Easter at Kings
24 Mar 2016
The world-famous Christmas concert at Cambridge's King's College might be magical, but the Easter Festival – and this is quite a statement – overtakes those wonderful Carol services in its deep spirituality expressed in exquisite music.
The long ten-day celebration -- the apex of the Christian Calendar -- began Monday 21 March on the first evening of Holy Week with a truly moving version of St. John’s Passion by the master of choral music J.S.Bach. It was glorious in every way. The Chapel, which can be a bit of daunting space, was warmly lit with subtle glowing hidden lamps.
And at the concert, instead of taking place among the choir stalls in the grand chapel, this audience were switched around, due to work underway on the organ, to face the west window in the much larger ante-chapel. This was a genius stroke. It delivered the event from that ‘us and them’ feel that King's perforce must have when half the audience is behind a massive sixteenth century dark oak screen installed or at least embellished by Henry VIII when he was briefly married to Anne Boleyn.
'I like this arrangement so much better,’ remarked one of the soloists to me as he left the Chapel following the performance, 'At least you’re all in one room.'
And what a room. The golden stone of the ante-chapel rose gracefully in the gloaming into its famous tree-like pillars; For the concert they were illuminated by warm coloured lights fixed inside the stone coronets on the walls, symbols of kings long gone.
As one concert goer remarked, ‘The moment that choir began with all its polyphonic tones, like a wall of sound, tears came into my eyes with the sheer glory of the work.' And the subtle combination of voices, some as young as ten years old, was breathtaking.
The small choristers, who do look even younger than their years are a marvel in themselves, deep in their scores of music, perfect in every well-rehearsed note. Even before the famous solists, starring the more-than-stellar counter tenor Iestyn Davis, began to sing, you could only marvel at the amazing voices blending in this Bach Masterpiece.
Admired by mathematicians for the wonder of his amazing work, Bach is a composer of huge technical skill but the music evokes, deep down in the soul, a response that is other-worldly, touched by the divine.
With some stunning performances by thrilling singers, the evening, instead of dragging or flagging, seemed to fly by. James Gilchrist, as the lively Evangelist, dominated much of the musical scene, bringing so much expression and drama to the role that his long sections were delightful in their light and shade.
Beauty and vocal power came packed with Sophie Bevan, the only female role in the entire oeuvre, and of course counter tenor Iestyn Davies, who dazzled his many fans with his superb voice. The counter tenor voice is suddenly popular in many forms of music but here it soared spectacularly and made us all understand why this type of singing so far from being strange contributes unlike any other to the drama of any performance.
Stephen Cleobury conducted with his usual brio and he was back Tuesday 22 March with the same music to produce the self same magic for adoring audiences. Solemn, flawless in technique, here was a production to remember.
The Festival of Music now runs across the Easter weekend.