Pulenc: Gloria - Vaughan Williams: Sea Symphony - April 2017

Ripon Choral Society was on top form with a big blazing local orchestra giving brilliant colour and panache in two contrasting scores.

Clever intriguing programming made Poulenc’s Gloria, a wonderful French amuse bouche for the main English event of Vaughan Williams’ heartfelt and complex A Sea Symphony.

The huge success of this evening is largely due to the skill and good humour of John Dunford, the conductor. He simply knows how to get the very best from 150-strong Ripon Choral Society which gave a committed and enthusiastic performance.

Working with amateurs requires as many people skills as musical ones. Mr Dunford’s relationship with the professional musicians of Orchestra D’Amici is equally strong. He achieves vibrant textures and precise playing without losing the bravura playing that is needed at times both in the Poulenc and Vaughan Williams.

Poulenc’s music is full of surprise and wit. Take the words Deus Pater omnipotens, God the Father almighty, sung by soprano soloist and choir. Here Poulenc gives a tentative questioning approach to the words rather than great assurance of the power of God, found in other settings. I loved the calm and unhurried nature of this performance in this and other places. Samantha Hay’s glorious voice floated with ease above the interjections of the chorus.

This movement is closely followed by a contrasting fast and jolly Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe, O Lord, the only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. This was sung with style and even flamboyance by the chorus – the almost cheeky music again somewhat at variance with the seriousness of the words.

Vaughan Williams A sea Symphony, with words by Walt Whitman, is an epic journey. The scope of the endeavour is defined by the two opening chords which accompany the words Behold the Sea. B flat minor gives way to a startling D major on the word ‘sea’.

As the excellent programme notes suggest the composer is both looking back to the Germanic tradition of Beethoven and Brahms but then seeking his own voice which we know became deeply concerned and influenced by folk song.

The sea swirls around, sometimes calmly and at other times tumultuously; the orchestra’s vigorous playing (with much enlarged percussion section) leaving us in no doubt that the sea’s brooding presence is all about. After a little warming up Philip Smith, the baritone soloist was a fair match for Samantha Hay.

What a splendid evening this was.

- Tim Robinson

Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius Ripon Cathedral 21st March 2015

This concert began with a warm tribute by the Dean to the memory of Philip Miles, conductor of Ripon Choral Society 1980-1997. Philip Miles conducted the choir in Dream of Gerontius in 1991 and so this concert, attended by members of his family, was given as a thanksgiving for his outstanding contribution to the musical life of Ripon.

'Gerontius' is everyman. John Henry Newman relates the peaceful dying of a devout man who is then guided by an angel towards judgment, purgatory and the promise of glory.

For me Dream of Gerontius is the most accessible of Elgar's choral works, full of longing and stirring tunes. Elgar speaks so much of England - it is difficult to say how or why - and yet in one of our finest cathedrals Gerontius does express so much of all that is English.

In this performance special mention should be made of the viola and cello playing which features in the introduction to parts one and two. Rich warmth of tone and careful attention to the conductor shaped a yearning quality echoed by the whole orchestra throughout the evening.

Joshua Ellicott was an outstanding Gerontius. His ability to paint the meaning of the words took us to the heart of both music and poetry. So much of Gerontius' part is as a soliloquy - as though singing as he thought and felt - an almost impossible feat brilliantly achieved by the soloist, sensitively accompanied by Orchestra D'Amici.

Martha McLorinan sang the part of the Angel with commitment and feeling. More comfortable in the lower register than the notes at the top of the mezzo-soprano range she was nevertheless a sympathetic guide to Ellicott's Gerontius. John Cunningham sang the priest and Angel of Agony persuasively but with a degree of vibrato that was not always comfortable on the ear.

The stars of the evening (apart from Elgar!) were Ripon Choral Society. Their partnership with conductor John Dunford is a marriage made in heaven. John Dunford brings the very best out of this choir, which has been under his baton since 1997. The choir responds to his every gesture. You can tell not only by the glorious sound they make by members' hawk-like watchfulness of their conductor's every move. Ripon Choral Society now has an extraordinary range of expression and colour demonstrated both in the quieter passages, for example as the Souls of Purgatory, and in the exultant hymn, Praise to the Holiest in the Height. It is always a pleasure to review their concerts. It must now surely be said that Ripon Choral Society is one of the best large choirs in the country.

Thank you for a glorious evening in memory of a previous great conductor. As Ripon choral society aspires to ever new heights the words of the Dean at the beginning of the evening ring true, this certainly was a Red Letter Day for Ripon and its cathedral.

- Tim Robinson

Britten: War Requiem

With this performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, Ripon Choral Society came of age, now safe in the knowledge that they are among the elite of Yorkshire’s most famous choirs. Immaculate intonation, unlimited power, security, even in the most testing passages, must have left them delighted with their remarkable achievement... Yet the evening really belonged to the conductor, John Dunford, who has so honed the choir to this high standard, his unfussy direction shepherding them through the complexities.

- David Denton, Yorkshire Post, April 2011

Handel: Messiah

Ripon Choral Society is now the largest choir in Yorkshire. Might it be worth speculating that it is also the finest?

- Paul Shepherd. Northern Echo. December 2010

Elgar: The Kingdom

From the opening richness of the orchestral sounds, it was clear that the audience at Ripon Cathedral could anticipate a memorable experience last Saturday.... Their evident hard work over recent months was rewarded with a rich tapestry of sound, guided with enthusiasm by their conductor, John Dunford. ... The Choral Society sings with conviction, generally secure intonation and a good sense of the dramatic moment.

- Clive Harries. Darlington and Stockton Times. March 2010

Purcell: Come, Ye Sons of Art; Vivaldi: Gloria; Handel: Dixit Dominus

The Gloria by Vivaldi ... is predominantly joyous and the Choral Society entered into this spirit from the opening chorus which was sung with plenty of tonal colour and rythmic impetus... The final chorus of [of Handel's Dixit Dominus] brought this happy and joyous concert to an end with plenty of drive and energy... For those of you that missed the concert - you missed a treat.

- Marilyne Davies. Ripon Gazette. June 2010

Ripon Choral Society, under their inspiring conductor, John Dunford, showed attention to detail, impassioned delivery and the confident musicality that puts them in the top league of amateur choral singing in Britain.

- Tim Robinson. Darlington and Stockton Times. Nov 2009.

The choir sang with utter conviction, achieving an extraordinary quiet, ethereal sound in the opening movement. Phrases were beautifully shaped, with a clarity of intonation that is rare in amateur choral singing.

- Tim Robinson. Darlington and Stockton Times.

Ripon Choral Society gave a rousing and vibrant performance...singing with considerable conviction and commitment. Greg Smith provided the accompaniment with panache and enormous dexterity.

- Marilynne Davies. Ripon Gazette

Dunford has that type of character that persuades people to do things they never dreamed possible, and to perform as if their lives depend upon it.

- David Denton. Yorkshire Post.