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The latest edition of Merton College Choir’s annual festival of sacred music opens after a two-year break on Friday 8 April at the 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 College Chapel. 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 JS Bach; 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 contemporary works by Judith Bingham and Cheryl Frances-Hoad, before Merton’s organ scholar Owen Chan performs 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. The day closes with Compline, the ancient nocturnal service of stillness and contemplation.
Following a Procession and Sung Eucharist for Palm Sunday, complete with Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor and works by Gibbons and 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, together with motets by Byrd, Purcell, Poulenc and MacMillan.
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.