On Sunday 14th May 2023 we celebrated both Springtime and the coronation of King Charles III with a concert in St Nicolas’ Church, Guildford. There was a glorious mixture of sacred and secular songs, classical and popular, and ancient and modern; there were sets from both choirs, and some joint songs.
The concert began with the Chamber Choir encircling the main body of the audience to sing Schütz’s Selig Sind die Toten. We have wanted to do this for some time, but Covid made it inadvisable; it was lovely that we were now able to surround the audience with this soothing, affirmative evocation of God’s blessing on the faithful departed. Two more sacred pieces followed, this time from the east end of the church: Owain Park’s dizzyingly exuberant Caelos ascendit and Owen Todd’s lyrical and prayerful setting of Catherine Lomas’ poem Encircled. Then came two more settings of poems: Eric Whitacre’s setting of e e cummings’ ecstatic poem I will wade out, and Paul Mealor’s sensual setting of Tennyson’s Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal.
In their first set the Surrey Hills Singers demonstrated their versatility with Sarah Quartel’s uplifting love song, As You Sing, Ramin Diawadi’s darker, folksy Jenny of Oldstones, from Game of Thrones, and finally a stirring rendition of joy, anger and loss in Michael Neaum’s setting of a traditional song, Dolina, sung in the original Polish.
The Surrey Hills Singers always impress with their choreography, but on this occasion the Chamber Choir too added some moves to dramatise their performance of Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho, described in the introduction on the night as ‘live reporting from our Jericho correspondent’. The wistful folk ballad, John’s Gone to Hilo was followed by the rhythmical excitement of Makabongwe, an arrangement of three Zulu and Sotho hymns from southern Africa, each with their own distinctive dance moves, meticulously rehearsed and performed by the choir.
After a short interval the Chamber Choir returned to give a spirited performance of the great Spiritual, My Soul’s Been Anchored, before performing James Stevens’ extraordinary new arrangement of the traditional hymn Nearer my God to Thee. Stevens was leader of the Brigham Young University Vocal Point choir when he wrote this, adding his own Latin refrain, with an exhilarating alternation between 4/4 and 7/8 adding an urgent excitement to the piece.
There were many highlights in the concert, but one in particular was the Surrey Hills Singers’ performance of Amazing Grace/My Chains are Gone, Chris Tomlin’s take on the famous old hymn. The Singers beautifully captured the gratitude, excitement and affirmation of faith in Tomlin’s arrangement. No Surrey Hills Choirs concert would be complete without the Singers demonstrating how their choreography adds great drama to the story-telling of the songs: that was particularly true of their passionate, intense Jar of Hearts, Christina Perri’s anthem to female strength and resilience in the face of betrayal. The fierceness as the choir advanced on the audience singing ‘Who do you think you are?’ was palpable. The Andrews Sisters’ Shoo Shoo Baby received a different sort of choreography, flirtatious and comical, evoking the Swing Era perfectly.
In honour of King Charles we sang five pieces written for previous coronations, from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. The Chamber Choir sang Child’s O Lord, Grant the King a Long life, Purcell’s I was glad and Stanford’s sumptuous Gloria in Excelsis, and the singers gave a beautifully tender performance of Vaughan Williams’ O Taste and See, written for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953. The audience certainly appreciated the added drama of Handel’s Zadok the Priest, with the Chamber Choir processing in from the back of the church to join the Singers as Anthony Merryweather, our organist for the accompanied pieces, played the long introduction. The timing was perfect, with the last few singers reaching their places and turning to sing with a bar to spare. There were visible gasps of delight from the audience at the magnificent first entry of the choir, and this made a perfect end to the evening’s performance, before we invited the audience to join us for the National Anthem.
The reception from the audience was excellent, with overwhelmingly positive comments, some old hands even saying it was the best Surrey Hills concert they had been to. From the choirs’ point of view, it was great to be back, especially without any covid restrictions; after our summer competition date in Llangollen we look forward to returning to St Nicolas’ Church in December for our Christmas concert.