Tuesday, 31 May 2011

'Music on the Edge' perform at Topsham Art Room Sunday 17 April - returning Sunday 12 June

'Music On The Edge' - Flautist Susie Hodder-Williams and Bass Clarinettist Chris Caldwell
photo: Chris Chapman  www.chrischapmanphotography.com
Christopher Caldwell and his wife Susie Hodder-Williams are a musical couple from Throwleigh whose music is charged with the spirit of Dartmoor. Chris plays clarinets and saxaphones, Susie plays flutes, and together they are 'Music on the Edge'.
'Golden Evening' Benedict Rubbra 2010
Whenever I think of 'Music on the Edge' I think of art exhibitions and musical concerts combined. Last year they appeared at Gallery 36 in Exeter on Sunday 21 November to perform 'Time and Distance' with poet James Turner. Poetry and music in the setting of Veronica Gosling's extensive collection of creative work was a very memorable experience. The music was extraordinary, and we hear a little of that music  at the end of each 'Classical Journey' - often going over time, to the annoyance of the Outcast!
More recently Chris and Susie appeared at The Art Room in Topsham with 'cellist and guitarist Rick Bolton. They played a 6pm evening concert surrounded by the newly opened exhibit of works by Benedict Rubbra.

Benedict Rubbra, 'Dawn Unfolding' 1983,
The Art Room gallery owner, Deborah Wood
Benedict makes paintings that appear abstract, but are literal depictions of what he sees - they are paintings of his own paintings of interesting objects or scenes, seen with patterns of light and shadow projected on them. Confused?
'Golden Evening' (above) gives an idea of what people saw as they came in. Wonderfully restful and, in with the addition of the light and shade of an early spring evening in The Art Room, even more beguiling.
Owing to the now familiar problem of overlap between events, certain members of the audience missed the opening pieces of Chris and Susie's concert. (Mary O'Shea was singing Preisner's 'Lacrimosa' at Cathedral evensong - no question of leaving early! If you missed that, she will be performing it again at Buckfast Abbey on Sunday 8 July. Watch this space for details.)
Music and Art
Susie Hodder-Williams, Flute, Early Morning 2010
Rick Bolton, 'Cello, Golden Evening 2010
Chris Caldwell, Soprano Sax, Balcony with Geraniums 2006
The first three pieces had been a Welsh folk song, 'David and the White Rock', then one of Chris's own Dartmoor inspired pieces, 'Dewpoint', which had involved Chris improvising the sound of a babbling brook over the playing of the other players (I wish I'd been there!), finishing with Dave Brubeck's Fujiyama.
With the full audience in attendance Chris introduced us to the pleasure of the Indian 'raga' - on western classical instruments. The raga, as Chris explained, involves a set of notes upon which to improvise - with license to go anywhere - but where, and with whom? Chris began gently on his bass clarinet and was joined by the rich plucking of Rick's 'cello. Susie's powerful flute completed the sound. As the piece closed all that was heard was the tapping of the keys on Chris's mute clarinet.
Chris Caldwell, Bass Clarinet
Now was the moment for Chris to formally introduce Rick. The two men trained together at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. However, it was only recently that Chris discovered Rick's 'secret' specialism - jazz 'cello! The tuning of the 'cello strings does not immediately lend it to jazz playing. It could be retuned but, as Rick says, that would not be a 'cello. To play jazz on a straight classical 'cello is a really special skill. And Chris? Classical saxophone! Strictly speaking the saxophone, having been invented in 1846, was unknown in the classical period (1750-1820), let alone the baroque (1600-1750). However Chris is convinced that the greatest of all baroque composers, Johann Sebastian Bach, would have chosen the saxophone, had it been available. To demonstrate, the three played a piece from 1727, Bach's Trio Sonata BWV 525, originally for organ. The music was beautiful and timeless, and certainly sounded very right for sax, 'cello and flute.
Susie Hodder-Williams, Flute
Then a massive leap of two hundred and fifty years. Gower man Karl Jenkins was an oboist (and saxophonist) who excelled in jazz playing. He won first prize in the 1970 Montreux Jazz Festival and, by 1976 he was playing and writing for the jazz fusion band 'Soft Machine', composing all the pieces for their album 'Softs'. For the opening track, 'Aubade', Rick switched to folk guitar (which he played with beautiful classical technique). Chris, however, chose the bass clarinet whose driving rhythm was the dominant feature of the piece. Immediately the three segued into the folk tune 'River Man' written by Nick Drake for his 1969 album 'Five Leaves Left'. Rick opened on his guitar and it was interesting to see folk music played with classical technique, rolling from major to minor with the clarinet and flute following. There was more flute for Susie in this number with gentle augmentation by Chris's bass clarinet. Susie called the tune conducting with her flute as she launched into each new phrase, right up to the soft and gentle conclusion.
Rick Bolton, 'Cello
Before the interval there was just time to mention the experimental music sessions which have been taking place at the Drewe Arms at Drewsteignton. 'Live in the Long Room' takes place, as one might imagine, in the Long Room in the pub. musicians experiment with combinations of classical, jazz and rock music. There were a very successful series of six sessions 'in the long room' last year.
During the interval we enjoyed generous refreshments laid on by the gallery owner, Deborah Wood, which included some rather excellent wines. The players mixed with the audience and chatted, as did Deborah and her guest artist - Benedict Rubbra! Also in the audience was another clarinettist with a confusingly similar name, Chris Gradwell. Chris and Chris know each other well and have worked together many times. Chris (Gradwell) had recently appeared at Kennaway House in Sidmouth on 27 March to launch his series of six concerts entitled 'Chris Gradwell and Friends' which was a great success. Soon after the Art Room Concert Chris (Gradwell) was to lead the clarinets, with Chris (Caldwell) playing bass clarinet, in one of the most exciting concerts of the year - the East Devon Choral Society/Exeter Chamber Choir performance of Sir Edward Elgar's 'The Dream of Gerontius' at St Paul's in Tiverton on 7 May.
Clarinets at St Paul's:
Lead Clarinet Chris Gradwell
for Sir Edward Elgar's
Second Clarinet Victoria Loram
'The Dream of Gerontius':
Bass Clarinet Chris Caldwell

