Programme 2019/20

Next concert – Saturday 14th December 2019

Puccini’s Messa di Gloria

Christmas carols for choir and audience with soloists and organ accompaniment

Ambleside Parish Church 7.30 pm. Tickets on the door or in advance via choir members

Tickets £12 (including a glass of wine) on the door

Concert Notes

Puccini  Messa di Gloria

Puccini is justly celebrated as one of the greatest opera composers, renowned particularly for La Boheme, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. He was the fourth generation of a family of church musicians from Lucca in northern Italy, and held the position of town organist and maestro di capella at the cathedral of San Paolino. He studied at the nearby Institute Musicale and in 1876 walked twenty miles from Lucca to Pisa and back to hear a performance of Verdi’s Aida and it is this experience which seems finally to have decided him on becoming a composer of musical theatre. He said later in life that he “felt that a musical window had opened for me”.  He wrote what has become known as the Messa di Gloria at the age of 18 as his graduation exercise.  Entitled, at the time, simply “Messa a quattro voci”, it was first performed in July 1880 and was a great success, praised by critics and public alike, but Puccini filed it away and it was not heard again in his lifetime.

In 1951 Father Dante del Fiorentino, an émigré Italian priest living in New York who had known Puccini when he was a young curate, was visiting Lucca to collect material for a biography of the composer. He came upon a copy of the mass and on his return home organised the first American performance of it in Chicago in 1952, seventy-two years after its premiere in Lucca. Though Father Dante claimed that he had ‘rediscovered’ the ‘lost’ manuscript amongst a large collection of Puccini’s works held by the family of his musical secretary, Vandini, in fact, the work was never lost; Puccini scholars had always known of its existence and Father Dante was by no means the first to have seen the manuscript. The real reason why it was not performed after its premiere was because Puccini quite clearly intended it to be a farewell to his association with sacred music. 

Since its publication in 1951 it has become a firmly established part of the choral repertoire. It is an uncomplicated work comprising the usual mass sections: Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Benedictus, and Agnus Dei with orchestra, 4-part choir, tenor, baritone and bass soloists (the latter two solo parts usually sung by the same individual) Its style is direct and operatic, and it is clearly influenced by Puccini’s hero, Verdi. As a liturgical work written in an overtly operatic style its most obvious antecedents are Rossini’s Petite Messe Solonelle (1863) and Verdi’s Requiem (1874). It is a remarkable work for an eighteen-year-old, full of colour, vitality and musical surprises such as the many sudden key changes.

The work’s operatic credentials are not immediately revealed. The Kyrie begins with a string introduction leading to a lyrical ‘Kyrie eleison’. The music becomes more forceful halfway through the ‘Christe eleison’ before returning to the peaceful opening mood.  

With barely a pause for breath, the chorus launches into the Gloria in the key of C major, with an exuberant tune which reappears twice during the course of the movement. A dramatic Laudamus te for the chorus is followed by a magnificent operatic aria, Gratias agimus tibi,for the tenor soloist. The gentlemen of the chorus in unison introduce the Qui tollis in peccata mundi, a truly Verdian melody and the movement ends with a glorious fugue on Cum Sancto Spiritu.

The Credo begins with the chorus singing a martial unison melody answered by rising instrumental interpolations. A beautiful section for tenor solo and unaccompanied chorus ensues at ‘et incarnatus est’. After an extended and suitably tragic bass solo for ‘Crucifixus’ the music explodes into life for the energetic ‘et resurrexit’. The concluding section of the Credo is a surprisingly light and dance-like ‘et vitam venturi’.

The Sanctus begins rather lamely until Pleni sunt coeli which is punctuated by loud instrumental interjections. The Benedictus is given to the baritone soloist, followed by a repeat of the Hosanna which is a mere six bars long. In the Agnus Dei both soloists alternate with the chorus to give us a moment of reflective prayer. The work comes to a close with a final lyrical duet and a hushed final phrase, Dona nobis pacem, from the chorus.

Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) is an opera in three acts by Georges Bizet to a libretto by Eugène Cormonand Michel Carré. It was first performed on 30 September 1863 in Paris. Set in ancient times on the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), the opera tells the story of how two men’s vow of eternal friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman.  

At the time of the premiere, Bizet was not yet 25 years old. The commission to write Les pêcheurs arose from his standing as a former winner of the prestigious Prix de Rome. Despite a good reception by the public, the opera was not performed again in Bizet’s lifetime, but from 1886 when it began to be performed again in America and Europe it has entered the standard operatic repertory worldwide. Because the autograph score was lost, post-1886 productions were based on amended versions of the score that contained significant departures from the original. Since the 1970s, efforts have been made to reconstruct the score in accordance with Bizet’s intentions. 

The duet “Au fond du temple saint“, generally known as “The Pearl Fishers Duet”, is one of the best-known in Western opera. It is sung by Nadir (tenor) and Zurga (baritone) in act 1. After a self-imposed absence, Nadir returns to the shores of Ceylon, where his friend Zurga has just been elected Fisher King by the local pearl fishermen. The two had once fallen in love with the same woman, but then vowed to renounce that love and remain true to each other. On meeting again, they sing this duet, remembering how they first fell in love with a veiled priestess of Brahma whom they saw passing through the adoring crowd.  This duet reappears at the end of the opera, but is sung in unison as the soprano Leila and the tenor Nadir sing together of their love while Zurga sacrifices himself as he lets them flee to safety.

