BRATTLEBORO—Susan Dedell, director of the Brattleboro Concert Choir, believes that Bob Chilcott’s “Salisbury Vespers” is just the tonic to help people get through the long, dreary Vermont winter.
She finds this choral work “wholesome,” but — she quickly added — “not in a sappy way.”
“It leaves you with a special, good feeling deep inside you, which should help to chase the winter blues away,” she says.
At the First Baptist Church in Brattleboro this weekend, the Brattleboro Concert Choir will perform this recent work of Chilcott, one of the most active composers and choral conductors in Britain today.
“Salisbury Vespers,” scored for brass, percussion, organ, chorus, and chamber choir, is so new that there is not even a commercial recording available yet, and Dedell thinks that “this just may be the North American premiere of this exciting piece.”
‘One of Britain’s hottest composers’
Gramophone magazine has described Chilcott as one of “the finest choral composers at work in Britain today,” and The Observer called him a “contemporary hero of British choral music.”
He has been involved in choral music most of his life, first as a child chorister in the choir of King’s College in Cambridge, then as a Choral Scholar at King’s. Between 1985 and 1997, he was a member of the celebrated British choral group The King’s Singers.
Dedell believes Chilcott’s background as a singer makes his work so appealing to choirs.
“Bob is a great singer himself,” she explains. “And this results in his immense understanding of how the human voice works. He lays out the music for singers beautifully. The pieces are wonderfully arranged.”
Dedell says that she has become a huge fan of Chilcott’s work.
The composer came to her attention several years ago when she discovered a short Christmas piece of his, and she was instantly smitten.
“I always feel glad to be alive, maybe even grateful for being human, when I’ve been in contact with his music,” she says.
“He seems to me like a wonderful human being,” she adds. “Just look at his photograph, and you can see his humanity. With all that is on his plate as one of Britain’s hottest composers, he still manages to spend a lot of time in the U.K. helping out with the underprivileged.”
When planning the new season last year, Dedell, who is committed to performing new work, was eager to do a piece by Chilcott, and the “Salisbury Vespers” seemed a good fit for her chorus and instrumentalists.
Although she knows that some people would rather she do just Beethoven and Mozart — “both of whom I adore,” Dedell interjects — she is dedicated to expanding what her chorus and audience know. She is eager to promote Chilcott to Vermont audiences.
‘Musical color and movement’
“Salisbury Vespers” was first performed in May 2009 at an elaborate occasion in the magnificent medieval cathedral in Salisbury, England, an event that involved 400 singers from seven different choirs.
The work, which lasts just under an hour, is based on the ancient evening service of Vespers, but it includes texts taken from medieval English poetry along with the customary vesper canticles and psalms.
“Chilcott has been acknowledged as having an unerring ability to select and then set texts that are in themselves compelling,” according to publicity from the Brattleboro Music Center. “This gives the piece a sense of narrative that brings the listener from beginning to end, both witnessing and participating in the emotional events that are contained within the piece.”
Salisbury Vespers opens with what Dedell called a spine-tingling crash of organ and brass, followed by the choir chanting in unison.
According to the BMC, “What follows next is a tapestry of musical color and movement. With the choir split into two different groups, they sometimes exchange spiky rhythmic riffs, or unite in gorgeous melodies.”
The piece concludes with a layered setting of the Magnificat, its short stanzas moving quickly from one to the next. Dedell believes audiences will find that the music “flies by.”
Adapting for a smaller scale
Since the Brattleboro Choir uses only 80 singers, Dedell said adjustments had to be made to recreate the original proportions of the work. Chilcott himself realized that the grandiose Salisbury premiere was a singular event, so he has also scored the piece for much smaller forces.
The premier performance had seven choirs; sometimes all would sing in unison, while at other times, only a sole choir would take a part. To simulate these dynamics on a smaller scale, the chorus has been divided into three smaller groupings of 12 to 20 singers.
The piece originally was designed in such a way that the choirs could be situated in different parts of the huge Salisbury cathedral sanctuary and could therefore surround the audience with sound. Consequently, Dedell chose the Brattleboro’s First Baptist Church for her venue, not simply for its fine acoustics, but also because it afforded her the potential to lay out the singers and orchestra in an advantageous manner.
The brass and percussion will play from the side balconies, creating the kind of sound surround that was part of the composition’s original design. Dedell has assembled some of the best brass and percussion players in New England, who are joined by acclaimed organist Clark Anderson.
She describes the brass and percussion writing as “very cool, very savvy.” The piece uses 10 brass players, a combination of two horns, four trumpets, three trombones and tuba.
“The brass writing is used to make points of light and vitality throughout the piece,” she says. “It is never heavy, although it is sometimes dramatic. And there are a couple of absolutely transporting trumpet solo lines that create musical moments to die for.”
Dedell has no fears of her audience reaction to this piece.
“Unlike some of the new work I do, this piece uses a vocabulary that is immediately accessible. It is not atonal, like a lot of early 20th century music. The chorus immediately adored it.”
She believes that “the audiences who come to see this thrilling new piece next weekend will also.”