Echo Vocal Ensemble’s ‘Already Gone’ tour at King’s Place

Since restrictions have eased and I’ve ventured out to real-life concerts again I feel as though I’ve discovered more new music.

This is a consequence of mitigations making smaller forces more practicable of course. But the unexpected result is that I’m finding the discoveries which emerge from such events really satisfying.

Historically I’ve always sought out orchestral forces. Now, as in the case of Echo Ensemble’s performance at King’s Place last night, I’m finding myself more engaged in what can be created with only a small number of musical lines.

Echo – a group of singers that met as participants of The Sixteen’s young artist programme Genesis Sixteen – performed a mixed programme of early, modern, contemporary and new works, including two winners from the group’s inaugural Composition Competition Rory Wainright-Johnson and Lillie Harris, blind-judged by Judith Weir and Robert Hollingworth.

The concert opened with a slightly shaky ‘O Noblissima Viriditas’ by Hildegard of Bingen. I wasn’t entirely convinced the Kings Place acoustic supported the ensemble, exposing more of the individual lines than was perhaps ideal. These early teething problems were resolved come Heinrich Schut’z ‘Die Himmel erzahlen’ where fortissimo sections brought about burnished quality full of energy.

A selection of three songs from Benjamin Britten’s Five Flower Songs formed the centre-piece of the climate change inspired programme, and was one of works demonstrating the ensemble at its ease. Some gloriously ends to phrases, especially the soprano line at the end of ‘Fair Daffodils’ and the sliding bass at the conclusion of ‘The succession of the Four Sweet Months’. ‘Evening Primrose’ still sounds fresh and modern despite it being 71 years old this year. Some really remarkable dynamic transitions in this movement demonstrated the ensemble’s confidence and flexibility.

Judith Weir’s ‘Vertue’ was an exquisite new discovery. Echo Ensemble’s sound compared to say the Choir of King’s College live recording feels a good deal more modern. I think, though can’t be 100% sure, that’s down to the vowel sounds. What I really appreciated in this piece was Weir’s word-painting (listening out for the melodic line over ‘angry and brave’ which took me by surprise) and the thick warm chords created by the entire ensemble in the final verse.

The joint winners of the Composition Competition who featured in the London concert adopted an interesting range of vocal production techniques to create two distinct soundworlds that told the story of a ‘very small and damaged and quite dry’ Roman water nymph trying to ‘summon a river out of limestone’.

Wainwright Johnston’s highly descriptive ‘Summoning Dance’ employed a variety of percussive rhythmic patterns in the choir creating an image of a stark landscape above which the solo soprano sought to summon rain.

Lillie Harris’ ‘already gone’ from which the concert tour gained its title, utilised reptitive phrases more. An especially magical moment when the phrases ‘she tries’ ‘she struggles’ and ‘she pleads’ were repeated shortly towards the end.

An enjoyable evening directed by Sarah Latto with warm and extended appreciation from the enthusiastic audience. The Already Gone Tour is a Genesis Kickstart Fund project supported by the Genesis Foundation, also made possible thanks to the Golsoncott Foundation, RVW Trust and THe London Community Foundation: Cockayne – Grants for the Arts.

Echo Vocal Ensemble continue The Already Gone Tour in Stoller Hall, Manchester on Saturday 31 July, and MAC, Birmingham on Friday 6 August.

Classical Mixtape at Cheltenham Music Festival

Distanced chairs lined the aisles and rugs covered the floor of Gloucester Cathedral giving attendees at the Classical Mixtape concert 7 July views of temporary stages constructed for performers at opposite ends of the Nave and one in the middle too. These dimly lit theatrical spaces created drama for a wide range of short contemplative pieces, some brand new, some new, some ancient.

Folk, medieval, spiritual and religious music fused in this unmediated concert which had at times a sense of consolation and healing to it, a space where community convened to experience dramatic architecture and wistful music, leaving two-and-a-half hours later restored and rejuvenated.

Especially moving music from cellist Clare O’Connell organist Carleton Etherington in an arrangement of Seachrán Sí by O’Connell which features on her 2021 album release The Isolated Cellist, accompanied by the voices of The Carice Singers who split position in the cathedral created a touching moment.

Composer Lillie Harris premiered two short pieces in the event, a fanfare Point of Pride for trumpeter Aaron Diaz, and a sustained vocal work scored for choir, originally to be performed by Merton College Choir but premiered here this evening by a last-minute change thanks to Test and Trace meaning the entire group needed to pull out of the concert 24 hours before.

The Carice Singers delivered Harris’ soothing sustained chords to great effect. Harris’ writing has a gentle simplicity to it that works well in the cathedral-like spaces, working in unexpected harmonic progressions that caress the soul. She clearly adores writing low notes for the basses too.

Classical Mixtape was a gently curated event that deployed voices and instruments sympathetically, bookending rousing melodies by Elgar and Hubert Parry with a range of unfamiliar music. Had you seen the works in a concert listing the newcomer might have overlooked it. But where Cheltenham Music Festival triumphs with this format is selling a discovery experience – a sort of magical mystery tour of music you never realised you wanted to hear in a vast architectural space.