Last night before the Joint Evensong with the combined St. Andrew’s Cathedral and Lutheran Church of Honolulu choirs, director Scott Fikse posted on Facebook: “Come hear two of the finest choirs in Hawaii combine forces for Evensong at St. Andrew’s Cathedral. 5:30pm.”
As I listened to all those soaring sopranos and lush harmonies in the reverberant Cathedral, I was thinking to myself, isn’t Howells’ music absolutely glorious and perfect for Cathedral choirs?
Howells today is considered one of the great names in English choral music, but he had a tragedy strike his family. In 2010, Simon Heffer writes: Seventy-five years ago tomorrow, a nine-year-old boy called Michael Howells died of polio after an illness of less than three days, at the end of what had been a happy family holiday in Gloucestershire. His parents and sister were devastated, as might be expected: for his father, Herbert Howells, then 43 and building a substantial reputation as a composer of sacred music, the blow was particularly crippling. For months he could contemplate no work and did not write a note; it was as if the boy’s death had wiped out the creative impulse within him entirely.
According to Wikipedia, Howells was deeply affected and continued to commemorate the event until the end of his life. Years later, he was challenged to compose Magnificat and Nunc dimittis settings for particular buildings, tailoring each service to the acoustics and choir of each cathedral. The most famous of these settings are the St. Paul’s Service, written for St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Gloucester Service for Gloucester Cathedral and the Collegium Regale for King’s College Cambridge, all of which have been sung by the two combined Honolulu choirs. The last time the St. Paul’s Service was sung here with the two choirs was April 3, 2011, which was conducted by Carl Crosier.
If you have ever been fortunate to be in St. Paul’s Cathedral as we have, you know that it is a huge space, with a long acoustical reverberation. Howells’ setting of the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for St. Paul’s “are characterised by a unique blend of unison harmonies and disparate melodies that highlight each voice perfectly. The lingering notes, crescendos and subtle dynamic changes were composed with the acoustics of that great cathedral in mind, but they also work equally well in any setting.” (Novello)
Well, they certainly were gorgeous in the reverberant St. Andrew’s acoustic and the two choirs absolutely soared.
The anthem was John Ireland’s Greater love hath no man, which Carl Crosier used to call a “barn burner, a war horse, an old chestnut.” Naomi Castro sang the soprano solo and her voice just filled the Cathedral space. My, how her voice has matured and developed over these years!
Thank you to organist John Renke and director Scott Fikse who collaborated to create this most lovely experience, an exhilarating inspiration to begin the workweek.