|Review of Ashtead Choral Society’s concert:
‘English Music for a Summer’s Evening’,
Saturday, 16 June 2018,
Reviewer: Sue S. Meyer
This was conductor James Henshaw’s final appearance at the helm of Ashtead Choral
Society after five years in which he has raised the bar in glorious sound, diction,
ensemble, rhythm, dynamics and sheer enjoyment. The choir has gained in confidence
in unaccompanied singing and is improving its communication of the text to the
Strangely, the first item was an advent piece by the 16 th century Spanish composer
Victoria, ‘O Magnum Mysterium’, a beautifully hushed hymn to the virgin birth which
suddenly segues into dance-like alleluias. Henshaw explained this transition into a
programme including a number of English madrigals, composed either side of 1600 by
the likes of Thomases Weelkes, Morley, Tomkins, and Vautor, among others.
‘Cold Winter’s Ice is Fled’ was succeeded by ‘Now is the Month of Maying’ and ‘Into
the Shady Woods’; later on we heard the ribald and rhythmic ‘Fair Phyllis I Saw
Sitting’ and ‘I Love Alas I Love Thee’ – songs where wanton young lovers go falalalala-
ing in various vegetations!
The ladies of the Barbarelles gave sprightly renditions of ‘Blue Skies’ and ‘The Cornish
Floral Dance’, banishing thoughts of other versions one may know! The only
instrumental item was a six-handed ragtime piano composition, ‘The Secret’ by Léonard
Gautier, executed with great panache by Caroline Bailey, Michelle MacDonald and Anne
An unadvertised highlight was James Henshaw singing the counter tenor piece by
Purcell ‘Music for a While’, excellent in tone, line and expression, accompanied by
Stephen Ridge, who gave first class support throughout the evening where needed.
There were two Vaughan-Williams solos by Alicia Newell, a sensitive, beautifully
nuanced ‘Silent Noon’, and David Robinson’s flawless rich bass ‘The Vagabond’.
The first half concluded with an avian triptych: Orlando Gibbons’ alleged lament for
the demise of the madrigal, the mournful ‘The Silver Swan’, then ‘Sweet Suffolk Owl’,
but the closing ‘The Blue Bird’ by Stanford was a real highlight, capturing a special atmospheric moment of beauty by a lake. This showed the choir at its best. Moreover
Sarah Coulam’s soprano solo over the choir was hauntingly glorious and peerless.
The second half brought us more madrigals, including two in praise of Oriana, widely
thought to be a figure representing Queen Elizabeth I ( so next time you are thinking
of booking a cruise …) – ‘As Vesta was Descending’ and ‘The Lady Oriana’.
Altos Lesley Clarke and Sarah Boyle delighted us with a beautifully polished
performance of the old folk song ‘The Oak and the Ash’.
The concert concluded with John Rutter’s arrangements for choir of eleven folk songs,
which people of a certain age will remember from their schooldays, ‘The Sprig of
Thyme’. The ladies of the choir excelled in the eponymous song, as well as ‘I know
where I’m going’ and ‘O can ye sew cushions?’ while the gentlemen showed their mettle
in ‘Down in the Sally Gardens’ and the drinking song ‘The Miller of Dee’. Old favourites
such as ‘The Bold Grenadier’, ‘The Keel Row’ and ‘Afton Water’ did not disappoint, nor
the songs in which willow trees witnessed tragic goings on.
All in all then a most satisfying event which demonstrated not only the skills of the
choir but also the breadth and depth of individual talent within it. Both James
Henshaw and Ashtead Choral can feel justly proud of their achievements. He will be
‘Music for a while,
Shall all your cares beguile.’