Rue Britannia

CLASSICAL MUSIC London Philharmonic Choir 50th Anniversary Royal Albert Hall
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The Independent Culture
This year is an important date for the London Philharmonic Choir. It marks the 50th anniversary of its foundation, and its first birthday as a fully independent body. The Choir still works alongside its parent orchestra, the LPO, but, since last year, it has had to fend for itself financially. For any arts organisation, even 12 months' financial survival is worth celebrating in the current economic climate. So, an obvious occasion for a party. And why not be optimistic? Book the Royal Albert Hall, and fingers crossed for a full house.

But what an odd event Tuesday evening turned out to be. The first half was an uncomfortable mixture of end-of-term concert and wannabe Last Night at the Proms. The almost entirely British programme - Vaughan Williams's Old Hundredth and The Lark Ascending, Parry's I Was Glad and Jerusalem - allowed space for one Continental entry: excerpts from Orff's Carmina Burana. All very popular stuff, but I'd dearly love to know what the Choir's patron, HRH Princess Alexandra, thought of the Orff's opening sentiments: "If all the world were mine... I would do without it / If the Queen of England would lie in my arms."

The evening's compere, Classic FM's Margaret Howard, tactfully avoided that issue. Her delivery was as impeccable as ever, but so rich in personal pronouns it could have registered a decent score on the Private Eye "I"- ometer. Introducing the Parry items, she proclaimed, "I am a jam maker" (Jam and Jerusalem, get the link?), in tones reminiscent of another eminent Englishwoman's "We are a grandmother".

Musically, the evening got off to an unpromising start with the announcement that conductor Vernon Handley was indisposed. The Choir's director, Neville Creed, bravely stepped in, with the New London Orchestra's conductor, Ron Corp, taking over for The Lark Ascending. Corp and violin soloist David Juritz did their respective jobs nicely enough in The Lark, though the ensemble wavered a little in the work's faster middle section. Creed, taking the lion's share, held things together well, with a clear beat, and good control of tempo in the main work of the evening, Vaughan Williams's A Sea Symphony. But, on the whole, performances were solid rather than scintillating. The Sea Symphony needs passionate commitment to overcome its longueurs and to give the visionary moments their full impact. At its best, the London Philharmonic Choir can rise to the heights, as its 1989 recording with Bernard Haitink proves resoundingly. But this was seriously undercharged, with strain showing occasionally - especially in the tenor section.

Perhaps it was unwise to attempt such a long, demanding work after an almost entirely choral first half. And yet the singing was less than thrilling from the start of the evening - soloistically as well as chorally. Soprano Yvonne Kenny, firm enough in the Sea Symphony, was microtonally flat in the sweetly saucy "In trutina mentis dubia" number from Carmina Burana. The royalist shouts in I Was Glad sounded low on conviction. That, and the economy-sized National Anthem at the opening (only the A-phrase; no "Send her victorious..."), made one wonder if images of Pomp and Circumstance, Jam and Jerusalem, and all the old patriotic panoply aren't in their final stages of fading. A gladdening thought for fellow republicans, perhaps - but what, musically, would we put in their place? D:Ream's "Things can only get better"? Now there's a sobering thought.