After the interval we had something with a seaside flavour. In 1941 Kurt Weill wrote an exciting and animated score to Ira Gershwin's song 'My Ship' for the Broadway Musical 'Lady in the Dark'. (Some listeners may have been lucky enough to hear the BTEC students' performance of Weill's collaboration with Bertold Brecht recently - 'The Threepenny Opera' - at the Barnfield from 18-20 May. See 'Coming up in May and June'.) As intended this was lively and uplifting, with a distinct nautical flavour.
Professor Stephen Goss
University of Surrey
Once again the three went straight into another song, another wartime song in fact, Duke Ellington's 'Come Sunday', first performed at Carnegie Hall in 1943 on the same bill as his more major work, the jazz symphony 'Black, Brown and Beige' charting the history of African Americans. This deeply religious prayer for intercession - on behalf of Ellington's 'people' was soft and gentle with a soothing guitar melody. If anything, Susie's flute and Chris's soprano saxophone were even more gentle than Rick's guitar. Rick's final tinkles melted into grace notes on Chris's sax. A very appropriate number for that day, with a title which could easily be mistaken for 'Palm Sunday'. After Mary's 'Lacrimosa' earlier in the evening this was too too perfect!
Finally we had something a little older - and with a real swing. 'You're the Cream in my Coffee' was a compilation by Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson in 1928 for the Broadway show 'Hold Everthing'. Covered many many times by all manner of performers, including Thelonius Monk and Stephane Grapelli, this number really had a swing to it. Rick's strumming supported some amazing playing by Susie and Chris on the flute and saxophone, ending perfectly in a 'drumming' bass growl on the saxophone. 'You give life savor'!
There was just time to mention a concert of music by Steve Goss, from his album 'Northern Lights', planned to take place in Throwleigh (between Chagford and Whiddon Down) in the near future. (We have, of course, heard several tracks from that album on the 'Classical Journey' with Graham Roberts joining Chris and Susie to play guitar.)
Devon Artist Hilary Goddard
And our hostess, Deborah Wood, had time to mention that the exhibition at 'The Art Room' in Topsham changes every eight weeks or so - and maybe 'Music on the Edge' might attend the opening of another exhibition.
They certainly will! Next Saturday, 11 June, Deborah will hold a private view of a new exhibition of work by an artist from Whimple, and Old Maynardian, Hilary Goddard, who is well known for her gorgeous impressionist landscapes. The Exhibition will run until 3 July. And at 6pm on Sunday evening (12 June!) Chris, Susie and Rick will return to provide - 'a tapestry of baroque music interwoven with contemporary threads and colours'. Not to be missed!

Music at The Art Room
Topsham Art Room Sunday 12 June 6pm
Susie Hodder-Williams: Flute
Chris Cladwell: Bass Clarinet/Saxes
Rick Bolton: 'Cello/Guitar
Tickets: £10 - includes wine! (U21 free)
Bring your own folding chair.
Booking Essential!: 07952 923318

To help with catering and seating, please let Deborah know if you intend to go to the concert at the Art Room. You can send her a text on 0795 292 3318.

Would you like to hear Chris Caldwell?
Chris will be appearing on the 'Classical Journey' on Tuesday 7 June to tell us about the great 'Music on the Edge' concert in Topsham Art Room - and to play us some live music in the Phonic FM studio. We'll also hear Chris and Susie playing 'Shadows' from their album 'Mariner's Way'.

Tune in to 106.8 FM (or listen on line at www.phonic.fm) 10-12 am this Tuesday!

Monday, 23 May 2011

A Talented Concert by The South West Music School: Young Musicians Showcase, Dartington Ship Studio Sunday 22 May, Shaldon Festival Friday 17 June

Pianist Benjamin Comeau played Maurice Ravel's 'Ondine'
What is the best way to advertise a concert? A pre-concert performance, as many musicians have found recently. Despite their impending exams, the students of the South West Music School came to Dartington on Sunday to show us just what we can expect to enjoy at the Shaldon Festival in three weeks time. Four of the five young musicians who will appear at Shaldon came and played to a full house in the Ship Studio in Dartington Hall. They played a generous selection from their Shaldon programme and showed us what quality of music we can expect. Extremely high quality!
Sadly the opening words by SWMS tutor Lisa Tregale were missed by the visitors from Exeter because a certain member of their party had taken them to 'Studio 31' which is in a completely different part of the Dartington campus! However, everyone was in their seats as pianist Benjamin Comeau began his first piece, the sinfonia from Bach's 'Partita Number 2'. From the first note his playing was confident and relaxed. His fluid style moved through a series of changes in dynamics and tempo with grace and purpose. A powerful finish left us in no doubt about who was master.
Violinist Annabel Lainchbury joined Benjamin for Mozart's Sonata for Violin and Piano K304. Annabel looked quite different from her last appearance at Dartington - definitely more mature. Her playing expressed the emotion of the piece beautifully. Ben meanwhile provided a very solid piano counterpart, deftly integrated. A very professional pairing. The second movement was even more expressive with Ben and Annabel engaging in soulful exchanges which were very respectful to the theme of the piece - the death of Wolfgang's mother, Anna Maria, when he was only 22 years old.
Ben then enjoyed a break as a local pianist from Ashburton, Peter Hurst, took over to accompany violinist Freya Hicks in Beethoven's 'Romance number 2'. Freya appeared to be a bit younger than Annabel and a little more nervous, but she opened the piece very cleanly and played very calmly. The long waits while Peter played the piano sections must have been terribly nerve-wracking for her, but Freya stood her ground with commendable poise. Freya's runs on the violin, when they came, were wonderfully smooth and even. The interplay between the violin and piano were noticeably well balanced (Peter had closed the lid of the grand to ensure that he didn't overpower the violin.) Beethoven's high ending was sweetly ethereal in Freya's hands.
Then Peter accompanied Freya's older sister, 'cellist Indigo Hicks, in Robert Schumann's 'Fantasiestucke' ('Fantasy Pieces'). Initially scored for clarinet with Robert's wife Clara replaced by Anna Laidlaw at the piano (!) this piece promised to be interesting in arrangment for 'cello with piano accompaniment. Indigo made an immediate and lasting impression. The tone was superbly warm and rich especially on the top string of the 'cello. Watching, I was reminded of guitarist (and 'cellist) David Cottam who always insists on simultaneous action of right and left hand. Indigo already has her technique well developed. Each note was beautifully deft with the pressure on the fingerboard (or harmonic) superbly economic. We heard just three dances from the suite, 'Des Abends' ('Evening') - soft and relaxed, 'Aufschwung' ('Soaring') - soft and light, perhaps the inspiration for Andrew Daldoph's Jazz classic, 'Soarin' High', and finally 'Warum' ('Why') - almost a scherzo, full of changes of tempo - which were no problem for Indigo. Clara would have been pleased.
Peter then let Ben have the piano again (with the lid up!) In true 'Classical Journey' style the programme so far had progressed from baroque to classical to romantic, and now for something 'modern'. The opening movement of Maurice Ravel's 'Gaspard de la Nuit', from Paris in 1908, is his take on the story of 'Undine', this time based on a poem by Aloysius Bertrand. We've heard Lortzing's version on air and Alex West played Chopin's interpretation on 27 April at Glenorchy. The Ravel was even more impressionistic, evoking the feeling of rippling water and shimmering light in a fantastic journey under the sea. Ben played without music, concentrating hard on the complex rhythms, but relaxed and confident. His liquid smoothness of touch held us captivated throughout.
Violinists Freya Hicks and Annabel Lainchbury
and 'Cellist Indigo Hicks
played Joseph Haydn's 'Divertimento in D'
Finally the three girls played Joseph Haydn's 'Divertimento in D'. Annabel, as regular leader of the orchestra, kept a close eye on Freya and the two played beautifully together. Indigo proved to be a very competent ensemble player matching her tone perfectly to the two violins. Everything was wonderfully gentle and cooperative, and the three players were clearly enjoying themselves very much. The second movement included a very grand section which Annabel brought in perfectly, while the third was classic 'tafelmusik', just for fun, and lots of fun for everyone.
The whole concert was full of pleasure and excitement, and it was thrilling to hear the impressive standard of the students as they develop their skills for the future. Many thanks to the South West Music School, to Lisa Tregale for organising the concert, and especially to the wonderful musicians.

