So, yet again Libera surprised us with a short notice announcement of a concert in a far flung corner of the UK; not May this time but April and almost certainly due to the difficulty in finding a venue. It seems Guildford Cathedral, which does make for an excellent location with ease of travel from London, good facilities, and a good acoustic is undergoing roof repairs. Apparently they are holding services outside in a marquee. Not the Libera way!
I don’t know how they knew about Romsey Abbey but obviously Libera has contacts everywhere and they managed to get a booking in this beautiful thousand year old abbey which is very busy with events and music. The night before the Libera concert they hosted a fund raising dinner (£90 a ticket) and charity auction to raise money for orphans of Ebola. On the Sunday after the concert they were hosting over 600 boy scouts. It is a regular venue for classical concerts and they even have an in-house team to televise the stage show to the attendees in the side aisles who otherwise would have no view of the stage (also owned by the abbey). In case you’re wondering they don’t record the concerts! The Abbey has its own choirs a traditional men and boys and also a girls choir. They have a young music director whom I’m told is determined to push the standard up to the highest level. It seems the town has a great tradition of singing as there are at least six different choral groups based there.
I came down to Romsey the day before to give me the chance to do some sightseeing at some other nearby Cathedrals (Winchester & Salisbury) and also a stop off in Oxford where I got to see Liam Connery singing in Christ Church Cathedral. Evensong at Winchester was excellent (they were just back from singing in Italy, including for the Pope in the Sistine Chapel) and I posted some photos on Twitter of all the venues which I might try and upload. I didn’t take any pictures of Libera because I was too busy applauding!
Arriving in Romsey just after midday (no queuing these days but old habits die hard) found a surprisingly unhurried team, including Kavana & Matthew J) going about their business in setting up for the concert. The small stage had been assembled by the abbey’s own team (and more or less as soon as the boys had walked off stage at the end of the night they moved in to start dismantling it). Kavana is currently taking on official photographer duties it seems and if you see any official photos from Libera they will be his, although there was also a photographer from the Abbey as well. We learned later that the boy’s bus was delayed in traffic so they arrived at the venue somewhat later than they intended. During the afternoon a song was played to test the speakers that I didn’t recognise and neither did Patrick or John. It sounded a bit like Home (so Muramatsu like) but the words didn’t seem to be those of Home (which is a song I haven’t played much) and I thought it sounded like Isaac. I thought it might be a new song that would be unveiled but no such luck so I’m beginning to suspect it was Home (sorry Ciaran to confuse you with Isaac).
The Abbey doesn’t close for anything during the day as it is the main tourist attraction in town and that includes Libera rehearsals. So, those of us present were able to sit through the sound checks and practice of a few songs. I’ve only experienced this once before I think in Chester in 2010. It wasn’t as intensive this time and I suspect it was because the boys were well practiced due to the recent tour to Korea. One song they did do a few times was Nearer My God to Thee due to a new arrangement and Camden replacing Sam in the 5 boy line up. They did a mic checked by practising their scales singing the numbers from one to eight and back again or a rising scale that sounded like ‘ma, ma, ma, ma…’ and then did a group warm up singing ‘ma, ma, ma’ in an ever higher scale with a piano accompaniment and then they did the ‘zinga mama, zing, zing, zing’ scale that they demonstrated in concert a few years back (as one of the speeches during the concert) During the rehearsal I nipped out and saw the snacks that were being prepared, which as well as the usual selection of sandwiches included carrot and cucumber sticks. Yuck. The parents might be pleased but those poor kids!
And now we get to the concert which is where I will struggle because I just relaxed and enjoyed the show. To be able to capture the detail to write a review I have to focus so hard that I don’t enjoy it, and well, what’s the point of that? I can say immediately that Sacris Solemnis was my favourite performance of the night. It sounded perfect amidst the beauty of the thousand year old Abbey, the coloured lighting adding to the atmosphere and the blend of sound was perfect. This is why I like Libera concerts in old churches; the architecture and song can just gel in a perfect and memorable way that you just can’t get in a concert hall. I think it was Alex M on the piercingly high notes but hopefully somebody else can confirm that. There was a beautiful contrast between the main vocal line of the song and the harmony of the lower chant behind it, before finishing with a final Gaudia (who sang that final Gaudia???)
