Our 50th anniversary Gala Concert was on 22nd June


Music directors past and present gather at Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel to celebrate choral society’s 50th anniversary

 By Trish Lee 


 Published: 03:30, 01 July 2024

This concert marked a special moment for Pangbourne Choral Society and its evolution into an independent choir reaching out into the wider community, delivering a consistently high standard of performance across a substantial repertoire, spanning all the major choral classics and modern songs. Great achievements for a non-auditioned community choir, many of whom start out unable to read music.

This evening’s programme sought to celebrate this broad range, supported by three past music directors, including PCS founder Ralph Allwood, Bob Barsby, and Jonathan Brown, who between them developed PCS from its college roots into a well-established choral ensemble, boasting many successes, and attracting numerous star soloists. Bob Barsby, Ralph Allwood, and Jonathan Brown, all former Directors of Music of Pangbourne Choral Society

The 107-strong choir included Pangbourne College headmaster Thomas Garnier in his final term and – when they were not conducting – both Ralph Allwood and Jonathan Brown.

It is hard to summarise a programme so rich in variety and choral excellence. Ralph Allwood conducted Handel’s Zadok the Priest and Haydn’s The Heavens are Telling from The Creation, recalling some of the first pieces ever performed by PCS.

Jonathan Brown conducted his favourite Wie Lieblich from Brahm’s German Requiem and Mendelssohn’s On the Wings of Song, which epitomised this concert. ‘On Wings of Song we send you the best our hearts can give’ could well be the motto of PCS in this homage to the fellowship of community singing.

Sara Benbow, in her first year with PCS, introduced a range of celebratory pieces from Howells’ Jubilate to Bob Chilcott’s Shenandoah, and the American anthem How Can I Keep from Singing, yet again invoking that intense feeling of musical togetherness.

But perhaps the most poignant work was The Call, written for the Narnia movie Prince Caspian. On the 80th Anniversary of D-Day, this was dedicated to those Pangbourne students who gave their lives fighting for their country.

The clue to how this fitted into the programme lies in the final lines:

I’ll come back when you call me,
No need to say goodbye.

And that said it all – great singing, very controlled, committed and a great team effort by this choir – underpinned by a strong sense of union which called back music directors and many past members in a wonderful, deeply moving demonstration of the power of singing to promote lasting friendship and a deep sense of belonging. And what better way to end the evening than a roof-lifting performance of Parry’s I was glad, with a further group of past members coming up to enjoy a magical finale.

Apart from Ralph Allwood, there was one current PCS member who was there at the very beginning – Ian Busby, who stood up at the end and encouraged the audience to Come and Sing. Be sure that this choir will do all it can to pass on today’s legacy so that PCS will march on gloriously to its centenary in 2074!

Enjoyable evening of fine choral music in splendid surroundings


Pangbourne Choral Society 50th anniversary celebratory concert

Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, Pangbourne College
Saturday, June 22

Published online 1st July 2024

PANGBOURNE Choral Society gave their 50th anniversary concert on Saturday before a large and enthusiastic audience in the splendid surroundings of the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel at Pangbourne College.

To mark the occasion, Sara Benbow, the musical director and conductor of the society, had put together a very interesting and thoughtful programme of 11 works, together with an excellent printed programme to introduce each item. She shared the conducting duties with the society’s founding musical director Ralph Allwood and another former director Jonathan Brown.

Bob Barsby, also a former conductor and now retired, was present and was acknowledged by both the chorus and the audience.

The 90-strong choir gave an evening of well-known works coupled with some that would have been new to both the chorus and the audience.

One such piece was The Call by Regina Spektor, written for a Narnia movie.

This was followed by Handel’s great coronation anthem Zadok the Priest, which revealed the full choral power of this large amateur choir, particularly the basses and tenors who clearly enjoyed their mastery of Handel’s demanding runs. Mozart’s Ave Verum and a movement from Brahms’s Requiem were followed by a strong performance of The Heavens are Telling from Haydn’s Creation.

The beautiful traditional song Shenandoah was heard in an unusual and sensitive setting by Bob Chilcott.