Afternoon concerts at Dartington are always a wonderful treat and we can regularly see the very best ensembles in the Great Hall - including Devon Baroque (Nov and Feb)  and the Britten Sinfonia. Next week we can see an orchestra which has worked closely with the South West Music School for some time now. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sent six orchestral musicians to run workshops for SWMS students in January this year (q.v.). Now they are coming to give a concert themselves in the Great Hall. Next Sunday, 29 May (at that magical time of three in the afternoon) they will perform orchestral and operatic music in the Great Hall, with arias sung by soprano Elin Manahan Thomas. A rare and wonderful treat for a summer afternoon.

Meanwhile the South West Music School Students are preparing to repeat, and extend, this Sunday's recital at the Shaldon Festival. On the evening of Friday 17 June they will perform at St Peter's in Shaldon, with one more young musician, Edward Francis-Smith. In addition to Sunday's programme there will be several extra pieces including Rossini's 'String Sonata number 2' and the very special 'Piano Quintet number 1' by Louise Farrenc, which will involve all five players:

The full programme:

Haydn Diviertimento in D Major.
Performers: Annabel Lainchbury, Freya Hicks, Indigo Hicks

Mozart Sonata for violin and piano in E minor K.304.
Performer: Annabel Lainchbury

Schumann Fantasiestucke.
Performer: Indigo Hicks

Rossini String Sonata no. 2 in A major.
Performers: Annabel Lainchbury, Freya Hicks, Indigo Hicks,
                     Edward Francis-Smith


Ravel - Ondine
Performer: Ben Comeau

Rodgers and Hammerstein - My Favourite Things
Performer: Ben Comeau

Louise Farrenc Piano Quintet no.1 op.50
Performers: Annabel Lainchbury, Freya Hicks, Indigo Hicks,
                       Edward Francis-Smith & Ben Comeau


In addition to the South West Music School concert, the Shaldon Festival at St Peter's Church has much more to offer:

Thursday 17 June at 7.30pm Soprano Julie Unwin, Tenor Charne Rochford and Baritone Simon Thorpe of the English Touring Opera will perform an abridged version of Puccini's 'Il Tabarro' which they performed at the Exeter Northcott Theatre on 24/25 March this year. There will also be plenty of time for arias from Puccini's other operas, 'La Boheme', 'Madam Butterfly', 'Tosca' and many more.

Saturday 18 June, all those who booked early enough will be taking part in a choral workshop with Sir Neville Marriner with Peter Adcock playing the piano and Jonathan Watts playing organ. There will be four professional soloists, soprano Héloïse West, mezzo soprano Rebecca Smith, tenor Gitai Fisher and bass Julian Rippon. At 7.30pm there will be an informal performance of the piece being studied: Rossini's 'Petite Messe Solennelle'.

Sunday 19 June at 7.30pm, eight string players from the City of Birminham Symphony Orchestra, led by their principle 'cellist, Richard Jenkinson, are the 'Innovation Chamber Ensemble'. They will perform 'Two Pieces for Octet' by Dmitri Shostakovich and, for comparison, two romantic pieces: 'Sextet in B Flat' by Johannes Brahms and 'Octet in E flat' by Felix Mendelssohn.

www.shaldonfestival.co.uk  supported by  www.thehelenfoundation.org.uk

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Crediton Congregational Church, Tuesday 17th May: A very special concert by the Hermitage Ensemble Russian Orthodox Male Voice Choir