The staging had Robert placed in centre stage just forward of the front audience row. The musicians, including Josh on keyboards and piano, was to the audience right behind and to the side of the stage in the south transept. They would have very little view of Robert during the concert. The stage was small and on a number of the songs some of the boys would leave it even though they are all concert veterans.
Some things that I can remember of the night – missing shoes! Yes, it happened again. We had a technical glitch with the first half speech made by Alessandro & Ciaran about where the boys live and walking around in robes (bad feedback so they switched off the mics) We could hear them near the front but it was lost at the back so they repeated the speech in the second half. The technical issue resulted in a lengthy pause before the start of the next song (Wexford Carol). Fortunately the sound was fine when it counted for the singing. There was also an issue with the ‘normal’ plain lighting which lit up the stage, it would cut out at the wrong time leaving everything in darkness. Wexford Carol had Isaac starting, then Camden took up the song before the others joined in. I noticed that the flautist (who came to the front of stage) had a head mic on to pick up the sound.
A funny moment was at the start of Exultate – the flautist appeared on the right of the stage but where was the percussionist with his drum? The silence went on for ever and then a figure appeared having walked all the way around the back of the stage to take up his position front left with his drum. He turned to face the boys and puffed out his cheeks and raised his eyebrows to indicate what an effort it had been to get there. This really cracked up a few of the boys and Isaac and Cassius were still grinning and trying not to laugh well in to the song.
The Prayer had the boys kneeling as usual and Isaac on the main vocal. He was introduced as having just turned 13. He still has his high notes but he also seems to have a deepening lower range if it wasn’t in my imagination. Gabe got the role of delivering the high Salvas in Salva Me and delivered them with confidence. Stay With Me was Merlin on the main (Ed Day) part and Taichi did the high fill in’s (Liam part). Merlin & Taichi have good voices, perhaps a bit soft at times during the song. After the boys cleared the stage for the interval Ciaran remained behind to introduce the charity that allows you to sponsor a child in the third world.
Voca Me started the second half and as John said they didn’t hide Alex M away for his high notes he was in the ornately carved pulpit to the left of the stage. I love Voca Me but my personal choice in this style of venue is to start the second half with Mysterium – we have had some cracking arrangements of it down the years. O-flow next and I thought it had a slightly reworked instrumentation than previous versions, with some embellishments by the wind instruments in the second part of the song.
Another strong performance on the night was Wayfaring Stranger with a faultless vocal by Alessandro who has a beautiful rich voice that is bang on the money at the moment. This is a very moving arrangement and a real Libera classic. Like Isaac (and I think Ciaran) Alessandro is also 13 and whilst that age brings out the finest quality in a boys voice it also heralds the end of a glorious Treble/alto career, but none of them are showing signs yet fortunately
This was followed by the now familiar languages speech before heading in to Wonderful World with Isaac doing his usual faultless vocals. Nearer My God introduced a backing instrumental from the musicians, personally I prefer the previous a cappella version which was very effective with just the five boys on stage. Not that this was bad but it didn’t wow me like the first time I heard it performed in Exeter last year.
So, the encore was the Korean song Arirang. I’m honestly not sure about this one. It didn’t capture me at the time but walking back to the pub after the concert it was the song I was humming so……My apologies for lacking more descriptions and detail. I’ll now see if I can attach some photos.
Oh, and just a final note, after the boys left the stage it was Kav who swooped down to whisk moose back to the safety of the choir room
If I’ve got owt to say I says it, and if I’ve got owt to ask I asks it.
Mercy & Love