The words of the American song How Can I Keep From Singing? were very significant in the light of the 50-year history of this chorus and the setting of the concert at the nautical college.

I would like to compliment the chorus on their excellent diction throughout the evening, a major aid to a listener’s enjoyment.

Michael Kamen’s theme from the film Band of Brothers was chosen not only for its connection with the courage of those who fought in the war but also the friendships formed within a choir. The concert concluded with a powerful performance of Parry’s famous coronation anthem I Was Glad, its grandeur amplified by the excellent organ accompaniment provided by Andy Stancliffe.

Liz Collins was the sensitive and accomplished pianist who accompanied all the quieter items.

Just as we were all about to leave the chapel, one of the basses stepped forward to speak to the audience, explaining that he had been a member for all its 50 years, extolling the virtues of singing in a choir and urging everyone to “come and sing”.

So ended a most enjoyable evening of fine choral music, well directed by its conductor and two former conductors.

David Wilson

Singers’ worthy tribute to brilliant and inventive Victorian composer

online review Henley Standard 18th March 2024

PANGBOURNE College’s magnificent Falklands Islands Memorial Chapel, with its excellent acoustics, was a fitting scene for this concert performed by Pangbourne Choral Society.

The 90-strong choir were joined by the distinguished Southern Sinfonia Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Sara Benbow, new musical director of the society.

Sara explained that the programme celebrated the achievements of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, who died on March 29, 1924.

In his youth Stanford had been strongly influenced by Sir Arthur Sullivan and Johannes Brahms to become a brilliant and inventive composer.

In turn, he went on to teach and influence several generations of celebrated British composers while at the Royal College of Music, including Herbert Howells, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Wood.

Sara’s careful selection of 11 performance pieces reflected this wide range of famous composers, commencing with Brahms’s magnificent Ein Deutsches Requiem, premiered in Vienna in 1867.

This large-scale choral orchestral piece, led by Sara’s energetic and flamboyant conducting, set the scene for the evening with its dramatic and stirring emotional tones, expressing hope in resurrection. Sir Arthur Sullivan’s All This Night Bright Angels Sing (Carol for Christmas Day) provided the choir with the opportunity to sing unaccompanied, showing their rich and harmonious sounds.

Stanford’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis in C major was a magnificent rendition with organ and orchestral accompaniment filling the chapel with its deep wall of sound.

The Gloria was noteworthy for the interplay between the brass and organ, supported by the choir.

Tenor James Gilchrist, accompanied by virtuoso Anna Tilbrook on piano, provided a contrast with a selection of three songs composed by Muriel Herbert, each with a dramatic melodic style with subtle chromatic harmonisations, including The Loveliest of Trees, with words by AE Housman, and Tewkesbury Road, with words by John Masefield

Next we heard Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast, which was composed in 1898 and premiered by Stanford, who achieved success worldwide.

The Pangbourne choir was later joined by James Gilchrist in singing the verses inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem.

Contemporary composer James MacMillan’s O Radiant Dawn was an a cappella piece beautifully executed.

Gerald Finzi’s God is Gone Up was a fitting finale with its uplifting and joyful tones enhanced by the brass section of the orchestra.

At nearly three hours in duration, this concert was indeed a rich tribute to Stanford.

Terry Grourk

One of UK’s most influential choral composers honoured on the 100th anniversary of his death

online review 23rd March 2024

THIS was a perfect, carefully crafted programme honouring one of our most influential composers on the 100th anniversary of his death, in the year when PCS celebrates its 50th anniversary, in the imposing setting of the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel.

The 85-strong choir was ably led by Sara Benbow, their new music director, and were joined by the excellent Southern Sinfonia Orchestra plus the celebrated tenor James Gilchrist with his superb accompanist Anna Tilbrook.

Throughout the concert, Sara introduced each piece, explaining the connection to Stanford, with two main influencers being Brahms and Sullivan, and with ardent followers including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Charles Wood, James MacMillan, Herbert Howells, George Dyson and Gerald Finzi.

The evening boded well with a fine performance of Den Alles Fliesch from Brahms’ German Requiem, powerful and harmonious singing, expressive conducting, conveying strong hope in resurrection. Few people will have realised that Stanford actually met Brahms and learnt much from him.