Our soloists

Jonathan Millican, Baritone

 Jonathan Millican is a local choral musician and has been working in the North of England for over 30 years. He studied a Music Degree at Lancaster University and holds a Masters Degree specialising in Vocal Performance and Musicology. Jonathan has performed as a Solo baritone singer around the North of England, including performances of Samson, Judas Maccabeus, Mozart Requiem, Brahms Requiem and Messiah among many others. 

Jonathan began his musical career as a chorister under Andrew Seivewright and Jeremy Suter and resumed his commitment to choral music by serving as Bass Lay clerk since moving back to the Carlisle area in 2008. Jonathan currently works as Senior Lecturer in Singing at the University of Cumbria in Carlisle and is the community liaison for the Performing Arts Department, which involves working with local Primary and Secondary Schools to promote the integration of music and singing into the curriculum.

Jonathan became interested in directing and composition at University when he took on the directorship of the University Choir, and has recently renewed this interest after conducting the Solway Singers and Gretna Choral Society and starting up the Carlisle Cantate ChildrensChoir with Edward Taylor as part of the Cathedral Outreach Program. He currently directs The Abbey Singers, where his mission is always to instill the great passion for all music he has had the pleasure of experiencing with the many talented people he has worked with.

His compositions include Mass Settings, Canticles and motets, but also children’s songs and choral arrangements of Popular Music.

Christopher Steele – Tenor

Christopher took a BSc in Geology then took postgraduate studies in Opera at the Royal College of Music and the National Opera Studio. 

He then performed as a principal artist in small roles for the ROH, WNO, ENO and Opera North and in leading lyric roles for many national and European touring companies. He also appeared extensively in oratorio including performances in most of the UK’s large concert venues. 

Now based in Lancaster, Christopher teaches voice at Sedbergh School and Lancaster Royal Grammar School and is a Vocal Consultant for Lancaster Priory. He performs regularly in oratorio in the north of England and enjoys giving recitals of classical art song with pianist Peter Noke.   

Christopher also has a keen interest in the science of voice production and has enjoyed leading choral pedagogical workshops in the district.


Coming up

9th May 2020 – J S Bach: St John Passion

7.30 pm Ambleside Parish Church – tickets on the door

with soloists and orchestral accompaniment

Christmas 2020 – 12th December

Haydn: Nelson Mass and Christmas carols

Spring 2021 – 8th May

programme to be confirmed

Christmas 2021 – 18th December

Handel: Messian

Past concerts:

Saturday 4th May 2019 – Josef Haydn: The Creation at Ambleside Parish Church

8th December 2018 – Bach’s Christmas Oratorio parts 1-3

Here’s what the reviewers said about us:

Bach Triumphant at Ambleside

 Bach’s Christmas Oratorio has never enjoyed as high a profile as The Messiah in the seasonal offerings of local choirs, but Ambleside and District Choral Society’s ambitious concert featuring the first three parts of this masterpiece left one wondering why.  A capacity audience heard Jolyon Dodgson conduct an exuberant performance, characterised by superb orchestral playing, excellent contributions from the soloists and impassioned singing from the choir. 

 The work is richly scored, and the South Cumbria Ensemble, led by Julian Cann, were fully equal to Bach’s exacting demands.  Special mention should be made of AndrewDallimore’s virtuosic rendering of the fiendishly difficult high trumpet part and of Christine Lorriman’s limpid flute solos. The rich blend of oboes, cor anglais and flutes were a particular delight in the Sinfonia, which opens the second part and heralds the appearance of the shepherds in the Christmas story; Handel was to follow this example very closely eight years later in the Pastoral Symphony of The Messiah. 

 On the vocal side, the tenor Stephen Newlove anchored the performance in the role of the Evangelist, whilst also rising to the challenges posed in his florid aria urging the shepherds to hurry to meet their Saviour. Amy Shaw made the most of the opportunities to display her warm mezzo tones in her arias of expectation, repose and reflection.  Bass Paul Im Thurn revelled in his swaggering aria “Mighty Lord and King of Glory”, thrillingly partnered by the trumpet.  The choir, clearly inspired by the orchestra and by Jolyon’s direction,entered fully into the spirit of the work, jubilant in Bach’s taxing choruses and sensitive to different moods of the chorales.

Twelve-year old Martha Alban, who had a cameo role as the Angel of the Lord in the Oratorio, launched the Christmas carol section of the programme with a winning solo in Once in Royal David’s City.  As well as the traditional favourites, rousingly sung, it was a particular pleasure to hear the Shepherds’ Farewell of Berlioz performed with full orchestral accompaniment. 


28th April  2018 – Mozart Requiem plus Regina Coeli & Haydn: Little Organ Mass; Insanae et Vanae Curae

December 2017 – Charpentier: Messe de Minuit, Ralph Vaughan-Williams: Fantasia on Christmas Carols and other Christmas music

May 2017 – Vivaldi: Gloria (RV589 and 588)

December 2016 – Haydn: St Nicholas Mass and other Christmas music

May 2016 – Schutz: the Pharisee & the Publican, Woman, why weepest thou, Montiverdi: Mass in Four Voices, Standford: Songs of the Fleet, Britten: Rejoice in the Lamb

December 2015 – Handel: Messiah

May 2015 – various choral pieces by Louise Verne and Gabriel Faure

December 2014 – Dvorak: Mass in D plus Christmas music

May 2014 – Mozart: Missa Brevis, Divertimento in D, Ave Verum Corpus, Mass in C, Laudate Dominium

December 2013 – Christmas music by Vierne, Faure, Berlioz and others

May 2013 – Handel: Judas Maccabeus

December 2012 – Christmas music by Vivaldi, Britten, Rutter and others

May 2012 – Haydn: Nelson Mass, Handel: Zadok the Priest, Mozart: Solemn Vespers