A genuine “Fringe surprise moment” with a wondrous Scottish premiere of Will Todd’s Mass in Blue.

Very much a concert of two halves. First up, pieces from Tippett and Vaughan Williams that fitted comfortably into the Cadenza sweet spot. But then? A genuine “Fringe surprise moment” with a wondrous Scottish premiere of Will Todd’s Mass in Blue.

Cadenza has acquired a reputation as one of Scotland’s leading mixed voice choirs in the twenty years or so it has been performing. With a repertoire that ranges from the Renaissance to the present day, the choir has performed throughout Scotland and beyond.

They’re a fixture at the Fringe and have acquired quite a following as a packed Greyfriar’s Kirk amply demonstrated. Under the musical directorship this year of Philip Redfern, the concert featured an opening half comprising Five Negro Spirituals from Michael Tippett and a Mass in G Minor from Ralph Vaughan Williams. Both these pieces provided ample opportunity for the choir to showcase its own soloists as well giving the ensemble plenty to get their collective teeth into in what were, overall, two very well put together pieces of music.

Tippett’s spirituals contained some lovely dynamics and the crystal clear soprano voice of Lynn Samuel enhanced both By and By and Deep River. Steal Away was sung with conviction and gentleness and though Nobody Knows took a while to stutter into life, Go Down, Moses was sung with spirit.

Vaughan Williams Gloria allowed Helen Heattie and Neil Whyte to demonstrate the clarity and resonance of their voices (Greyfriars is a large Kirk to sing solo in) and the Kyrie, Credo and Sanctus showed the choir at its best – flowing, expressive and precise. Unfortunately, however, the train came off the rails as the interval approached (were the singers in need of a cuppa, I wonder?) as the Agnus Dei got off to a couple of false starts with a soloist trying to do his own thing in a different key to that which the composer intended, an unusual blemish from what is generally such a polished choir.

No matter. Someone must have stuck something in the interval tea, or maybe sprinkled something on the choir’s biscuits because the second half of what was a very impressive concert overall simply blew my boots off, to coin a well-known musical expression. The Scottish premiere of Will Todd’s Mass in Blue represented a radical departure from Cadenza’s normal fare, taking them way out of their comfort zone and the combination of a jazz blues quartet mixed with a standard mass text could easily have ended quite horribly in tears.

That it didn’t is a tribute to the quality of Todd’s music, his and his quartet’s playing and the ability of this choir to loosen up and swing with the best of them. Oh, and the wonderful, amazing Joanna Forbes L’Estrange. Did I mention her? Voice like an angel that has power when she needs it, expression, clarity, can soar to the top of any vaulted ceiling and a range that allows her to hit top B flats for fun. She could probably go higher if required – an incredible sound, so suited to the music that Todd might have written it for just for her. L’Estrange was as happy jamming it to a 12 bar blues as she was with the more structured parts of the piece. To her wall of sound was added that of the choir’s, so the overall effect was one of the music surrounding you. Yet when we needed calm and subtly (for example, in the Sanctus) we got it.

Now, I love jazz, bop, boogie and so on. But I was a little concerned that the silver haired brigade which makes up a lot of the core Cadenza audience wouldn’t know what to do with this work, wouldn’t know whether to applaud between movements, whether foot tapping was allowed and so on. Not a bit of it. The only thing that prevented the whole lot of them getting up and boogieing with the best of them was the lack of space. And, judging by the cries for an encore, I guess they’d have been happy to have heard it all over again. I would. I just hope someone performs it again up here sometime soon please!

Tim Wilcock
Cadenza at the Fringe (Saturday 15th August 2015)