Christmas concert, 12 December 2021 – review by Richard Godfrey

Amid scary warnings of a tsunami of the Omicron Covid variant, it was wonderful that Alex Davies and the Lyme Bay Chorale (LBC) were able to go ahead with a joyful celebration of Christmas in Lyme Regis Parish Church last Sunday. The event had been cancelled in 2020, making the return this year doubly welcome, and the concert was dedicated to the memory of Ruth Taylor, who founded LBC in 2000.

From the choir’s first entry in Handel’s Zadok the Priest, it was clear that LBC has retained its excellence: strong clear diction, perfect tuning, and balance (even with some members missing because they were unwell). Zadok must be one of the most frequently performed choral pieces, but it never loses its impact and grandeur. After a delightful organ interlude – of which more later – the choir presented Hadyn’s Missa Sancti Nicolai, an appropriate choice to celebrate the recent feast of St Nicholas (6 December). Here the programme notes were very helpful in explaining the concise nature of this mass, with each section lasting no more than a few minutes, and sometimes the words overlapping among the singers. The music itself includes some vivid word painting, especially in the Credo where the general feeling of excitement and joy gives way to a quiet, almost sobbing style for the Crucifixion. The LBC singers coped splendidly with sometimes very high notes, especially in the soprano line, and the tempi chosen by Alex Davies always seem exactly right.

After the interval the choir presented two beautiful works of a quieter, more meditative nature, Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine and Brahms’s Geistliches Lied. In both there were lovely moments, especially the pianissimo ending of the Cantique, and a magnificent swelling crescendo and decrescendo in the Brahms. There were also some delightful Christmas treats: a splendid Good King Wenceslas (aka Joss Kent) complete with meteorological sound effects; the touching Watts’ Cradle Hymn; and a Ding! Dong! Merrily on High of utmost rhythmic excitement. There were some lusty audience-participation favourites, too, and it was interesting to see a variety of interpretations of the current confusing guidelines on mask wearing when singing, ranging from full exposure, through timid slight lowering, to full cover!

Last but by no means least, I must pay tribute to Andrew Millington’s absolutely superb contribution at the organ throughout the whole concert. Every item was accompanied in perfect synchrony with the conductor, using wonderful colour and employing dazzling technique to cover rapid passage­-work in many pieces, especially the Haydn mass. There were also two attractive short solo pieces, one a Daquin Noël showing off the many reedy colours available in the Škrabl organ, and the other Leroy Anderson’s famous Sleigh Ride. This showed that even the most serious and talented musicians can let their hair down – and the audience responded with the biggest cheer of the whole concert!

Christmas concert, 9 December 2018 – review by Richard Godfrey

The Lyme Bay Chorale, under the direction of Alex Davies, magnificently captured the magic of Christmas in a beautifully programmed concert. The singers were at their best, with the lovely solo voice of Chloe Stratta soaring above them in many of the pieces. Andrew Millington provided wonderful accompaniments, extracting a kaleidoscope of colour from the great Škrabl organ. A superbly decorated large Christmas tree dominated the south aisle. But for the capacity audience it must have been the contribution of the St Michael’s Children’s Choir that best captured the spirit of the occasion, with 14 children, 6 to 13 years old and drawn from 5 local schools. They were clearly extremely well trained, watching the conductor carefully and singing with gusto.
From the musical point of view, there was a nice balance of serious and not-so-serious items, and a good number of traditional carols for the audience to sing. Poulenc’s Gloria (1959) was a striking start, with its extreme contrasts in dynamics, tight rhythms, and exciting fanfare-like organ contributions – plus harmonies that make Poulenc one of those composers instantly recognisable from a single chord or two.  The other major contribution from the choir was Christus Natus Est by Cecilia McDowall, written in 2003. This was an imaginative choice, serious music with modern and intriguing backings to carols such as Personent Hodie and Infant Holy.  The very quiet sections, with intricate organ accompaniments, were excellently performed.
Among the less serious items, Good King Wenceslas, as arranged by Paul Halley (2003), must take first prize. The funky harmonies, key shifts, storm effects, stumbling page, and splendid King will live in our memories. The presentation of a magnificent golden crown (made, I believe, by Alex Davies’s daughter Cecilia) to King Wenceslas (sung by Joss Kent) was a moment we shall all treasure.

