The Banbury Man has, for some years, appropriately enough, sung with the Banbury Choral Society for twelve years or so. For the last few years, the Society has been under the leadership of Keith Smith. Keith is possessed of extraordinary facial prowess and can, with a twitch of the eyebrow, convey disgust, approval, impatience, and gratitude all at once when directing the chorus. He is one of those rare choral conductors who is actually a gifted orchestral conductor, and indeed, conducted the Leicester Philharmonic Orchestra for a long period, as well as their Chorus, which was previously under the baton of none other than Malcolm Sergeant – whose recordings will be on the shelf of any choral fan. So it was with some anticipation that I journeyed to Leicester for a concert where he directed both orchestra and choir in a performance of Verdi’s Requiem, a concert arranged to celebrate a rather special birthday.
We had seats at the front left side, positioned near the four soloists, in front of the orchestra, but so we could see the grimaces and encouragements of Mr Smith. Verdi’s Requiem is, of course, well known as a piece of choral and orchestral theatre, with moments of sublime peace, followed by high drama, piteous yearning, and shrieks of horror. It is demanding for all the soloists, especially the soprano, who leads throughout, and not only has to have the vim and cleavage to perform Wagnerian feats, but the tenderness to soar above the choir in serene contemplative mien.
The soprano was the blind lady who won Operatunity, a television opera talent contest. I freely admit I was suspicious of her ability, having been discovered in such a way, but she dispelled my prejudice by performing excellently, with exactly the right character. I little more force might have been nice, but her sweetness in the other passages was unsurpassable. The mezzo was indeed a superb mezzo, having the rare ability to belt out those high notes, as well as sounding meaty (almost Callas-like) on the lower notes. The tenor had a beautiful voice, and was particularly sweet during the offertory, but lacked power in the quartet. However, the highlight of the soloist line up was the bass. The bass scheduled to sing had been delayed in Japan due to the volcano ash cloud, and this gentleman stepped in for him. He possessed the build and cavernous tones one wants of a bass soloist, singing with a gentle yet assertive tone, giving the impression that if he really let go, the building might collapse. The bass is the least favourite of my voices, but he really lifted the performance enormously.
What can I say of the choir and the orchestra – they were great. Although large, the choir intoned carefully, and managed the difficult whispered opening with style. The balance of voices was very pleasing and I did not feel hard done by due to the dominance of any particular section. It was a performance almost without error, and the orchestra never drowned them out, even during the brassiest fanfares. The whole concert made me feel privileged to have sung under this conductor, and made me want to be there singing – happily, I will be soon. It was a joy to meet old friends over drinks afterwards, and I think Keith Smith can feel rightly proud of this performance, and of his career over the years, and especially the interest he has in young musicians. A wonderful evening!