in one of Vaughan Williams’ most haunting folk-song interpretations, the lost love in The Turtle Dove.

We finish with a number of pieces by contemporary and US composers as they are currently a rich seam of talent. They have not forgotten the importance of a good tune. We have come past the minimalist styles of a generation ago now to often folk-inspired rich polyphony again.

Many will have heard of Whitacre, most of Gjeilo now, while Gabriel Jackson, Sarah Quartel, and Stephen Paulus may still be unfamiliar but welcome treats. We have book-ended the concert with James MacMillan, probably the UK’s pre-eminent choral composer in the UK currently.

Allegri: Miserere

The story of a young Mozart hearing this sung once in the Sistine chapel and transcribing it is well known. As we hear it today the romanticised version is for two choirs. It is breathtaking and the days when it could only be heard in services or secret cloisters are thankfully long gone.

It’s a tale of deceit, hubris, murder and worse, but Allegri, Byrd, and MacMillan are all looking for ways to show the beauty of forgiveness and compassion. The libretto below shows the depth of passion in the Psalm when King David was playing fast and loose with his army and his household. We’ll hear a lot about Nathan the prophet and Zadok the priest this week-end, but they were hard at work with Solomon’s dad long before even that coronation.

MacMillan's treatment is broader in dynamic scope than Allegri's. It’s a brave triumph to reinterpret such a seminal piece. The ladies’ intricate duet on washing sins accompanied by men humming in recognition is one superb moment as they release into climactic Asperges (purge) me. The final resolution (Tunc acceptabis) is sonorous, superb, and deeply ironic.

Byrd's Miserere Mihi simply reprises the text to 'hear my prayer' without diving into the details of Psalm 50. C16th England was no time to reprise the frailties of Kingship, let alone explore impropriety with religious implications.

Nunc Dimittis: Song of Simeon

An odd choice to follow the penitential Miserere? Not really. The transactional Old Testament moves to the New with the promise of Light and forgiveness to come from this simplest of texts.

Also known as the Song (canticle) of Simeon in Luke 2:29, Simeon was a long-suffering believer who had been told he'd not die until he'd seen the Messiah first hand. Getting on some, Simeon was surprised and relieved when he saw the baby Jesus in the Jerusalem temple as Mary and Joseph came for the purification ceremony after a birth. There is resignation, even relief, after decades sat watching in church. The echoes into knowing when enough is enough, feeling sated or fulfilled, having crossed the finish line even, all play their part.

The Tallis setting is the cleanest, a simple passing of the baton leading to a warm doxology (Glory be…). Rachmaninoff's treatment echoes the scene in the temple with his favoured bell motif alongside cradling a babe as a tenor cantor plays Simeon's part. Holst is expressive too, with an almost hesitant start building to warm and then celebratory recognition.

Byrd: Sing Joyfully

Playful imitative polyphony reminds us of a simpler and happier time for the poet King David. Text from Psalm 81 is set in a style here heavily influenced by the contemporary madrigals. Within living memory Byrd's audience would have been force-fed cantor-led chant, and this playful use of parts cannily returns to unison in the trumpet calls with a fun depiction of large auditorium echoes and pairing of voice parts to good effect. It's a romp, and should never be sung without a picture of a full-frocked pearl-laden tudor lady being swooshed high into the air by men in tights.

Gibbons: O Clap Your Hands

This piece is a challenge for any choir – any two choirs in fact, as it plays two groups off against each other. Choristers are well advised to give it the respect it deserves, but it is another one that cannot be sung tentatively. Gibbons was much more of a Jacobean composer. He wrote this joyous piece to impress a chum who'd just qualified as a doctor of music. It is showy and a challenge as he puts in just about every trick and trap possible. There are again references to 'merrie noises' and trumpets too.

Whitacre: Lux Aurumque

Referring back to Simeon's recognition of Light coming into the world, Eric Whitacre’s faux-historical reverence in this text comes from a little known US poet which he had translated into latin. Not so much a Sistine painting as a modern print, it is still very beautifully woven and moving. The warmth in 'calida' is what sets it apart, playing to Whitacre's distinctive sound well.

Quartel: Lux Arumque

Canadian Sarah Quartel's treatment of light is for upper/female voices only. An accomplished choral composer, this piece comes from her Requiem, Sanctum. Having used the 'requiem aeternam' text (give them rest/peace) in an earlier section, this piece achieves both a thoughtful and optimisitic air when decoupled like this. This is, in fact, how her Requiem ends, leaving the listener with an almost unfinished, questioning mood. A prayer to be answered…

Vaughan Williams: The Turtle Dove

Scots are proud of their 500 mile or more walk. Well, it turns out the English walked ten thousand miles long before that, as Vaughan Williams’ elegy to true love and constancy, love and loss shows.

Gjeilo Northern Lights

A piece inspired by the flickering northern lights, the Song of Solomon has some superb pieces which are, shall we say, of their time: 'thy teeth are as a flock of sheep'; 'I compare thee, O my love, to a company of horses in Pharaoh's chariots', and 'thy hair is as a flock of goats'. From such a silvery tongue, comparing your beloved to a 'terrible army' is perhaps no great surprise. In Gjeilo's hands, however, being as sweet as Jerusalem is simply 'heavenly' and he overlays the 'terribilis' with the ‘pulchra’ (sweet) to reflect the beauty of strength, especially the strength of a gaze or glance from a lover.

MacMillan: O Radiant Dawn

One of the Strathclyde Motets, this is based on an 'antiphon', or a short sentence sung or recited before or after a psalm or canticle. This is for the 21st December, the shortest day, and a day when the dawn tells of growing light from then on. Rooted in Isaiah those that lived in darkness now see light. Echoing the famous Messiah text, James MacMillan's treatment of the growing light through 'Come, come…' and the Amen is a beautiful piece of word painting.

Paulus: The Road Home

A US folk-inspired work, waking t

o the ‘gold of day’ reminds us that ‘there is no such beauty as where you belong’.

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