Concert Co-ordinator:
Lady Mayoress of Crediton, Mrs Natalia Letch
Conductor and Director:
Bass-Baritone & Soloist, Andrey Kapralov
Although some of us might not have been aware of the fact here in Exeter, a very distinguished resident of Crediton has recently been welcomed as a citizen of the UK.
Natalia Putilova, an engineer (and singer) from Moscow was married to Crediton Mayor, The Honorable Frank Letch, in 2006 in Exeter.
As Lady Mayoress, Natalia has been working for various charities and, with Frank, has been very involved in Exeter's twinning with Yaroslavl in Russia. Natalia hopes to initiate a twinning association between Crediton and a Russian town in the near future.
One of her first projects as a newly welcomed British Citizen has been to arrange a superb cultural visit from St Petersburg in Russia.
On Tuesday evening this week Crediton Congregational Church was host to the incredible 'Hermitage Ensemble', a Russian Orthodox male voice choir from St Petersburg. (The name presumably a reference to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg - setting of the wonderful Alexander Sokurov film 'Russian Ark'.)
Natalia welcomes the Hermitage Ensemble
First Tenor, soloist, Aleksander Arhipovskiy
First Tenor Denis Rozhdestvenskiy
Second Tenor Aleksey Chertov
The Honorable Natalia Letch, Mayoress of Crediton
Conductor, Bass Baritone, Andrey Kapralov
Basses Dmitry Vasilyev and Lenar Akhmetzyanov
The ensemble have six members at present. The three tenors and two basses are led and conducted by bass-baritone, and soloist, Andrey Kapralov. In addition to Andrey the ensemble has another soloist, first tenor Aleksander Arhipovskiy. Aleksander is a giant of a man - with a voice to match, so beautiful and penetrating it moves anyone who hears it (almost literally). His fellow tenors, Denis Rozhdestvendkiy (first tenor) and Aleksey Chertov (second tenor), harmonise perfectly, although sometimes eclipsed by the mighty voice of Aleksander himself.
Andrey conducts beautifully from the centre, keeping a friendly but firm hand on the proceedings at all times, while harmonising beautifully in that in-between range - sometimes up with tenors, but equally capable of sinking down to join the basses.
And the basses! It is well known that in Russia 'bass' implies a range that goes almost unbelievably low, but hearing is believing. Dmitry Vasilyev and Lenar Akhmetzyanov are able to plumb depths that send the notes through the floor and furnishings to vibrate through the listener's body. No recording could ever do justice to this phenomenal sound, a sound that is also sweet and liquid, strangely audible beneath all other sounds. Six voices that hit you like a shock wave - of joyful and delightful music!
The Russian Orthodox musical tradition grew from Greek, Byzantine and Oriental influences during the early years of Christian expansion. After many centuries of development into a characteristic Russian style, Italian influences were introduced with several Italian composers coming to Russia in the eighteenth century. Among them one Baldassare Galuppi - whose music has experienced quite a revival recently. Local pianist Joyce Clarke is currently performing his piano work at the Arsenale in Venice. (We enjoyed a preview in Exmouth on 4 May.) In the nineteenth century Italian trained Russian musicians developed the style further and the leader of the Mighty Handful, Mily Balakirev, who was Music Director of the Court Chapel in St Petersburg, worked with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov to prepare a huge collection of choral work in the Russian Orthodox tradition.
No instruments were ever included in these works, all effects being entirely produced by the human voice, as dictated by the church - with some justification!
Tuesday's concert was introduced by the ensemble's promoter and compère Natalia Aksuticheva - a very charming woman, but not willing to be photographed I'm afraid! In her captivating Russian accent she introduced each piece of music, and each singer as their turn came to shine, much to the confusion of the audience who couldn't follow the Russian all that easily. But the music spoke for itself. The first half was all liturgical music from the Russian Church, grand, respectful, - and sung with enormous power.
 The first song, Dmitry Bortnjansky's 'We Praise you, O lord!' from the early nineteenth century was controlled by Andrey who got his pitch from a tuning fork held to his ear before singing a gentle arpeggio to the other singers. Then we were immediately overwhelmed by rich deep harmonies between six incredibly powerful singers, held together by the low baritone of Andrey himself. Rising above it all was the superhuman tenor voice of the big man to Andrey's left, the extraordinary Aleksander Arhipovskiy. After an amazing five minutes of sound, which you never got used to, the tone changed to soft sacred music. Aleksander's tenor still cut through, but relatively softly, and beneath it all were the bass voices of Dmitry and Lenor. Slowly that low soft sound gained our attention as we realised that calmly, and apparently without effort, both basses were descending to impossible depths. The final Amens were drawn out beautifully with intricate harmony, and carefully pronounced in the Russian way, 'Ah - meen!'. Just what every conductor loves to hear! And so did we.
The rest of the first half:
Sergei Rachmaninov's 'Rejoice O Virgin': Dmitri Vasilyev's extraordinary bass sound cuts through the roar of the tenors.
Pavel Tchesnokov's 'The Angel Exclaimed': very soft harmony with a very very loud tenor solo by Aleksander Arhipovskiy - and a rousing chorus.
Guiseppe Sarti's 'Rejoice, You People' ('Raduitesia Lyudie'): beautiful tenor and bass humming in the arpeggios. Words split between the basses and tenors - e.g. Spass-Nura (but I've not idea what that means!)
Fiodor Makarov's 'It is Truly Meet' (Dostojno est): A wonderful pronunciation of 'Israelim' with rising inflection - exotic yet familiar.
Alexander Kosolapov's 'Dear Lord, strengthen the Holy Orthodox Church' (Utverdi Boze): An incredibly powerful baritone solo by Andrey Kapralov, with celestial harmony from the other voices. Andrey is clearly the boss!
Pyotr Tchaikovsky's 'The Lord's Prayer': an intriguing repeated theme ending on a sustained bass note.
Pavel Tchesnokov's 'Save the Wise Brigand' (Pazboinika Blagorozymnogo): Another solo for tenor Aleksander Arhipovskiy, in incredibly piercing tenor and very, very sad with impossibly deep bass accompaniment and a chilling final harmony, repeated, to finish.
Apostol Nikolaev-Strumsky's 'Dear Lord, Strong and Immortal, Forgive Us': Another solo for conductor and bass-baritone Andrey Kapralov. A bass lament over a bass hum, which Andrey could raise or lower by subtle hand movements. Long and tender harmony between the tenor and bass, leading to a pure bass solo for Dmitry Vasilyev and Lenar Akhmetzyanov.
Giulio Caccini's 'Ave Maria': Aleksander sings another solo softly, but with occasional forays into his penetrating tenor voice. Just two words repeated, with beautiful harmonising between the six singers.
During the interval wine and food were served while the performers mixed with the audience to chat and make themselves known, despite their very limited knowledge of English and (in most cases) our total ignorance of Russian. Our two hosts, Natalia Aksuticheva and Natalie Letch, were only too willing to act as interpreters. As the time approached for the second half the men disappeared backstage, only to reappear in traditional Russian tunics. Now it was time for some traditional Russian folk music:
Boris Sveschnikov's 'In the dark woods' (V Temnom Lese): A glorious 'pom pom pom' from the tenors, echoed even more gloriously by the basses, with a light and lively melody.
Sveschnikov's 'In the Village': according to Natalia, a song to impress the village beauties! Virtuoso singing for everyone, fast and very loud! Suddenly the music slows - don't get caught out and look a fool in front of the girls! A big, big finish, but then a sudden slow to another very slow, and very low, finish. Men's work!
'Horse': a traditional folk song about our country - Russia! From a soft opening the delicately harmonising voices rise in crescendo to incredible volume, only to sink away again. The audience start to be seriously affected. Ecstatic wolf whistles greet the closing notes. Steady girls!
'Soldiers, Brave Boys' from the Red Army repertoire: Andrey sings volubly about the 'Soldatje Ovski' before ending softly for a soft chorus from the other men. After a wink and a joke with the tenors he repeats the performance. By the end they've achieved the desired effect. Squeals of excitement from a certain quarter!
A little Irish flavour? Thomas Moore's 'Those Evening Bells' (Vecherny Zvon): After a quick check with the tuning fork Andrey sings Aleksander into a slow solo with the other men providing a slow accompaniment of 'bom - bom', both utterly superb!
'Twelve Robbers' (Dvenadzat Tazboinikov): Andrey sings solo over the the soft crooning of the chorus, with immense passion. He holds out his hands and appeals to the audience with a story which we almost think we can understand. His final words, descending into sobs, are greeted by an enormous cheer from the audience. We are totally won over!
 Suddenly something familiar, 'Kalinka': "My Juniper berry, my raspberry" faster and faster until the tenor soloist breaks in - Aleksander Arhiposkiy! "Akh, pod sosoye, pod zelenoyu, Spat 'poloshite vy menya! Ay- Lyuli, lyuli, ay-lyuli, Spat 'polozhite vy menya." ("Ah, under the pine, the green one, lay me down to sleep, a lully lully, a lully lully, lay me down to sleep.") So simple and yet unbearably, exquisitely beautiful. The audience can barely contain themselves. Overcome by the singing of these mighty Russian men they stamp their feet and clap their hands.  More.  More!  Encore!
Natalia says nothing. Gently and simply the men begin one last song - in English! The most covered English song of all time - Paul McCartney's 'Yesterday'! Even though we knew the singers did not know enough English to understand the song, their diction was almost perfect, a very spooky effect like hearing comprehensible words in a crash of a thunderstorm.
There was almost nothing to say after a finish like that.
Except - Thank you so very much to Natalia Aksuticheva and the 'Hermitage' Russian Male Voice Choir for extending their tour to this remote corner of Devon. And special thanks to Natalia Letch for coming to Devon herself and bringing the wonders of Russian culture to us. You have truly enriched our lives!

