Cantores Olicanae, Mass in Blue, St Margaret’s, Ilkley, 15th June 2019

SINCE its 2003 Cambridge premiere, Will Todd’s Mass in Blue has amassed over 200 performances. On the evidence of Saturdays rendition by Cantores Olicanae energetically conducted by Rory Wainwright Johnston, it is not difficult to account for the work’s popularity. Some of us are more accustomed to reverential settings of the Latin Mass by Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and others. So the County Durham born composer’s juxtaposition of the six sections of the Mass with insistent jazz and blues rhythms was quite a revelation. Todd undoubtedly imparts freshness, light, and yes, “accessibility”.

Saturday’s performance was a resounding success thanks to the commitment of every single performer led by Rory Wainwright Johnston. Cantores’ young music director’s balancing of the choir and Motion Complex (aka the Robert Sudall Jazz Trio) was well nigh impeccable. The singers had ‘loosened up’ and adapted with relish to the jazz idiom with its rapidly changing rhythmic patterns. Sarah Keirle, a soprano with an enormous vocal range, spun a seemingly effortless stratospheric vocal line. This is one of the most compelling aspects of Todd’s score. Catherine Embleton’s alto saxophone imparted a comforting smoky blues feel to the chorus part in the Sanctus. Perhaps more controversially, instead of ending his Mass on a note of reflection with the Dona Noblis Pacem (Grant them Peace), Todd opts for an exuberant climax by reprising the Credo and giving the choir an almighty final blast. Never mind though, the audience loved it.

Highlights of the miscellaneous first half of the concert included (for the choir) Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow and Charles Villiers Stanford’s The Bluebird, a model of lovely dynamic shading and long sustained notes. Sarah Keirle displayed her startling tonal purity and mastery of taxing colaratura with two opera numbers: the Silver Aria from Douglas Moore’s the Ballad of Baby Doe and Je Veux Vivre, Juliette’s aria from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette.

Geoffrey Mogridge