Review by Barry Gibbs, Wessex area secretary, Royal School of Church Music

A large audience at the Lyme Bay Chorale’s Christmas concert in St Michael’s Parish Church warmly responded to a balanced seasonal programme that included some audience carols.  
The main piece in the first half was Francis Poulenc’s Gloria. Under director Alex Davies’s baton the choir produced clear diction, rhythmic integrity and a wide range of dynamics demanded by the composition. The result was moments of dramatic intensity. In the third movement, ‘Domine Deus’ the local soprano soloist Chloe Stratta joined the piece. The clarity and purity of her beautiful voice in soaring melody was an atmospheric contrast to some of the Gloria’s more playful sections. 
St Michael’s Children’s Choir joined the concert for Paul Halley’s amusing setting of ‘Good King Wenceslas’. Theirs was an assured and musical performance, with the young eyes keenly on the director’s baton. Four of the choir took the parts of the pages, with baritone Joss Kent from the chorale a majestic King. At the end he was rewarded with a paper crown presented by the children. 
In the second half of the programme the consistent good form continued in another Halley composition ‘Infinite Light’ and a setting of ‘Cradle Hymn’ by Isaac Watts. Then the chorale, children’s choir and Chloe Stratta joined forces for Christus Natus Est by Cecilia McDowall.  Although the varied movements with organ interludes could have tripped up the mixed experience of the singers, long applause from the audience was a clear indication that this was far from the case.  Worthy of note was the final note from the sopranos.
A rousing arrangement of ‘Ding Dong Merrily on High’ by Mack Wilberg brought the evening to a close, with the children’s choir showing remarkable discipline and accuracy with some difficult timing in the last verse. 
Andrew Millington’s accompaniment on the organ was sympathetic and, where appropriate, virtuoso.
Lyme Regis is fortunate to have in the Lyme Bay Chorale such a group of talented singers.

Christmas concert,  3 December 2017 – review by Richard Godfrey

There was standing room only for the Lyme Bay Chorale’s Christmas concert in St Michael’s Church last Sunday afternoon, directed by Alex Davies. Rather than a hotchpotch of seasonal pieces, the programme consisted of just three substantial major works. The choir was joined by a small number of professional soloists and instrumentalists, and the performance was of the highest standard. There was also the happy announcement that two very distinguished musicians have agreed to become the choir’s patrons – Philippa Hyde (soprano) and Paul Esswood (countertenor). 

On the first Sunday in Advent, there could have no more appropriate choice to begin the concert than Bach’s great setting of Wachet Auf, ruft uns die Stimme from Cantata 140. Alex Davies set exactly the right tempo for this measured unfolding of the text, sung in long phrases above a lilting and mesmeric accompaniment, which hardly changes in character throughout the eight minutes of the piece. The choir immediately showed how good it has become, with excellent balance, clarity and wide dynamic range. There was also fine continuo playing, which was to be major feature of the whole concert.

Next was Vivaldi’s Dixit Dominus, a work with an extraordinary history recounted in the well-written programme notes. It had been wrongly attributed to another Venetian composer, and was only recognised as being by Vivaldi in the 1920s. It has nine sections, each devoted to a verse of Psalm 110 (incidentally, some of the words are decidedly disturbing, dealing with dead bodies of the heathen being piled up in public places).  Vivaldi employs a mixture of full chorus sections interspersed with solos.  Chloe Stratta, in beautiful voice, sang the first solo.  Philippa Hyde then joined her in a duet, with their two voices blending in a perfect match.  And so it continued, with further assured solos from Julie De’Ath Lancaster, Nicholas Hawker and David Fouracre.  The work finishes with a splendid Gloria in fugal style, which brought the first half of this splendid concert to a grand close.

After a short interval the internationally famous countertenor Paul Esswood gave a short speech in which he warmly congratulated the Lyme Bay Chorale on their singing. He told us something of his professional work, then apologised for having a cold and being unable to sing his scheduled pieces. But luckily there were two pieces planned for soprano solo, and these were marvellously performed by Philippa Hyde, accompanied by Peter Lea-Cox. The second, Handel’s famous Let the bright Seraphim, was directed by Paul Esswood and included a splendid part for solo trumpet played by Dom Hammett, a student at the Royal Academy of Music. The imitative moments between soprano and trumpet will remain in everyone’s memory of this truly outstanding performance.

The concert concluded with Bach’s Magnificat, one of the pinnacles of the choral repertoire. The 12 movements included beautiful solos, including some for the orchestral instruments, and magnificent full choruses, complete with timpani and trumpets. Alex Davies did a wonderful job in judging the mood and tempo of each section.  Apart from his great musicianship, he deserves praise for assembling such an excellent group of players to accompany the choir, and for arranging them imaginatively in the space available. Special mention must be made of the continuo players (Peter Lea-Cox, harpsichord; Peter Parshall, organ; Arturo Serna, cello; and Imogen Fernando, bass) for their accurate and imaginative accompaniment, and to the three trumpets whose ringing tone pealed out from the chancel at many thrilling moments.