For more details see the Official Programme.

That 'Hermitage Ensemble' itinerary of UK appearances in full:

Sun   15 May:  Taunton
Tue   17 May:  Crediton
Wed 18 May:  St Andrew's Church, Banwell, West Sussex
Thu   19 May:  St Michaels and All Angels,
                        Pirbright, Near Woking, Surrey
Fri     20 May:  Chelmsford Cathedral Essex
                         St Andrew's, Collingbourne Ducis, Wiltshire
Sat    21 May:  Shaftesbury, Dorset
Sun   22 May:  Kingsbury, London
Mon  23 May:  St John the Evangelist, Newtimber,
                         near Brighton, West Sussex
Tue   24 May:  East Worthing, West Sussex
Wed 25 May:  St Barnabas, Hove, West Sussex
Thu   26 May:  Ashwell Music Festival, north Herfordshire
Fri     27 May:  St Laurence, Brundall, Norfolk
Sat    28 May:  St John the Evangelist, Tatworth, Somerset
Sun   29 May:  Goring-by-Sea, Worthing, West Sussex

Monday, 16 May 2011

Classical Journey Tuesday 17 May

What Might Have Been . . .

This week's programme features musicians who were billed to appear in concert but weren't heard for one reason or another. I can't show you any photo's either because of an internet go-slow (but hope to add those later!) However, through community radio we can hear what they would have sounded like . . .


The remote Essex village of Stondon Massey is where Tudor composer William Byrd lived for the last 30 years of his life, and is buried. The Local people have been holding a festival in memory of Byrd for the past two weeks with concerts of Tudor song, special church services and talks by visiting speakers. Despite being too far away for Exonians to visit easily, the festival has been of interest to renaissance music enthusiasts here in Devon. There has also been interest from other parts of the world as well. Organiser Andrew Smith sent in this press release to the programme:

Successful Stondon Byrd Festival Gains International Reputation
Stondon Singers with Richard Turbet (centre)
photographed at St Peter & St Paul Church, Stondon Massey, Essex,
just before the matinee performance of 'William Byrd: His Essex Years'

Stondon Massey’s tribute to the Elizabethan composer, William Byrd, culminated last weekend with a concert by the Writtle Singers at St Peter and St Paul Church (Saturday) and service of favourite hymns (Sunday). The William Byrd Festival was organised by members of the congregation in order to raise money in support of the building of a new Garden of Remembrance in the churchyard where Byrd is believed to have been buried in an unmarked grave in 1623.

Last week one of the congregation visited the church in order to set up the space for a choir rehearsal to find affixed to the door a bunch of flowers with a request to place them on the grave of the ‘English composer’. The flowers were sent by well-wishers from ‘Tom Garrison and the Trinity Choir’ which following a little Internet research turned out to be the Episcopal Cathedral in Kansas City over in the United States of America. Festival Organiser, Andrew Smith, said, “This was a lovely surprise. We were not able to place the flowers on an unmarked grave so instead decided to arrange them on the Memorial Tablet to the great composer inside the church.

Our Festival website (www.williambyrdfestival.blogspot.com) shows that William Byrd is very popular in America with over a third of the hits coming from that country. We have received goodwill messages from many and some lovely comments on the singers who appeared at the Festival”. “The William Byrd Festival has been a tremendous success, both in raising Byrd’s profile and financially. We have raised around £2000 toward the Garden of Remembrance project”.

To read all the details of the festival go to www.williambyrdfestival.blogspot.com

In recognition of a festival that was sadly too far away to attend, Tuesday's programme will open with another beautiful choral work by William Byrd (followed by music from many other concerts which have been missed one way or another):

1605  London     William BYRD    Gradualia: Iustorum Animae  Choir of King's College Cambridge
1691  London          Henry PURCELL           King Arthur                          Crispian Steele Perkins
1716  Venice            Tomaso ALBINONI     Concerto for 2 Oboes           The Handel Players
1718  London          G F HANDEL               Acis & Galatea                      Thomas Hobbs
1763  Salzburg         Michael HAYDN          Concerto for Trumpet            Crispian Steele Perkins
1787  Prague            W A MOZART            Le Nozze di Figaro                Leslie Garrett
1808  Vienna            L Van BEETHOVEN   Fifth Symphony                      Herbert Von Karajan
1840  Leipzig            Robert SCHUMANN  Widmung                               Mary O'Shea
1854  Pennsylvania   Stephen Foster              I Dream of Jeannie                 Gareth Keene
1862  St Petersburg  Giuseppe VERDI          La Forza del Destino              Emma Johnson
1875  Paris               Georges BIZET            Carmen                                  London Festival Orchestra
1888  Paris               Erik SATIE                  Gymnopodie III                      Sir Neville Mariner
1901  Bayreuth         S RACHMANINOV   How Fair this Spot                 Joyce Clarke
1920s Brazil              TRADITIONAL          Serteneja                               Ruth Avis and Clive Betts
1924  New York      George GERSHWIN    Fascinating Rhythm               Crispian Steele Perkins
2003  St Vincent       Klaus BADELT            Blood Ritual                      Hollywood Studio Orchestra
2005  Bristol             Andrew DALDORPH  Full Circle                             Jewels of Jazz
2009  London         Susie HODDER-WILLIAMS  Gigha Quartz                          Music on the Edge

The beautiful quartz outcrops on the balmy Inner Hebridean island of Gigha

Monday, 9 May 2011

Classical Journey Tuesday 10 May

The William Byrd festival, in his home village of Stondon Massey, continues this week. Last Saturday there was a talk on Byrd's life and music by Tudor music expert, Richard Turbet, and a concert of Byrd's music by the Stondon Singers. This Saturday there will be another concert of Byrd's music by the Writtle Singers.
Here in Exeter we can join in the celebration of Byrd's music by listening to the William Byrd Choir:

1. William Byrd: The Marian Masses for 4 voices:
      Suscepimus Deus, Iustitia, Magnus Dominus
2. Purcell: The Indian Queen
3. Handel: Solomon
3. Haydn: St Nicholas Mass
4. Mozart: Divertimento in D
5: Mozart: Flute Quartet
6. Beethoven: Fifth Symphony
7. Mendelssohn: Hear my Prayer
8. Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition
9. Satie: Gymnopedie
10. Elgar: Dream of Gerontius
11. Durufle: Requiem
12. Noble: Midsummer Days
13. Satoh: Incarnation II
14. Goss: Northern Lights
15. Daldorph: Jazz of Life

Late last night 'a listener' wrote in with this great piece about Kirill Karrabits' 'Festival of the Ukraine' at the Cathedral last Thursday. It sounds like it was an amazing evening. What a pity I missed it, but that's another story. Thank you dear listener!

