Award-winning Choir of Merton College Oxford marks return of Passiontide at Merton festival (8-10 April 2022) with compelling programme of music ancient and modern

Highlights include Mozart’s Mass in C minor, world premieres of works by Francis Grier, recent compositions by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Judith Bingham and James MacMillan, and sublime sacred polyphony by Gesualdo, Tallis, Byrd and Lassus

The already weighty book of Oxford success stories has been enlarged in recent years thanks to the Choir of Merton College. Rave reviews for its recordings, prestigious prizes and a loyal following for its annual Passiontide at Merton festival have reinforced the international status of one of British choral music’s finest products. Passiontide at Merton is set to resume next month after a two-year break: its latest edition opens on Friday 8 April at Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford with Mozart’s Mass in C minor, featuring Rowan Pierce and Katie Bray among its soloists, and period performance specialists Florilegium conducted by Benjamin Nicholas.

Passiontide at Merton extends across the weekend with a celebration of sacred music in the thirteenth-century Chapel of Merton College, famed as much for its majestic acoustics as for its uplifting architecture. Merton Choir and its Director of Music Benjamin Nicholas share the bill with an impressive line-up of guest artists. Margaret Phillips will perform a programme of works by J.S. Bach on the chapel’s exquisite Dobson organ on the morning of Saturday 9 April, including the Passacaglia in C minor BWV 582. The Gesualdo Six and its director Owain Park explore the power and the passion of polyphony for Holy Week by Tallis, Gesualdo and Victoria interleaved with recent works by Judith Bingham and Cheryl Frances-Hoad, before Merton’s organ scholar Owen Chan performs Julius Reubke’s monumental Sonata on the 94th Psalm, a Lisztian landmark of Romantic organ music.

Saturday’s Choral Evensong, sung by Merton College Choir under Benjamin Nicholas, includes Frances-Hoad’s The Merton Responses, one of a series of new works rising from the composer’s ongoing tenure as Merton’s visiting Research Fellow in the Creative Arts, and Gerald Finzi’s festival anthem Lo, the full, final sacrifice. The day closes with Compline, the ancient nocturnal service of stillness and contemplation.

Passiontide at Merton resumes on 10 April with the Procession and Sung Eucharist for Palm Sunday, complete with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor and works by Orlando Gibbons and Orlande de Lassus. The festival concludes with a Choral and Organ Concert for Palm Sunday, comprising the world premiere performances of Francis Grier’s motet for Merton, Osanna filio David, and A Celebration of All Saints, a substantial new organ work written for Stephen Farr, and motets by Byrd, Purcell, Poulenc and MacMillan.

Merton College Choir was reformed following the creation of Merton’s Choral Foundation in 2008. It made its debut later that year under the joint direction of Peter Phillips, founder and conductor of the Tallis Scholars, and Benjamin Nicholas, and launched Passiontide at Merton in 2010. Each year the Choir recruits thirty undergraduates and graduates from across the University of Oxford. Since his appointment as Merton’s organist and Director of Music in 2008, Benjamin Nicholas has directed the Choir in a series of critically acclaimed albums for the Delphian label. Their world premiere recording of Gabriel Jackson’s The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ was named Best Choral Album at the 2020 BBC Music Magazine Awards.

“Merton used to have a choir of volunteers recruited each year by the College’s organ scholar,” Nicholas recalls. “Now almost all our singers are choral scholars who produce a consistently high standard. The Choir’s weekly schedule is much fuller than it once was; we rehearse on Monday and sing services on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Evensong on Wednesday is sung by our girl choristers, who attend ten different schools, including in Blackbird Leys, Didcot and across Oxford. The girls will take part in the C minor Mass, which will be a first for them.”

Nobody foresaw when Passiontide at Merton was last held in 2019 that a global pandemic would force its cancellation for the next two years. Merton College Choir, also silenced by Covid-induced public health precautions, was able to resume its weekly round of sung services last September. The intervening period has seen an encouraging return of congregations and audiences to Oxford.

“Attendance has been as high as ever for services this term, and we’ve seen full houses at the Sheldonian,” notes Benjamin Nicholas. “Of course, the Choir lost a considerable period of singing together because of the pandemic. But we’ve been back in the choir stalls for over six months now and are making sure that the standard repertoire is in everyone’s bones. We did the Vaughan Williams Mass in G minor in a recent chapel service for the first time in four years, and I think they were blown away by it,” he recalls. “They’re ready now for Merton’s Palm Sunday service. It has been great to get things in shape with a group that includes many fine new singers. We’re looking forward to seeing our audience again, including those who come to stay with us at Merton for the weekend.”

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