Sacred choral music from both sides of the Atlantic will travel with the Merton College Choir, Oxford on their first tour since before the Covid pandemic. Merton Choral Scholars and their musical director Benjamin Nicholas are traveling to the United States this fall to perform at New York’s St. Ignatius Loyola Church on Park Avenue (September 15, 2022). Their itinerary opens with Choral Evensong given jointly with the Harvard University Choir at the Memorial Church of Harvard University (September 11), followed by a concert (September 12), and also includes performances at Trinity Church on the Green in New Haven (September 13) and Princeton University Chapel (September 16).
“The tour is very important to us on so many levels,” comments Benjamin Nicholas. “Our university terms are quite short, so working together in a focused way outside of those three eight-week periods is invaluable to the musical development of the choir. It’s also extremely important socially for this age group. I think any of our choral scholars would say Touring is one of the perks of being in a collegiate choir, we have missed it dearly since our last tour in December 2018. The new generation of singers Merton, who joined us in the fall of 2019, has never toured as a group. That makes this trip to the United States doubly important.”
Nicholas has chosen works that bring out the best in his singers and are sure to resonate with American choir audiences. Its captivating program includes the motet Senex pueram portabat and again (after ecclesiastes), respectively by New York composers Nico Muhly and David Lang. This latest work, a setting of Hebrew verse freely adapted by the composer of the Book of Ecclesiastes, unfolds as a short meditation on the strands of hope and futility woven into the pattern of natural and human cycles. The choir is also set to perform English sacred works with impeccable royal connections, chosen to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee.
The poster for the Merton College Choir concert opens with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G Minor, whose Credo was performed at the Queen’s coronation service in 1953. William Byrd and Henry Purcell, discuss the age of gold music from the Chapel Royal of England. They are prefaced by Ave Regina caelorum, originally written in 2014 by the Queen’s current master of music, Judith Weir, to celebrate Merton College’s 750th anniversary and included in the Merton Choirbook, a compendious collection of new compositions choirs. The royal theme runs through the second half of the program in the form of Bring us, O Lord by William Harris, organist at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, who taught piano to young Princess Elizabeth and served as assistant conductor at her coronation , and Hubert Parry’s I was glad, performed at every coronation since that of Edward VII in 1902.
Nicholas and his choir recorded an album of contemporary American music shortly before the pandemic hit. It is planned for a future release on the Delphian label. “We didn’t have the chance to sing our new American repertoire in concert, so I chose two representative and perfectly contrasting pieces from the recording for our tour”, comments Merton’s musical director. “The works of Muhly and Lang fit very well into the rest of the program.”
The Merton College Choir’s next album, due for release by Delphian on Armistice Day, November 11, 2022, combines Ian Venables’ Requiem with hymns for choir and orchestra by Herbert Howells. Venables has added orchestral parts to his Requiem, first performed two years ago with organ accompaniment, which receives its first recording here along with the world premiere of his anthem God be merciful. The album also includes the first recording of Howells’ The House of the Mind in its version for choir and orchestra, and the first recordings of newly orchestrated versions of O Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem and Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks.
“This is an exciting time for the Merton College Choir,” says Benjamin Nicholas. “We are busy making recordings and looking forward to our tour of the United States. This is in addition to our regular work of singing Evensong every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday at Merton Chapel. This will be the choir’s fourth tour of the United States since its inception training in 2008. I know from experience that they are a great way to boost morale, raise standards, and reach new audiences.
USA TOUR September 11-16, 2022
Sunday, September 11, 2022, 4 p.m.
Harvard University Memorial Church, Cambridge, MA
(Choral Evensong sung jointly with the Harvard University Choir)
Monday, September 12, 2022, 12:15 p.m.
Harvard University Memorial Church, Cambridge, MA
Tuesday, September 13, 2022, 7:30 p.m.
Trinity Church on the Green, New Haven, CT
Thursday, September 15, 2022, 7 p.m.
St. Ignatius of Loyola Church, New York (also livestreamed)
Friday, September 16, 2022, time to be determined
Princeton University Chapel, NJ
Benjamin Nicholas conductor, organ | Merton College Choir, Oxford
Vaughan Williams Mass in G Minor (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus & Benedictus, Agnus Dei)
Lionel Rogg Air from Tribute to Takemitsu (solo organ)
Avenue Judith Weir Regina Caelorum
Byrd O Lord, make your servant Elizabeth
Purcell Jehovah, quam multi sunt hostes mei
David Lang again
Duruflé Fugue on the theme of the Carillon of the Hours of Soissons Cathedral (solo organ)
Nico Muhly Senex pueram portabat
William Harris Bring us, Lord
parry i was happy