Dear Luch,

Thanks for telling us on your programme about the Bournemouth Symphony special Ukrainian concert on 5th May. My friend and I went and it was WONDERFUL!  We had "St. John's Night on Bare Mountain" by Mussorgsky (orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov) which was very exciting/chilling with all the witchy dancing and Black-Sabbath-y bits (Kirill Karrabits, the conductor, is from the Ukraine himself and told us in the programme that The Bare Mountain is actually a real mountain just outside Kiev).
Then we had an orchestral piece by Lizst (always thought he only wrote for the piano!) called "Mazeppa" which is the story of a real Polish cavalry officer who was punished by being tied to the back of a wild horse and sent galloping off into the Ukrainian steppes.  He ended up there all alone but then some Ukrainians came and made him their leader so finally he was a sort of king.  This had great galloping rhythms at the start, a haunting middle section evoking Mazeppa alone in the steppes and then a triumphal ending.
The third piece was rather weird because it was a concerto for voice and orchestra by Gliere who, despite his name, was also Ukrainian.  The voice was coloratura soprano Ailish Tynan (who is Irish) and the whole point of it was using the voice as a musical instrument rather than in song, so there were no words.  It was bizarre - none of us had heard such a thing before - a bit like a bird singing and sometimes like a woman screaming (coloraturas sing very high) and it ended on an amazingly high top note.  We were sitting at the front of the south side aisle so couldn't really see Ailish, but were told later that this was just as well as she made some extraordinary faces and movements (some perilously close to exposing her ample bosom!)
After the interval we had Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" arranged for orchestra by Ravel and that was brilliant. It's a fab piece with all the different "pictures" (from a real memorial exhibition in 1873 for a painter called Hartmann) involving the orchestra in many changes of tempo, volume and style of playing.  From where we were, behind the double basses and next to the trumpets and trombones, the sound was mighty.  The only problem was that we couldn't see the huge percussion section very well, although we could hear them them playing like demons, so much so that near the end we could actually FEEL the sound vibrating in our chest cavities.  They had timpani,a massive bass drum, huge cymbals, glockenspiel, xylophone and tubular bells, all of which were going like the clappers during "The Great Gates of Kiev".  Wonderful stuff.  We came out of the cathedral on quite a high.  Oh, and during the performance, of course, we had the great treat of being able to see Kirill Karrabits face-on from where we were sitting - he is enthralling to watch with his hand and facial movements - so expressive and so compelling!
That was the last BSO concert in the Cathedral - they'll be back up to the University for the next season.
Thanks again for recommending the concert - and thanks for all your shows,
A Listener

Music for Flute, Strings and Organ at Powderham Castle Friday 6 May

Flute, Strings . . .
Viola Andrew Gillett, Flute Judith Hall
'Cello Vicky Evans, Violin Mary Eade
Funding for the restoration of the 1769 Bryce Seede organ at Powderham Castle is now guaranteed. (Restoration will start next year!) Meanwhile concerts in the James Wyatt music room will continue - so that people can hear the organ, and much other great music besides.
On Friday the Castle was host to an internationally acclaimed flautist, Judith Hall, and members of the Divertimento String Ensemble. Mary Eade, Andrew Gillet and Vicky Evans provided the violin, viola and 'cello respectively.
That's a very interesting combination of instruments, and some composers have written work specifically for it.
The ensemble played us four pieces - faultlessly - and also included were two pieces to show off the (currently only partially restored) Bryce Seede organ. It is worth mentioning that the programme for this event contained the clearest and most succinct notes on each piece that you could hope to see. The author? Curator of the James Wyatt Music Room, and the Bryce Seede organ, George Pratt himself!
the concert opened with a quartet for flute, violin, viola and 'cello by Mozart. Despite having expressed a dislike for the flute (probably in jest), Mozart wrote several of these quartets for his wealthy patron Ferdinand de Jean. He certainly understood the flute. All four instruments had their chance to shine - separately and in combination. All four played superbly and Judith's flute playing was particularly polished, flowing easily and combining perfectly with the other instruments.
Next came the music of Max Reger - without the 'cello this time. As Andrew explained, one unappreciative critic once said that Reger was the only composer whose name sounds the same backwards as forwards - like his music. Others appreciated his forward looking style and after hearing the 'trio' we were persuaded to agree.
. . . and Organ
Curator and Organist George Pratt
The next piece was a set of bagatelles for two violins 'cello and harmonium by Dvořák. (The harmonium is a type of  reed organ which did not exist when the Bryce Seede organ was built. The first true harmonium was not built until seventy years later. But Dvořák's harmonium part is just about enough for the organ to cope with, in its partially restored state.  To play the bagatelles, all the stringed instruments had to be retuned. At the time that the organ was built, pitch had not been standardised, and the organ was tuned noticeably lower than modern pitch. George demonstrated by playing one note on the organ and comparing with Judith's flute (which she was not going to retune!) Awful! However, with the strings retuned the ear soon accepts the lower pitch and we were able to enjoy five lively bagatelles.
'Scherzando' involved crazy 'cello pizzicato contrasted with steady reliable harmonium, 'Menuet' accentuated the soft tone of the harmonium in a theme repeated in different keys. The second scherzando repeated the same tune but was much grander, even spiritual, and the 'cello, plucked gently by Vicky, sounded out like a guitar. The canon involved only  violin (Mary's) and the final bow stroke from Vicky seemed to go on almost indefinitely, and even when it stopped the harmonium continued for quite a while longer. (Being powered by an air-pump, it has limitless sustain.) The final poco allegro involved a different tune and several sweet little intro's by Vicky on her 'cello. After George had brought things softly to a close on the organ it was time for refreshements - in the sumptuous reception  and dining rooms of the castle.
After the interval George fulfilled his side of the restoration bargain. In return for the financial help to restore the organ, he will ensure that it is possible for the public to hear it played at least six times a year. This strictly means after the organ has been restored, but George sees no reason not to show off the organ to the public in the meantime. He surprised us all with an intriguing set of five pieces which Josef Haydn composed for mechanical clock. Written to be played by a clockwork mechanism, they were not constrained by the limitations of human hands. Despite this George did manage to play them - although with some difficulty. He was not helped by the recalcitrance of some of the controls and his need not to overtax the mechanism. Not only were the pieces delightful (and very competently played by George) they also gave us an opportunity to hear the organ played on its own. It is a lovely soft sound. Fully restored, its range will presumably be much greater. There were some worrying rattles from inside the organ, which no doubt convinced the visiting trustees that it definitely did need restoring.
After Geroge's recital there was time for quite a bit more flute and strings. First we heard a wonderful piece which was very specific to our visiting flautist. Judith was the first person to play Panufnic's 'Hommage à Chopin' on the BBC and subsequently commissioned his daughter, Roxanna, to write an arrangement for flute and string trio. Now the quartet really had something to get their teeth into. Judith was in her element, of course, and the other players played equally beautifully. It was wonderful to hear very modern music played in a baroque music room, and feel the span of the intervening centuries. And Panufnic's work is very lovely - a perfect 'homage' to his fellow countryman.
Aspiring young flautist Leonie Jones
gets the chance to discuss her forthcoming
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
placement with an international star
Judith Hall
The concert finished as it began, with a Mozart quartet for flute and strings, just as gorgeous as the first. A very satisfactory concert all together! Then, after the concert the musicians were very happy to meet us all and discuss their work and future plans. Divertimento will continue there collaboration with Judith in a concert next Friday at Bridgetown, Totnes. In a similar vein they will team up with oboist Lynn Collins for a concert this Thursday. George, of course, could answer any questions regarding his pride and joy - The Bryce Seede organ.
Plans are well under way for the restoration of the organ. Two of the sponsors' trustees were at the concert to hear the organ in action. They heard its potential, but also its present limitations. Repairs will start next year. A new work, to have its première on the newly restored organ, will be commissioned for next December. Suggestions for further concerts are welcomed. A repeat of the very popular 'mini Messiah' has already been suggested. Paul Morgan who retired from his job as Cathedral Organist last summer, and is now Organist Emeritus, has offered to play us a Bach organ concerto later in the year.
Long may we hear the sound of the lovely old organ, played in its original home in the James Wyatt Music Room - along with many other instruments and voices besides!

