It’s a Saturday evening, two weeks before Christmas, and what better place for a music lover to welcome in the festive season than at the beautiful parish church of Ottery St Mary. It was packed for the traditional pre-Christmas concert, given by the Ottery St Mary Choral Society & Orchestra, under their conductor and Musical Director Malcolm Matthews. The main work of the evening was one of Beethoven’s least performed works, Mass in C. This was preceded by Mozart’s Symphony no 31, the “Paris Symphony”. Included in the concert were four carols sung by the choir. They were joined, by the audience, in “Carols for All”, always a popular feature of the Christmas concert. After the music the audience were invited to stay on, in the North Dorset aisle of the church, for a glass of wine and mince pies. This gave them the opportunity to meet with members of the orchestra and choir, and to talk with friends.
Beethoven composed his Mass in C in 1807, a commission from Prince Esterhazy for performance on the name day of his wife, Maria. Beethoven was nervous; he had a huge reputation as an orchestral composer, but had almost no experience in sacred music. In addition, he was following in the footsteps of his former hero, Josef Haydn, who had written six masses for the Prince and his wife. He wrote to the Prince “I shall deliver the mass to you with timidity, since you are accustomed to having the masterpieces of the great Haydn performed for you”. Beethoven, not surprisingly, was innovative but too avant garde for the Prince and his audience. In modern parlance, “they just did not get it”. The Prince wrote “Beethoven’s mass is unbearably ridiculous and vile… I am angry and mortified”. Time passes and this work now delights, as was shown by its reception at this concert.
One of Beethoven’s innovations was not to write solo arias. He used his four soloists as a quartet to provide variations in tone, colour and mood to the work. Musical Director, Malcolm Matthews, used a semi-chorus of eight singers, from the choir, for these “solo” parts (Libby Staples and Kyle Hayes; Pip Gascoigne-Pees and Pauline Belton; Michael Gascoigne-Pees and Chris Startup; Colin Clarke and David Batty) and placed them in the body of the choir. The orchestra, also, has an important supporting role in the mass.
Whether by accident or by design, Malcolm Matthews chose, as the orchestral work, Mozart’s Paris Symphony. Poor Mozart had resigned his position in Salzburg and was urged by his father to try his luck in Paris. This symphony was the most significant of his Paris works. It is typical Mozart, melodic and rhythmic, yet it was not well received in Paris in 1778. The Ottery audience had a different view.
The orchestra, ably led by Sarah Greinig, also accompanied the choir in three of their four solo carols. The exception was Pearsall’s arrangement of “In Dulce Jubilo”, that was sung unaccompanied.
Together with the organ, played by Andrew Carter, the orchestra added their colour and power to the “Carols for All”. Singing carols is often a joy, but more so in the company of a strong choir (with some soaring descants from the sopranos), organ and orchestra that, all combined, contributed to a rousing evening of music.
There were happy and contented faces as the audience joined with the performers for drinks, and there was a retiring collection for Hospiscare, which raised £460.