Spem Experiments: a concert review

Last week we sang our most experimental, but — judging from the reaction — possibly our most successful concert to date: Spem in Alium at St Martin-in-the-Fields as part for the Brandenburg Choral Festival, in the late night slot at 9.30pm. It sold 350 tickets, so probably our biggest concert audience (until the following week, that is – more on that anon).

So, what was so good?

Sheer jubilation

Gigging Forever, as part of a very positive review, described taking a photo of us, despite “strict instructions not to … [let’s not judge] …. because I wanted to capture the sheer jubilation in the room at the end”.

This review makes me happy because I know that the reviewer is not a typical classical concert attendee.

I was greeted after, with equal enthusiasm, by concert-going aficionados and the firmly uninitiated.

And this is basically my goal.

Choosing a programme

I obsess about content programmes — getting the music selection just right, the flow, the contrasts — but essentially all they need to do is pass the following criteria:

  1. Is it a concert I would want to go to?
  2. Is it a concert my teenage self would sit through and enjoy?

It’s not that the latter was a harsh critic, he was just a bit disengaged with a short attention span (and still is occasionally..).


We’ve been experimenting all year with this, but Spem is the perfect vehicle to really go to town with it. By necessity you need at least 40 singers for Spem – we had 45 I think – but if the whole concert is sung by full choir that’s going to get quite wearing on the ear and eyes, and possibly not suit much music that otherwise sits well alongside the main piece. Instead we decided to pull out each of the 8 sub-choirs which Spem is scored for and give them their own moment in the limelight, thus drastically reducing the forces at one point from 40 voices to exactly four.

Choir 5 for example sang O Nata Lux (Thomas Tallis) one-to-a-part, and Choir 8 the Third Mode Melody (more famous for its use as the basis of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis).

We also sang Tallis in arrangement for men’s voices (If Ye Love Me), followed by Sancte Deus transposed to a key for sopranos and altos.

This juxtaposition holds an audience’s attention but at no point dumbs down the programme.

Other contrasts, besides groups of voicing, were the inclusion of several pieces by 21st century composers “to further illuminate Tallis” as we described it in the programme , and we incorporated seasonal music by Jonathan Dove, James MacMillan and Gabriel Jackson.

By all accounts, the evening’s piece de resistance was David Bednall’s 40-part motet Lux Orta Est Iusto which really is a magnificent piece, the perfect partner for Spem, “which left us feeling joyous and triumphant and got the biggest reception of the night” (Gigging Forever) and is what everyone was talking about in the pub.

The best bit of all? Reducing the workload on the singers (each singer was only in 50% of the programme) means you can use rehearsal time more efficiently, dividing and conquering, and adding that all-important (but so often neglected) polish to every single item.

So for once, a win-win. Let’s as choirs and concert planners do more of this — as everyone seems to like it.