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Review: Cleveland Philharmonic Choir at the Sage Gateshead

Some of our best choirs prove equal to some of the 20th Century's great choral challenges

*****
The Sage Gateshead
The Sage Gateshead

Conducted by long-standing musical director John Forsyth, the choir marked its first appearance here with stirring performances of two of the 20th Century’s notoriously challenging choral works.

It was joined by North East Youth Chorale, Northern Spirit – recent winners of the Adult Choir of the Year 2014 – and Sage Gateshead’s own youth choirs, Quay Lads and Quay Lasses.

An evening for hearing wholly local talent was topped off with an appearance by Sir Thomas Allen, the world-famous baritone and the choir’s honorary president, together with the excellent and experienced Mowbray Orchestra.

Belshazzar’s Feast was composed when composer William Walton was still in his twenties and, by common consent, it ranks as one of the great choral works of the last century.

From its dramatic and portentous opening, it’s music that you can’t take your ears off for a second, being epic and colourful in every bar.

From its premiere, when the choir went on strike saying it was too difficult to perform, the piece has attracted much comment. Renowned conductor Sir Henry Wood said it was “truly marvellous, like the world coming to an end”.

Walton even thought to include two separate brass sections and an organ to add support in key places.

This wonderful work was finely performed with the assembled singers in Hall One rising to the challenge it posed with relish.

The evening’s second half was devoted to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana which is best known for choral favourite O Fortuna, the opening and closing chorus of the work.

Orff took this set of lively medieval poems, discovered in a Bavarian monastery and written by itinerant minstrels and lapsed priests among others, and wove in the story of the love affair of Helena and Blanzifor.

The texts – variously bawdy, comic and irreverent – are challenging for the choir and soloists, being set in Latin, Middle German or medieval French with many tempo changes.

Full marks to solo soprano Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson (Helena), baritone Philip Smith (Blanzifor), and tenor Philip Smith for providing some great theatre as the story unfolded.

The choir performed with enthusiasm and confidence and the young singers more than held their own. Orff took five years to create the work but the time was well spent as this, too, proved to be a real audience pleaser.

Rob Barnes

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