2015 has been one of our best years ever. The last twelve months have packed with exciting projects from beginning to end, ranging from a CD release to appearing on primetime national TV! Here’s our review of some of the highlights; so why don’t you grab a cup of tea and a mince pie (if you have any left!), and read on….
January got off to a busy start when, having only just taken down our Christmas trees and chucked out our mouldering turkey leftovers, we met to record a CD of Christmas carols and anthems for release in the autumn. Still, what better way to beat those winter blues than with some jolly Christmas carols? Over two days of recording sessions in a chilly St Augustine’s Church, Penarth – punctuated by plenty of breaks for hot coffee and throat sweets – we laid down a wide variety of Christmas tracks from all over the world. There was very much a “Made in Wales” feel to the CD, with a number of items by Welsh composers (including Huw, who contributed two new arrangements), plus superb organ accompaniment by our former Music Director, Rob Court. Throughout the two days, we were in the capable hands of recording engineer Gary Cole from Regent Records, whose rigorous attention to detail meant that no rough edges were left unsmoothed. All in all it was a fantastic, if tiring, couple of days, and we were all very much looking forward to hearing the finished product.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas – at St Augustine’s Church in January
Later in January it was back to recording again – this time with cameras involved – for a national television broadcast on BBC One. We’d received an invitation from the BBC to appear on The One Show, performing Thomas Tallis’ 40-part motet, Spem in Alium, to mark the premiere of the film of EL James’ bestselling book, “Fifty Shades of Grey”. Joined by a dozen or so guest singers to make sure we had all the vocal lines covered, we spent an unusual morning filming in what felt like freezing temperatures at Tredegar House, hosted by the amiable Gyles Brandreth, Lucie Skeaping and a slick, professional and relentlessly cheerful BBC production team.
The Spem in Alium Choir 8 eyes up Gyles Brandreth’s cosy overcoat and scarf in a freezing Tredegar House (photo: Andy Quick)
With the transmission date set for Valentine’s Day, romantic candlelit dinners had to be put on hold as Cantemus members spent the evening glued to their TV sets. But it was worth it; we were thrilled with the result – especially some of the more innovative camera work – and the enthusiastic response from all our friends and followers who watched the programme said it all.
We did wonder why Huw was being filmed from such an odd angle – until we saw the broadcast (photo: Andy Quick)
Our next engagement, in late March, was a rather more sombre one; a performance of Bach’s St John Passion at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. We had given a very successful performance of its sister piece, the St Matthew Passion, the previous year, so we had a lot to live up to. We were lucky to be accompanied, once again, by the College’s superb Baroque ensemble-in-residence, Réjouissance, led by Simon Jones, and we were joined by a stellar team of soloists, including Liz Irvine (mezzo), Jon English (tenor) and Ed Ballard (baritone). Up-and-coming tenor Guy Cutting displayed superb vocal dexterity as the Evangelist, while Stuart Young gave a commanding performance as Christus. The two soprano solos were performed by our very own Rebecca Donkin and Helen Pugsley, who both gave stunning interpretations of their respective arias. It was marvellous to receive some great feedback from the Guardian’s arts critic, Andrew Dickson, who described our singing as “incisive, thrilling” and “wonderful to hear”.
Easter over, it was on to rehearsals for our summer concert in Llandaff Cathedral. Never being ones to do things by halves, we were to sing two of the most beautiful but vocally challenging works in the repertoire; Frank Martin’s Mass for Double Choir and Rachmaninov’s evocative All-Night Vigil. Hidden in a drawer by its composer for forty years before being performed, Martin’s shimmering Mass was new to us, and a revelation. Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil we had sung in 2013, but the wonderful Cathedral acoustic leant an extra special something to the performance. The concert was rounded off by a virtuosic performance by Huw of Martin’s only composition for organ, his Passacaille. With a large, appreciative audience turning out on a summer’s evening to hear us, it was a really memorable occasion.
Shortly after our concert in Llandaff, the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition commenced, and we were thrilled to be invited to perform live on Radio 3’s “In Tune” as part of the coverage for the event. We were sharing the airwaves with some illustrious company; Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Rosemary Joshua and Iestyn Davies, not to mention some fantastic up-and-coming young opera singers from the RWCMD. We performed two movements from Rachmaninov’s All-Night Vigil, Robert Court’s arrangement of Suo-Gân, plus Moses Hogan’s lively spiritual Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel?, which went down a storm with the warm and appreciative audience in the hall. We received some lovely comments about our singing from the show’s presenter, Sean Rafferty, as well as soprano Rosemary Joshua, who described our rendition of Suo-Gân as “absolutely beautiful”.
Chatting with Sean Rafferty and Rosemary Joshua on BBC Radio 3 In Tune
Our final performance of the summer term was in the lovely Tabernacl Chapel in Cardiff, our rehearsal venue for many years and held in great affection by Cantemus members. We performed a number of items in Welsh, notably a spirited trio of folk songs and William Mathias’ Rex Gloriae, with a magnificent performance by Huw of Charles Ives’ well-known organ favourite, Variations on America. It was a wonderful evening, and great to see so many familiar faces in the audience.