Divertimento Entertainments

Sherwell United Church Plymouth Thursday 12 May 1pm
Oboe Lynn Collins
Violin: Mary Eade
Viola: Andrew Gillett
Cello: Vicky Evans
Oboe Quartets: Mozart, Kromer, JC Bach
Britten's Phantasy Quartet.
Tickets: £6.50 Box 01752 266163 (9.30-12am Mon-Fri)

St John's Church, Bridgetown, Totnes Friday 20 May 7.30pm
Flute: Judith Hall
Violin: Mary Eade
Viola: Andrew Gillett
Cello: Vicky Evans
Flute Quartets: Mozart, Rossini, Reger
Tickets: £12 £10 buy 3 get 1 free (children free)
Box: Totnes Tourist Information 01803 863168
          Divertimento 01803 863677

Join the Divertimento mailing list by contacting Vicky Evans:

Sunday, 8 May 2011

A very major choral work: Elgar's 'Dream of Gerontius' Exeter Chamber Choir & East Devon Choral Society at St Paul's Church Tiverton Saturday 7 May

Conductor of  'Gerontius'
and Director of Exeter Chamber Choir
Andrew Daldorph
Even with the enormous wealth of choral music in Devon there is occasionally an event which surprises everyone. On Saturday night visitors to the modestly sized church of St Paul's in Tiverton would have seen it filled to capacity by a full orchestra, two choirs and and a huge and enthusiastic audience, and would have heard an incredibly powerful and emotional performance of one of the greatest English choral works - 'The Dream of Gerontius' by Sir Edward Elgar.
After several months of preparation the two 'semi-choirs' finally came together in a union that was the sum of their immense individual talents, and much more besides. Under the direction of Andrew Daldorph, Exeter Chamber Choir (Andrew's own outfit) and the choir of East Devon Choral Society had been carefully versed in their respective parts. The combination of the two on Saturday night was not only a demonstration of Andrew's skill at 'remote coordination', but also a tour de force of choral singing, harmony - and choreography. As each section of the two choirs stood up or sat down, or even just raised or lowered their heads, the combined movement was such a big event that it became part of the performance. Andrew had drilled everyone in that as well, so that every movement was blended into, and complemented, the action perfectly.
Chairman of
East Devon Choral Society
1st Bass Martyn Green
And the orchestra - what an orchestra! Brenda Willoughby of the Divertimento Ensemble had been conspicuous by her absence at the organ and flute (!) recital at Powderham Castle the night before, but all became clear as she took her place as leader. Anna Cockroft, regular leader for the Exeter Bach Society, and Julie Hill, regular second violin to Margaret Faultless in 'Devon Baroque', both joined Brenda in the violin section. And in the viola section was none other than Alex West,.familiar to 'Classical Journey' regulars as a pianist and organist, he also plays the violin and the viola! Hilary Boxer led the 'cellos and the clarinets were led by Chris Gradwell. And playing the bass clarinet was another surprise guest -  Chris Caldwell of 'Music on the Edge'. No sign of his wife Susie and her flute on this occasion, but Susie's old pal Victoria Loram was with Chris and Chris as second clarinet. For depth and power Andrew Downton's organ playing, and Jon Cullimore's tuba, were backed up by the virtuoso timpani of Edward Scull, fresh from the recent success of his Marimba recital in Shaldon. And two special performers, who were to prove surprisingly prominent throughout, were Ruth Faber, with her concert harp, and Lucy Randall - playing the contra-bassoon!
Vice-Chairman of EDCS
1st Soprano Sue North
The concert was introduced by the President of the East Devon Choral Society, Frank Rosamond. This concert marked his last appearance as President and he assured us all that he couldn't have asked for a better send-off than Elgar's 'Gerontius'. As Frank explained, Elgar himself, discussing his greatest choral work, quoted John Ruskin's 'Sesame and Lilies'saying:
He would fain set it down forever; engrave it on rock, if he could; saying, "This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank, and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapor and is not; but this I saw and knew: this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory."
The exciting prospect of hearing the two choirs, combined at last, was eclipsed temporarily by the prelude. The first instrument to be heard was the viola. Alex, already well known as a pianist, was superbly under control in the glare of this sudden exposure. In the background he was supported by the bassoons of Andrew Garton and Alan Boxer. As the remaining strings joined in, a series of single penetrating notes could be heard, deep and rasping, from Lucy's contra-bassoon. Visiting timpanist Edward Scull, impressive as he was in dinner jacket and bow tie at that amazing set of four tuned timpani, was very controlled and subtle, adding just the right amount of soft drum sound. Particularly notable was the combined sound of violas, 'cellos and bassoons which was utterly gorgeous and very reminiscent of my own personal favourite - Yo Yo Ma with the Philip Glass Orchestra. i.e. exquisite!
The Boss - Percussionist Edward Scull
After ten blissful minutes of this rapturous music the first soloist took the stage. Iain Milne's tenor voice, as the old man Gerontius himself, was strong as an ox despite calling to Jesus and Mary that he was near to death. But there was no contradiction. Through subtle inflection Iain drew us into his mood of supplication and despair, setting us up for the moment we had all been waiting for. The 'Kyrie Eleison' ('Lord have Mercy') is a standard part of the Catholic Mass and often arranged for chorus, but possibly never quite like this. Even having heard both semi-choirs in rehearsal, I was overcome again when I heard the full harmonisation - and realised that the orchestra were not involved. Both choirs combined seamlessly in an unaccompanied dream of sound which misted up several pairs of glasses around that auditorium! Every singer followed Andrew's prior instructions to the letter as he coaxed the very best from that throng of enchanting voices, singing softly to himself throughout.
The mighty tuba of Jon Cullimore
Into the ensuing void Iain injected more of the words of Gerontius. No confusion now, clearly desolate, he accepts death and prepares to meet his God. Cardinal Newman, the author of the words Elgar used, had a vision of impending death and judgement, as expressed in the poetry, which has a distinctly Catholic ideology behind it. Newman, who had been an Anglican priest for twelve years, converted to Rome in 1847 and wrote his epic poem eighteen years later. With the zeal of a convert he wrote something which has continued to move listeners (regardless of whether they share, or even understand, Newman's beliefs) ever since. And in 1900 Elgar knew he had found, in Newman's poetry, the words he needed for a truly great work.