The choir then performed Arthur Sullivans’ All This Night Bright Angels Sing – the first of several unaccompanied pieces in which each voice part was exposed with no orchestral support.

Of the later a capella pieces, Howells’ Te Deum and Macmillan’s O Radiant Dawn were performed with panache and power. The dry acoustic of the oval-shaped chapel submitted to this harmonious persistence and yielded a noticeable echo, which gave added depth to what we were being treated to.

James Gilchrist, ably supported by Anna Tilbrook – one of Britain’s most exciting pianists – introduced us to three quite beautiful songs by Muriel Gilbert, who was tutored by Stanford at the Royal College of Music.

James returned to perform the lyrical song of Chibiabos in the concluding scenes of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, yet another triumphant performance by a well-balanced choir and orchestra

But let us not forget Charles Villiers Stanford’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis, which were quite magnificent with choir, organ and orchestra generating a rich and harmonious wall of resonant sound.

The concert was long and it was to the credit of all concerned that there was little sign of flagging, as one might have expected after almost three hours of performance.

It is impossible to do justice to the entire programme in a single review, and it is just a shame that it could not have been heard by a much larger audience.

PCS’s Golden Anniversary Gala Concert on June 22 should be another great occasion for celebration in tough times.



Gilbert and Sullivan music will linger after this skilled performance

online review 26th June 2023

THIS concert offered a tour of some of the best-known Gilbert and Sullivan music in a sequence of operettas dating from the first fruits of their collaboration (Trial by Jury) right through to their final collaboration on The Gondoliers, a period of 14 years.

This sort of concert presents its own special challenges. It’s like going on a guided tour of famous landmarks. You gain a different perspective on such a visit, compared to visiting individual landmarks and spending a few days exploring a specific location or musical work.

For a choir, it requires the ability to step in and out of different operatic characters, always injecting life and colour into the music they

In this case, it also exposes the demanding skills of unison singing. There is no hiding place and one person off-pitch would stand out embarrassingly.

To give some perspective, this performance was designed to be viewed through the prism of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 14-year partnership.

The linking narrative was delivered by BBC Radio Berkshire presenter Andrew Peach.

As always, the acid test is entertainment value and, on that score, the performance rated very highly. Conductor Chris McDade, in his final show as music director, directed operations very well assisted by the excellent piano accompaniment of Liz Collins for whom this offered considerable challenges, which she embraced superbly given the complexity of some parts of the score.

Of course, the choir revelled in the varied opportunities to sing some solo parts en masse as well as the familiar choruses of the various operettas.

The unison singing challenge was met with gusto and sensitivity and there were very few “scratchy” moments.

Perhaps the most amusing element was watching them fingering their scores like tourists consulting a Michelin tourist guide for the next port of call.

The choral highlights included all three Trial by Jury songs, the opening chorus of Pirates from Pirates of Penzance, the Entrance and March of the Peers from Iolanthe and the delightful Three Little Maids (Mikado) caricature by the sopranos and altos, who swung happily from being dainty fairies into the fortissimo reprise which humorously and deliberately owes more to St Trinian’s than anything else.

Great fun, great entertainment, all rounded off with brilliant choruses from The Gondoliers.

Gilbert and Sullivan was another “first” for Pangbourne Choral Society and the audience loved it all. The music will linger in the mind for many days yet.

The society can look forward with great encouragement to its golden anniversary season next year.

Peter Hayward

Gilbert & Sullivan ‘first’ for Pangbourne Choral and the audience loved it


Pangbourne’s magical Mozart

By Trish Lee  trish.lee@newburynews.co.uk Published: 05:00, 25 March 2023 Online review

Pangbourne Choral Society, on Saturday, March 11, at the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, Pangbourne College. Review by PETER HAYWARD

AT last! A Saturday evening concert with a near-full house, rewarded with excellent performances by Southern Sinfonia and, of course, Pangbourne Choral Society, with this enchanting and spirited performance of Mozart’s wonderful Requiem, his final work.

PCS, with a singing troupe of 87, were joined by the excellent Southern Sinfonia Orchestra and four young talented soloists, Sarah Helsby-Hughes (soprano), Serenna Wagner (mezzo soprano), Rene Bloice-Saunders (baritone) and a brilliant last-minute tenor replacement, Ben Thapa, all performing with PCS for the first time.

This programme started with two orchestral pieces, conducted by Simon Chalk, Southern Sinfonia’s artistic director. Their performance of Mozart’s Divertimento No 1 in D Major (K136) was thrilling, skilful and a tribute to the skill and artistry of a strong orchestra. Simon Chalk then introduced a short work of his own, Salted Snow, which he wrote in 2021 on the death of a friend and colleague with the Slovak Sinfonietta.

The short work centred around a meditative trombone solo, joined by two further trombones for the finale. A great premiere of a clearly intensely personal piece of composition.

And in the second half, back to Mozart and his Requiem, last performed by PCS in 2018. From the opening Kyrie and Dies Irae, PCS performed to the highest standard and were at one with their enthusiastic and highly accomplished music director and conductor Chris McDade.

From the outset, the choir commanded attention for their attack, sensitive phrasing and fine expressive tonal contrasts.

All voice sections were at their best and served notice of their confidence in the opening, notably the Kyrie and Dies Irae. Interspersed with quite exceptional solo sections (especially the Benedictus), one looked forward to the next choral passages – such as the almost percussive Confutatis, followed by the intensely lyrical yet passionate Lacrimosa.

The Requiem looks back to the classical structures of the renaissance and baroque periods and demands precise, well-shaped phrasing. It also looks forward to the romantic period and the choir’s interpretation was laced with warm and deep, but well-controlled passion. A tribute to some excellent direction by Chris McDade

Finally, the choir demonstrated its stamina and confidence in the build-up to the stunning finale, crowned by the challenging and well-performed Cum Sanctis Tuis.

After such rich entertainment, the world seemed a better place and it was great to know that choral singing in Pangbourne is back.

 Summer Joy: Pangbourne Choral’s return to Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel

 By Trish Lee 


 Published: 05:00, 25 June 2022

Pangbourne Choral Society Summer Joy at Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, Pangbourne College, on Saturday, June 18. Review by PETER HAYWARD

Pangbourne Choral Society’s last concert was in June 2019, and they were within days of performing a major work in 2020 when Covid struck. So, it was a real delight to enjoy the enthusiastic and expressive singing of this local 100-strong group once again.

However, the retreating Covid shadows lingered. The post lockdown schedule resulted in a shortened programme and, with days to spare, both the music director (Chris McDade) and soprano (Phoebe Churcher – a highly talented singing student of Pangbourne College) tested positive for Covid and had to withdraw. But, as chairman Mick Lewers said: “After such a long lay-off, we were determined for the show to go on, and our committee managed to locate two fantastic replacements with just 48 hours to go!”

Conductor Sara Benbow has a day job as a barrister, but is also music director of St Bartholomew’s Choir (Lower Basildon), and the churches of Whitchurch and Whitchurch Hill as well as associate conductor of Goring & Streatley Concert Band. On this showing she should be able to command greater heights, stimulating last night’s singers to some of the most musical moments that you could hope for. She was well supported throughout by organist Ian Hockley, who has performed widely in the UK as well as in Oman, France, and Romania with soloists and choirs alike.

Soprano soloist Rebecca Bell is senior choir director at St Andrew’s School, Pangbourne, and has performed nationwide. As Mick Lewers said: “We were just so fortunate to have such talented musicians within our area, and were delighted to welcome them.”

Baritone Tom Asher is a rising star and an alumnus of ENO’s Opera Works, performing nationwide in choral and operatic works. This evening he sung two Vaughan Williams pieces (The Vagabond and Bright is the Ring of Words excellently, as well as the solo sections in Fauré’s Requiem.

But the PCS singers were the star attraction in this necessarily cameo performance comprising Fauré’s Requiem and Cantique de Jean Racine, Parry’s I Was Glad, and Handel’s Zadok the Priest. It was hard to believe that they had sung nothing for nearly three years, and the strong influence of absent music director Chris McDade was evident in some beautiful expressive singing with good diction and timing in a programme that, while short, was very demanding.

The PCS performance was special for another reason – the singing was tinged with a sense of enthusiastic relief to be singing again. And the 200-strong audience gradually shook off their Covid reticence and applauded long and hard at the close. A sense of normality returned.

An insider informs me that PCS will celebrate its golden anniversary in 2024, which will be special, as will the build-up during the 2023 season. On this showing, we have much to look forward to in this part of Berkshire.

Pangbourne Choral Society returns to Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel with Coronation music June 2022

Pangbourne Choral Society is returning to the concert platform with a delightful programme under their new music director Chris McDade, who has prepared a programme to celebrate the choir’s return and to commemorate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee with some famous Coronation music.

The programme, at the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, Pangbourne College, on Saturday, June 18 (7pm), comprises Fauré’s two major choral works: the Requiem, and Cantique de Jean Racine, followed by Coronation anthem favourites, Parry (I was Glad) and Handel (Zadok the Priest).

Also included is Vaughan Williams’ O Taste and See, a short motet composed for the Queen’s Coronation in 1953. The programme is short because of the limited rehearsal time due to Covid restrictions, as PCS chairman Mick Lewers explains: ‘The past few years have been frustrating for us because of the Covid restrictions, especially since we’ve had a new music director and this will be his first performance with us. The shorter programme has a benefit in that we will perform without an interval and finish with drinks outside on the lawns for everyone.”

As a choral conductor, Chris Dade has directed many services and recitals with school chamber choirs, as well as major choral works with adult choral societies and semi-professional orchestras in school chapels and major churches and cathedrals, including Canterbury, Chichester, Rochester, and St Albans Abbey in the UK and overseas in Barcelona and Cologne Cathedrals as well as St Mark’s, Venice.

Chris says: “Rehearsing with PCS has been a real joy after all the recent delays, and the occasion will also be special because we will be welcoming two new soloists. Phoebe Curcher, our soprano, is a final year student at Pangbourne College who is moving on to study voice at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Tom Asher (Baritone) is a rising star, performing regularly throughout the UK and internationally. It’s great to be welcoming young talent to our performances.”

PCS chairman Mick Lewers adds: ‘The idea behind our Summer Concert is simple enough: enjoyment! We love singing and we hope that our audience will love this music in as informal a setting as it is possible to get. Hopefully we will have a relaxing and balmy summer evening. The Chapel exceeds all government guidelines in terms of ventilation and we have been rehearsing there for many weeks now, without any problems. We look forward to welcoming a good-sized audience to this celebration of some of the best choral works.”



Poulenc and Puccini in March 2019

“It was clear that the choir enjoyed performing this youthful piece and were very responsive to their conductor. There was no holding back! The quiet Kyrie that opens the work was followed by a boisterous Gloria in which the choir lost no time in demonstrating how powerful one hundred voices can sound when called upon to do so, while also maintaining their musical integrity.” (Henley Standard)

“Pangbourne Choral Society is a shining example of the pride that England takes in amateur choral singing. It advertises for new members to join them ‘to share in the joy of singing… no audition is necessary’. As a consequence, the choir boasted nearly 100 singers at the concert on Saturday. Wonderful!
“…The choir was able to show off its skills in this work with good sustained build-ups in the extended phrases. All eyes were on the conductor and the audience could hear the sheer joy of singing.
“…This was a really brave and challenging evening and the applause at the end was well deserved. English amateur choral singing is alive and well.” (Newbury Weekly News)


JS Bach’s Mass in B Minor, March 2016

Mass in B Minor a joyful triumph for Pangbourne choir

Newbury Weekly News. Pangbourne Choral Society: JS Bach Mass in B Minor, at the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, on Saturday, March 12

CHARLES Gounod said of JS Bach: “He is a colossus of Rhodes” and Debussy described him as “a benevolent god, to whom musicians should offer a prayer before setting to work, so that they may be preserved from mediocrity”.

The Mass in B Minor is an intellectual, emotional and musically technical colossus by the aforesaid colossus. Pangbourne is a small town with a good, large choral society, some 95 singers, and this was not a mediocre performance.

It must be said that PCS achieved a thoroughly workmanlike performance throughout and there were many exciting moments. The vocal and physical stamina required is daunting, even to the most professional of choirs. Yes. there was the odd moment of wayward intonation, the occasional weak entry and the odd moment of feeling of insecurity, but overall this was an extremely creditable performance. The sheer joy of singing in the Gloria, the real breadth and excellent ensemble in the Gratias and intonation in Et Incarnatus, and the sustained grandeur of the Pleni Sunt Coeli are just a few of the many moments of achievement in this rendering of this mighty work.

Canzona, the professional baroque chamber ensemble performing on period instruments, played
competently throughout. There were some exquisite moments, for example the dry, stopped bowing in the Crucifixus, the lifted phrasing of the falling quavers in the first instrumental section and the many soli obbligato players accompanying the vocal soloists.

Hannah Davies, soprano, had a clear, bright tone and a clear sense of enjoyment of singing. William Purefoy, countertenor, had a warm, rounded vocal quality and his rendering of the Agnus Dei had been clearly thought through and was sensitively sung. Nicholas Smith, tenor, sang competently throughout. Henry Neill had a rich, warm tone and a clear understanding of the role of these bass arias and sang with a thoroughly professional attitude. He is still very young and quite rightly did not over-push his lower range at this stage – a very promising voice.

All these forces were admirably held together by the conductor, Roy Raby, who together with the Pangbourne Choral Society must be congratulated on a huge achievement. Bravo!


Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, June 2015

Glittering performance of the first opera

Newbury Weekly News. Pangbourne Choral Society: Dido and Aeneas, at The Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, on Saturday, June 20

COMPOSED some time in the late 1600s, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is one of the first, if not the first, English operas. In the programme for this extremely well performed recital, the note writer mentions some of the questions still unanswered for this piece where there is no known original edition to work from.

Question 1, should the Sorceress be sung by a man or a woman… but I think the word Sorceress is a bit of a giveaway there.

Question 2, which instrument(s) should play the continuo part? Well, the musicians on this occasion used a baroque cello for most of the bass lines and the sound and timbre on that ancient instrument could not be improved upon in my humble opinion.

As to their third question, should the ensemble include a double bass… please refer to my previous sentence. In any case double bass would not have been known in Purcell’s time and he wrote for harpsichord and cello on this occasion. Modern ensembles do use double bass but viola da gamba would be a better bet, surely?

There were, though, many bright and enjoyable moments in this performance and the clean, clear acoustic in the Memorial Chapel made it possible to hear every delightful note, clearly.

The choir sang very well, under the direction of conductor Roy Raby, and nine choir members had solo parts, which they executed with skill.

Helen Parker and Emma Brain-Gabbott were the professional sopranos and their bright sounds and precise diction added much to the enjoyment of this early opera.

William Townend was a strong baritone voice and did well as Aeneas. He was particularly impressive on the aria Ah Belinda, and both soprano and chorus made a moving ending on the best known aria at the conclusion, When I am Laid in Earth, known as Dido’s Lament.

The period instruments, and particularly the ground bass played on baroque cello, provided an impressive conclusion to this popular work.

Townend’s aria from Don Giovanni was a standout in the second half of this concert which featured popular opera choruses, including Mozart, Bizet, Borodin and Wagner.

Once again the choir and three main soloists distinguished themselves with glittering performances all round.


Handel’s Messiah, February 2015

Modfather of choral works

Newbury Weekly News. Pangbourne Choral Society: Messiah, at the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, Pangbourne College, on Saturday, February 14 2015

HANDEL’S Messiah is one of those choral works with which audiences and performers feel especially familiar. Yet Pangbourne Choral Society, urged on by their new music director Roy Raby, performed this masterpiece with pulsating pace and dramatic intensity.

Newbury’s resident professional orchestra, the magnificent Southern Sinfonia, playing with energy and customary dexterity, provided the vital backbone, and the soloists (Hannah Nye – soprano, David Allsop – countertenor, Nicholas Smith – tenor, and Alex Otterburn – bass) were more than willing participants with their riveting and vital contributions. Highlights were Hannah Nye’s moving I know that my Redeemer liveth and David Allsop’s But who may abide and He was despised.

And what of the excellent Pangbourne Choral Society? For 100-odd singers to perform with such verve and tempo was an amazing achievement in itself. By the interval, we had been treated to arresting renditions of the familiar And the glory and For unto us a child is born. Especially noticeable were the fast exchanges between the four parts in And He shall purify, with flowing phrases punctuated by some emphatic moments.

As part two opened, one was left wondering how the ensemble would cope with the challenges ahead. Maybe there was the occasional sensation of ‘cornering on two wheels’ but the choir quickly and almost imperceptibly regained balance and motored on.

The peak of dramatic passion lay in Surely He hath borne our griefs, and All we like sheep was delivered with staccato, self-accusatory attack leading to the ensuing laments. The Hallelujah chorus was a revelation. All too often one hears well-delivered but pompously repetitive phrases. Roy Raby combined a sense of majesty with a breath-taking sureness of touch.

Finally, Hannah Nye (If God be with us) set up the concluding Worthy is the lamb and Amen choruses and the audience rose to applaud a Messiah that revealed a poignant and contemporary relevance. As Roy Raby said in his programme note: “This evening’s performance is a celebration of friendship, not a reflection of a bygone age or an elusive quest for an ‘authentic’ performance.”

And so it was.


Mendelssohn’s Elijah, February 2014

Elijah defeats the elements

Newbury Weekly News. Pangbourne Choral Society: Mendelssohn’s Elijah at the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel, Pangbourne College on Saturday, February 15

THE power supply to the Falkland Islands Memorial Chapel was restored at 3am on the morning of this first 40th anniversary concert of Pangbourne Choral Society. Thank goodness it was, otherwise a huge audience would have missed a huge performance of a wonderful work.

This was a real tour de force by PCS under the baton of its musical director Jonathan Brown. Elijah demands sustained expressive singing from soloists and chorus working in close harmony to bring to life one of the finest stories in the Old Testament. I overheard one audience member describe the evening as ‘a major event’ – something of an understatement.

We knew we were on to something good from the very start. Elijah (baritone Quentin Hayes) opens quietly with a warning to the unfaithful Israelites that they will have no rain, and after the dark D minor overture, the Israelites (Chorus) erupt into a desperate cry – Help Lord! Wilt thou quite destroy us? The power of the opening reverberated through the chapel’s brilliant acoustics – quite riveting. So the story of Elijah’s battles with King Ahab and Queen Jezebel unfolds and it is hard to choose specific highlights because they came so thick and fast.

The key to this performance was its dramatic energy. It was enacted with conviction and total commitment. At its heart was the quartet of excellent soloists. Tenor Richard Coxon (Ahab and Obidiah) sang as if he were at the Royal Opera House; baritone Quentin Hayes’s Elijah had gravitas and his taunting of the priests of Baal was full of dramatic menace. As Jezebel, Claire Williams (mezzo-soprano) stirred the people against Elijah towards a choral climax that was totally convincing. And Claire Seaton (soprano) rose above the mayhem to exhort the Israelites to better ways through her angelic arias. The four soloists came together beautifully as angels in the Cast thy burden upon the Lord aria.

The chorus was in fine voice and vital in creating this dramatic musical narrative. As the priests of Baal they launched into the two-choir/four-part choruses, vainly exhorting their god with rising intensity in response to Elijah’s taunts.

And the ladies, as angels, came into their own in the unaccompanied Lift thine eyes to the mountains. If there was a slight drop in pitch, it was totally overwhelmed by a performance of rare sensitive expression. In particular, one noticed a rich vein of alto singing – deep and sonorous.

Was it fanciful to feel that the stormy climax The waters gather, they rush along reflected the stormy scenes of the Thames Valley? At times the tempo was fast and furious, but the words of the story were seldom lost.

So we came to the finale And then shall your light break forth as the light of the morning breaketh. Even at the end of this monumental work, the choir managed to sustain a strong, harmonious and majestic conclusion.

Many in the audience and in the choir must have braved the floods and the gales to come to this anniversary concert. They went home happy. Jonathan Brown should be delighted with the progress made by his charges. They went way beyond any reasonable expectation to deliver something really special.