An 8am start at Windsor Castle – at least it was sunny (photo: Andy Quick)
Normally after a summer concert, we would have a break from singing until September. But this year, we had something a little different lined up: a mid-August weekend tour to sing services at St Paul’s Cathedral and St George’s Chapel, Windsor. It was a real privilege to sing in two such iconic venues which, combined with fabulous music, laughter, curry and ice cream, made for a wonderful weekend. We very much hope to make a return trip to London in the not-too-distant future.
At St Paul’s Cathedral
Celebrating getting through Windsor Castle security (photo: Andy Quick)
After enjoying what remained of the summer break, September marked the start of rehearsals for one of our most challenging concerts to date: a performance of all seven of Bach’s iconic choral motets at the RWCMD’s Dora Stouzker Hall. With the coloratura lines requiring spot-on technique and control, rehearsals were a real vocal-work out, but also an enormous amount of fun thanks to Huw’s enthusiasm for, and deep knowledge of, Bach’s music. It was a particular pleasure to perform the lesser-known motet Ich lasse dich nicht as an encore, which Huw dedicated to his former boss at St Paul’s Cathedral, the late John Scott. Our wonderful continuo team were Claudine Cassidy (‘cello) and John Cheer (organ), with Claudine also playing a selection from Bach’s ‘cello suites, which was a real treat. Last but not least, a mention must go to our own soprano soloist Tabitha Rodway-Smith, whose ethereal performance of Bist du bei Mir held the entire audience spellbound.
Performing Bach’s Motets in the Dora Stoutzker Hall (photo: Andrew Lewis-Jenkins)
October’s concert done and dusted, it was time to look towards Christmas and our upcoming performance of Handel’s Messiah at the RWCMD in early December. The last time we had performed this piece was in Buckingham Palace in December 2014, and it was hard to believe that anything could top that experience. Yet, with every seat in the Dora Stoutzker Hall sold and the internationally-renowned soprano, Elin Manahan Thomas, joining us as a soloist for the first time, it turned out to be a very special evening indeed. With Rejouissance once again on superb form, and all the soloists giving fantastic performances, the concert had a real buzz from beginning to end. A standing ovation from the audience, and heartfelt praise from Elin, who described our singing as “thrilling”, were the icing on the cake!
Well-deserved applause for our soloists after a fabulous Messiah
As Christmas approached, our focus turned to the long-awaited release of our CD. The title that was finally chosen – after a tightly-fought contest between choir members – was Nativity (congratulations to soprano Mary Williams for the winning suggestion!). After so many months of waiting, it was fantastic to see the final product emerge, with a striking CD cover image chosen by our Chairman, Mike Page, and superb programme notes compiled by Hugh Edwards. As the release date over November 13th approached, flyers, press releases and a promotional video were prepared as we readied ourselves for a big publicity push. We were proud of the CD, but with a host of other Christmas choral recordings from Britain’s top choirs being released at the same time, we had no idea how successful ours might be.
Our Christmas CD – yay!
Then we heard that the CD had been played on Classic FM. And again. And again. And again….
Articles began appearing in local newspapers. Reviews were published, all rating the CD highly. The BBC Radio 3 Breakfast Show played a track and reminded listeners to come to our next concert. Roy Noble invited us to appear live on his BBC Radio Wales show. Beverley Humphreys featured the disc twice on her Christmas radio programmes. And David Mellor, presenting the New Releases Show on Classic FM, told his listeners that everything on Nativity was “well worth hearing.” It’s fair to say that the reception for Nativity has surpassed all our expectations; we’ve been absolutely thrilled with its success. Credit to Huw, and to Regent Records, for putting together such a great product.
A spot of carol singing in Tesco Extra
Appearing on the Roy Noble Show (pic courtesy of the BBC)
That wasn’t the end of our carol-singing for the year, though: on December 18th, we staged a wonderfully atmospheric Christmas concert in Llandaff Cathedral in association with Diabetes UK, where we had a chance to reprise many of the pieces we’d recorded for Nativity. The fanfares played by superb brass ensemble Llandaff Brass Consort nearly lifted the Cathedral roof off, while excellent drumming from percussionist Iolo Whelan in the opening number Gaudete set the tone for a really festive evening. The Cathedral was packed, and it was great to see so much money raised for a very worthy cause. With a CD receiving nationwide airplay and critical acclaim, two fabulous Christmas concerts, and a live broadcast on Radio Wales, we couldn’t have asked for a better end to the year!
A huge thank you to everyone who’s supported us in 2015: our audiences, accompanists, soloists, our loyal group of Friends, our tireless Chairman, Mike, and of course to Huw, for taking us on a wonderful and unforgettable musical journey.
A very Happy New Year to all our supporters – and we look forward to seeing you in 2016!
Performing to a packed Llandaff Cathedral at our Christmas concert (photo and main feature image: Into the Heart Photography)