Composer Will Todd explained that his Mass in Blue fused his passions of choral music, the Mass and jazz. It is a delicate balance to get right, as the Mass, even with its more jubilant moments, is a deeply serious, sacred spiritual rite, not always an easy bedfellow with jazzy exhilaration. Todd, at the piano, heading up the Brian Molley Quartet for this work, encouraged both performers and audience to relax and be joyous.
Cadenza is a busy 50 strong mixed choir drawn from across Central Scotland, and interim musical director Philip Redfern has taken this ensemble in new directions during his year of tenure, as shown by this adventurous and ambitious programme of modern spiritual works. While Mass in Blue was written in 2003, this is the first time it has been heard in Scotland, and the composer’s participation turned this Edinburgh Fringe concert into something of an event.
Michael Tippett’s Five Negro Spirituals from A Child of Our Time, like the chorales in Bach’s Passions, provide welcome solace in the bleakness of his oratorio. Taken out of context, they still work well as a concert piece, and opening the evening allowed the choir to show off its rich blended sound underpinned with a gorgeous deep bass line. We may know the tunes well, but this piece is a challenging sing for a choir with multiple parts and each spiritual calling for soloists, or ‘leaders’ from the choir to take critical roles. While some solos were more successful than others, the choral balance, crisp diction and lively dynamics made this a sprightly opener, all sung a cappella and without scores.
Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor is a work written for an unaccompanied double choir and semi chorus, and with its ever-shifting and intertwining lines, a huge challenge for an amateur choir to take on. Written in 1922, the links to the pastoral music Vaughan Williams was writing at this time are unmissable with rich polyphonic harmonies, demonstrated here by the slow Kyrie as each part joined the others weaving into in a rapturous tapestry of sound. Each section calls for a semi chorus, here sung by democratically chosen different combinations of walk-out singers from the choir producing a range of results. The best came from when the choir was in full flow, producing a glorious finish to the Credo or a quiet intensity to the lovely Agnes Dei, sounding wonderful in the acoustic of the historic and packed Greyfriars Church.
Many famous jazz and blues singers started off their careers singing every Sunday in church, but while the sacred has fascinated jazz composers, success has been more elusive, Ellington’s Sacred Music and more recently Harvey Brough’s Requiem in Blue being examples. Todd’s Mass in Blue deserves to join this elite list, as he has successfully captured both the high and reflective moments in the Mass, although it was still odd to hear words treated in a solemn fashion every week suddenly being scat-sung by the stratospheric soprano Joannna Forbes l’Estrange, and parts of the Gloria belted out by the choir to a foot-tapping 5/8 rhythm. The music was joyous throughout, from the opening infectious 4/4 groove pulse from piano, bass and drums as Brian Molley breathed bluesy sax sounds. Watching the singers grapple with the unfamiliar, their enjoyment and smiles grew as they got to grips with blue notes, syncopations, driving rhythms and just let the music take over.
Each movement was different in style, including a haunting jazz ballad in the Sanctus, though most had exuberant endings, even including the Agnes Dei as the Credo was reprised to give the work a high-spirited finish. It was interesting to watch Philip Redfern conducting, drawing the best from the singers, but watching Todd like a hawk as he wandered off into brilliant improvisations, making things even more exciting when the music finally came round and the choir and soloist came blasting back in. Sound balance was a little tricky as piano, bass and soprano were miked and the sheer noise almost overwhelmed the singers at times, but I was delighted to hear this thrilling work, a truly joyous Edinburgh Fringe coming of age concert for the Cadenza choir.