The Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge helps launch the southern Ontario summer music festival season this weekend with three concerts, including a performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s grand oratorio, Elijah, at the Elora Festival tonight.
We think of the great English cathedral and college choirs as having been around since late Plantagenet times in the 15th century, but the mixed-voice group of singing music scholars from Trinity College at Cambridge University has only been around in its current form since 1982, making this choir two years younger than the Elora Festival itself.
What the Trinity College Choir lacks in history, it more than makes up in quality — one that it shares tirelessly during its annual summer tours and recording projects. The last Canadian visit was four years ago.
Because the 33 choristers are all university students, the makeup of the choir changes every year, so it is music director Stephen Layton’s job to keep the sound and balance consistent from year to year.
Layton, who is in his mid-40s, has built his reputation as one the finest choir directors in Great Britain not on easygoing, modern collegiality, but on old-school discipline and rigorous attention to detail. Perhaps that’s because, like many of the key figures in English music history, Layton is a self-made man.
His singing and keyboard talents helped whisk him from a housing project in the north of England into the fabled Winchester choir school, followed by Eton and, finally, Kings College, Cambridge.
“When I went to prep school at Winchester, I found the transition difficult at first: obviously I spoke with a northern accent. But I was so passionate about music that it took over my life completely,” Layton told the Times after he became music director at Trinity College six years ago. “And by the time I went to Eton I found that playing the organ brought me respect, even if I wasn’t very good at football.”
Among his many jobs outside Cambridge, Layton is the artistic director and principal conductor of the City of London Sinfonia, a position he was given after the death of Richard Hickox.
The Trinity College choir’s most recent album, dedicated to the atmospheric harmonic riches of composer Herbert Howells (1892-1983), is but the latest testament to Layton’s finesse with choral sound. Recorded at Ely and Lincoln cathedrals exactly a year ago, the execution of seven works (including the St Paul’s Service) is flawless. The two organ scholars featured on the Howells disc, Jeremy Cole and Simon Bland, are travelling with the group this summer.
Beyond All Mortal Dreams, an album of music by North American composers released last year, includes four motets and anthems by Toronto’s Healey Willan.
Joining Trinity College Choir Cambridge for tonight’s performance of Elijah are the 20 Elora Festival Singers, four adult soloists (including baritone Brett Polegato), treble Daniel Bedrossian and the Festival Orchestra, conducted by Elora Festival founder and artistic director Noel Edison.
This evening’s venue, the so-called Gambrel Barn, has to be one of the unlikeliest concert structures in the world. The road-works shed with rough asphalt floor, located across the street from a gambling facility, manages to have remarkably good acoustics, all things considered. Because the stage is raised quite high, the sightlines are pretty good, too.
There’s a pre-concert talk by Rick Phillips at 7:15 p.m., followed by the music at 8. For tickets and details, click here.
The Trinity College Choir goes solo after tonight, travelling to (air conditioned) St Mark’s Anglican Church for Music Niagara in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. before returning to Elora to sing a concert on Sunday at 4 p.m. in the (non-air conditioned) Gambrel Barn.
It looks like both solo concerts will feature the same programme, a pan-European, pan-historical selection that includes J.S. Bach’s Lobet den Herrn and Henry Purcell’s Remember Not, Lord, our Offences, to Edward Elgar’s Great is the Lord and Bogoroditse Djevo, by Arvo Pärt.
For more on the choir’s recordings for the Hyperion label, click here.
Here are some YouTube clips that give an idea of the fine work done by the Trinity College Choir. The first is the Gloria from Howells’ St Paul’s Service, followed by the two a cappella pieces that will open the solo recital programmes this weekend: