Event review: Croydon Bach Choir presents Homo Sum at its summer concert

By - Friday 14th July, 2017

The highlight of Croydon Bach Choir’s summer concert was a remarkable new work with a unifying vision by Mark David Boden

Photo author’s own.

On the warm and sunny evening of Saturday 1st July, many of us gathered at Croydon Minster to hear the Croydon Bach Choir present the final concert of its 2016-17 season, featuring the premiere of Mark David Boden’s work Homo Sum alongside opera choruses and arias and Mozart’s Coronation Mass. This far-ranging programme, with pieces spanning four centuries by composers from five different countries, indicated that this well-established sixty-strong choir is willing to stretch creatively and embrace new musical adventures.

Croydon Bach Choir was founded by the organist of what was then Croydon Parish Church, Derek Holman, and first performed St John Passion in 1960. The baton has since passed from a series of accomplished conductors to today’s leader Tim Horton, also head of the Preparatory School at Old Palace of John Whitgift School and Acting Director of Music at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace. The choir welcomes new members, who join for a probationary period initially. Members must meet its standards and be able to ‘take part in our concerts confidently and make a positive contribution to the choir’.

The choir delivered its programme amidst the sun-dappled arches of the minster. In tune with the themes to be explored in Homo Sum, the opera choruses chosen this evening all portray minority groups – from Verdi’s rousing Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves and Anvil Chorus to Borodin’s Polovitsan Dances. Vivacious soloist Belinda Evans regaled us with songs of tragedy and joy, ably enacting the characters of despairing Pamina from Mozart’s Magic Flute and excited jewel-finder Marguerite from Gounod’s Faust. Bravely led by capable soloists, the choir led us through Mozart’s convention-breaking Coronation Mass. Then, within this rich backdrop of song, came its newest collaboration, Homo Sum.

As composer and choir worked together, the music mattered more and more

Mark David Boden is an award-winning composer who trained and now lectures at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and has been commissioned by a wide range of ensembles including the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Sinfonia Cymru. Based in Bath, this is his fourth visit to Croydon since last October when his collaboration with Croydon Bach Choir began. The Adopt A Composer scheme, run by Making Music in partnership with Sound and Music and in association with BBC Radio 3, (which recorded this premiere performance), PRS for Music Foundation and the Philip Dorothy Green Music Trust, supports professional composers to create new pieces in close collaboration with amateur musicians. Mark spent six months composing the piece, far longer than he envisaged, because “it mattered more and more” as he became part of the ensemble.

The resulting piece, Homo Sum, features a poem written by one of the choir’s altos, Anne Davenport, A Strand of Hope, alongside Latin, Sanskrit, Swahili, Islamic proverbs, phrases and poems. Mark wrote the work whilst feeling “post-Brexit-ish” and senses that Croydon’s multi-culturalism has emerged as its strongest theme. Having initially declared on gaining a place in Adopt A Composer that he would least like to compose for a choral-instrumental combination, this is exactly the adventure he embarked upon, with the choir singing alongside organ, string ensemble and percussion.

I am human; I think nothing human alien to me

Homo Sum opens with a beautiful lyrical first movement, which Mark describes as “very conventional, to get them going”. Layers of soft, rolling harmonies bathed us in the phrase homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto: I am human, I think nothing human alien to me. Having drawn us into this rich harmonic landscape, we were then taken on a vibrant journey through rhythmic, challenging movements which poignantly point to the perils of disunity that emerge when we forget and the beauty that emerges when we remember the strand of hope that is our shared humanity.

The fourth and aleatoric movement centres on the Islamic phrase, ‘a lot of different flowers make a bouquet‘, sung in many languages. Mark wanted “to capture the idea that people would just sing joyously the same phrase but in their own language and it would all work together in harmony”. The choir embodied this by allowing individual members to stand to sing their chosen phrase then sit again, creating a rippling motion of sound. Movement like this in classical choirs is largely unheard of, so this represented a dynamic and exciting break with convention. It was also refreshing to see singers moving in response to a vibrant drum and bass movement, which Mark found a reassuring indication that “they quite liked doing that one – more than I thought”.

In a touching return to the simplicity and vulnerability of the human voice, the piece concludes with an unaccompanied movement of Homo Sum, which for Mark was important as it represented coming full circle. “It comes from nothing, it comes back to nothing.”

A brave and beautiful performance

In conversation after the performance, Mayor of Croydon Toni Letts described the piece as “full of energy, excitement – you really got the fact that we are a diverse community beautifully … we are a community of communities and that was right through your music”. Mark David Boden responded that he feels that “that’s important now, more than ever”.

This brave and beautiful performance clearly involved risk-taking and challenge on all sides, and left me asking how we can more fully embody the unifying vision of Homo Sum. The demographic of classical choirs and their audiences is predominantly white and middle-class, as this sector has traditionally commanded the disposable income and time to belong to choirs and attend concerts. In its planned performance of the piece for next year, could Croydon Bach Choir create exciting collaborations with the culturally diverse singers and instrumentalists in the borough? The musical muscle of this long-standing choir is more than strong enough, as its members proved themselves absolutely able to rise to a challenge that night.

Katie Rose

Katie Rose

Katie Rose - Singer, Composer, Conductor, Writer - Katie loves singing and helping people sing. Described by the Guardian as a 'fine singer' and by fRoots magazine as an 'eye (and ear) opener,' she has released three albums. Committed to creating uplifting, inclusive experiences of singing, Katie has led singing sessions in hospitals, hospices, festivals and community choirs across London. Convinced of the power of music to make waves in the world she has conducted mass choral events for Sing for Water and is directing Croydon's first Festival of Peace 2018. For more information visit www.therosewindow.org

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  • blath8@googlemail.com

    ” ……. what she said”. Brilliant. Entertaining. New.