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Adrian Riley reviews the 'Requiem in Blue' performance by Scarborough Choral Society, with Harvey Brough, Clara Sanabras, Em Whitfield Brooks and Mike Outram.

Requiem in Blue is a setting of the traditional Roman Catholic funeral mass written by composer (and former pop doo-wop-er) Harvey Brough. It combines a myriad of musical styles that reflect the diverse musical passions of the composer and tonight Brough and a group of musicians from different genres join Scarborough Choral Society for a unique performance.

The first half of the concert features Fauré's Requiem, a choral staple and performed today with a small instrumental ensemble accompaniment specially arranged by Brough. Many composers have set the traditional Roman Catholic funeral mass text to music but Fauré's is notable for being surprisingly upbeat in tone, featuring little of the pain and darkness that often give other interpretations their musical power. This reflects the composers attitude that death was a happy transition rather than a painful experience. Combined with the second half performance of Requiem in Blue the concert as a whole feels like a celebration of life rather than a meditation on the loss of it.

Written at the end of the 19th century, Fauré's composition actually feels rather modern to my ears, its layering of tempos and repetitive instrumental phrases at times sounding like a template for some of techno pioneer Orbital's more pastoral tracks. Scarborough Choral Society approach the piece with sensitivity to the contrasts in volume which make for an engaging performance, one that is enhanced by soloists Ben Lindley (Baritone) and a particularly strong performance by young treble Richard Penny.

The paired-down backing works particularly well in the intimate setting of Westborough Methodist Church and it's interesting to hear such a work minus the expected reverberation of a larger ecclesiastical building - the vocals are direct and immediate. The church organ however sits frustratingly unused with an electronic keyboard standing in for the organ parts although one certainly can't complain about Frank James' delicate playing and how he blends perfectly with the two violas, violin, cello and harp (perhaps the keyboard was chosen so it wouldn't overpower them).

There's a hint of unsettled anticipation amongst the audience preceding the second half as a drummer, double bass, and jazz guitarist start tuning up. It's clear that this isn't the usual instrumentation at a choral society concert.

The composer himself takes place at the piano and the Requiem begins with an extraordinary performance by Clara Sanabras of the traditional folk song 'Black is the colour of my true love's hair', accompanying herself on baroque guitar. The song, at first meditative, suddenly changes rhythm and as Clara's voice half cries above the slowly building backing, the song becomes equal parts a mournful and erotically-charged celebration of the black-haired boy of who she sings. Behind her, the first of the settings of the Latin text creep in, sung by the choir and quickly building in complexity to spine-tingling effect. More so than the sedate Faure, Requiem in Blue gives the Choral Society opportunity to show the sound they're capable of creating and at full volume the choir is rich and full with some gorgeous soprano notes.

Throughout the performance we get further juxtapositions of musical styles. Some of these blend seamlessly, inviting the listener to find links between both the music and lyrics, the effect being a simultaneous reinvention and comment on the funeral mass. At one point a double bass solo morphs into a gently grooving rock riff on top of which choral parts layer up. Others parts deliberately clash, such as a tumbling drum solo that feels like it's about to set a rhythm for the ensemble but then ends with an abrupt crash. When one considers that the Requiem was written in tribute to Brough's older brother who died in a motorbike accident, this passage takes on a chilling significance. By pure coincidence, in the ensuing pause between movements an ambulance passes the church, Brough counts the choir in over the top of the dopplering siren.

This exciting musical meeting of cultures reminds me of David Fanshawe's 'African Sanctus', whose mix of choral singing, tribal drumming and rock beats I found so thrilling as a young teenager. There is, however a danger that such works will always feel to belong to the 1960s & 70s when the barriers between between rock, jazz and sacred classical music were, for a short time, seemingly more fluid. Today pieces such as Bernstein's 'Mass' and even Duke Ellington's wonderful Sacred Concerts struggle to shake off the distinct sound of that era and more recent pieces that similarly aim to blend musical styles can be tainted with the same vibe. Brough originally studied choral singing (his own sweet tenor voice features tonight) but has since been as likely to be found arranging for such as Duran Duran as for choral ensembles. And it is perhaps this experience and credibility in many areas of music that prevents Requiem in Blue from falling into the same trap.

Throughout the piece Mike Outram's guitar can often be heard whispering high wailing notes like comments on the lyrics and he really gets chance to shine in several solo passages, not least when trading improvised blues licks with vocalist Em Brooks. The climax of the piece features Richard Penny again, this time reading text borrowed from the radio play Spoonface Steinberg as all the singers and musicians build to the conclusion. It's a risk that in the wrong hands could taint the end of the requiem in naff sentimentality but it works beautifully and packs a powerful emotional and celebratory punch that in many ways sums up this glorious mix of the sacred and profane. A wonderful performance.

Requiem in Blue by Scarborough Choral Society, with Harvey Brough, Clara Sanabras, Em Whitfield Brooks, Mike Outram, took place on 16.05.2015 at Westborough Methodist Church.