Moving on from their prayer to the Virgin Mary for intercession, the choir (here playing the part of 'assistants' to Gerontius) pray directly to God for grace. Despite the ppp in the score, Andrew had insisted that they must be audible, and they certainly were. Every word was clear and expressive. "Lord, Deliver Him!"
Leader Brenda Willoughby
Iain took things further with his (partly) Latin aria, 'Sanctus Fortis' ('Holy Mighty One'). This (Catholic) Good Friday prayer of the 'Adoration of the Cross' is usually sung in a setting by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, the defining voice of rennaissance Roman sacred music. With the atmospheric sound of a modern orchestra it becomes something different. At the end of each iteration a gentle drum roll echoes the final word 'Domine' before the return to English and a confirmation of faith in the Creed. At each reprise a new accompaniment took over, brass then woodwind then strings, with startling ricochcet playing - each string player battering the strings with the bow in that rather disturbing way.
The assistants' final plea for clemency, citing the many cases of divine reprieve from individual suffering and peril described in Hebrew Scripture, was soft as down. As each line ended Andrew would press his finger to his lips to discourage any tendency to crescendo. The final harmony was built softly, carefully, ending in an extended and excruciatingly sweet harmony of voices - broken through gently by Iain resigning himself once again to death.
Another leader (but not tonight)
Anna Cockroft
Then a completely new voice. Bass James Arthur, as 'Priest' sends Gerontius on his way to the afterlife. James' voice, incredibly, overpowered even the brass instruments, but gave way to - Ruth's harp!
As the assistants restated his words, with surprising force, the brass sounded out regally - together with that incredible contra-bassoon. Every instrument joined the fray at full power - including Edward's timpani, of course! At the crucial moment the female choristers fell silent perfectly, leaving the men singing alone. And, when the men gave way, Brenda and her violins continued until all that was left was - the harp. As the voices and instruments joined in together for one last time they blended perfectly and held together for apparent eternity, before Andrew let them come to rest.
End of part one.
Owing to the huge number of performers, and the enormous capacity audience, there was no room to serve refreshments during the interval, or to do much else. Nevertheless, for ten minutes people could stretch their legs and have a chat. The first half had been surprisingly short, but the sad demise of Gerontius is not the main theme of the story. His experiences on the way to the afterlife (whether dreamed or actual) take up the longer second half.
and a Devon Baroque violinist
Julie Hill
(flanked by organist Andrew Downton
and harpist Ruth Faber)
That second half opened, like the first, with the violas' sound prominent. 'Cellos and harp added to that sweet sound while Iain, as Gerontius' soul, describes the experience of having died (as Newman imagined it). Waking, as if from sleep, he feels refreshed and at peace.
Now at last we heard the one element that had been missing so far. The mezzo soprano voice of Frances Bourne. Standing imperiously she sang (as 'Angel') in a rich and quivering voice of the completion of the final task of Gerontius' life. He has not only died but been granted grace to enter the kingdom of Heaven. He has passed through the narrow gate. Iain echoed the impression of wonder by singing an aria expressing his recognition of the Angel. She is indeed a spiritual being. Iain and Frances then sang in duet and dialogue. Their voices were perfectly matched and the interplay between the two protagonists convincing and absorbing. But as the interchange reached its conclusion Gerontius seemed anxious, and the Angel confirms that his fears may be justified. Meanwhile Andrew could be seen calling for something big from the orchestra. A surprise was in store.
Surprise violist - Alex West
a very capable pair of hands!
When it came it was a terrible surprise, even for me - and I had been at the rehearsals.
With both choirs working together, and that extraordinary orchestra, Andrew created a terrifying explosion of sound and wrath. The choir were now 'demons'. The initially low and ominous voices of the demons, accompanied by bizarre and disconcerting noises from the orchestra, built rapidly to a roar, dismissing Gerontius as a mere human. What are humans, but base creatures bloated with pride? The assault is aimed not just at Gerontius but at us all. Like any hellfire preacher, Newman is berating us for overestimating our worth - until granted grace, of course. Frances voice, initially appearing to offer the solace of grace, actually reaffirmed what the demons were saying before they began again with a blood-curdling tirade punctuated by sounding brass and demonic laughter. After deriding the vanity of man they returned to the weirdly inarticulate words of their previous aria, "Dispossessed, Aside Thrust, Chucked Down!". I've heard it many times now (from both choirs, and of course we heard it on the 'Journey') but I still can't get to grips with that strange rhythm. Certainly not a tune that 'grows on you'. As the sound degenerated into chaotic clamour, Hilary and the 'cellists could be seen raking the strings of their instruments with their bows. The brief reassuring reappearance of the angel was swept away in a wave of rage. Each successive "Ha Ha!" from the demons was more demonic until, very strangely, the voices softened. The women stopped singing and sat down. Then the tenors. Finally, with the orchestra almost silent, the basses sat down and held their tongues, leaving - Lucy playing the contra-bassoon alone, softly and slowly sinking through the scale to the very deepest note she could manage.
An established favourite,
'Cellist Hilary Boxer
confers with Rebecca Allnatt
(behind them Michael Dawson
and Felicity Maries)
Into the ensuing silence Iain expressed the terrible dread that Gerontius was feeling. He could not see the demons, and did not understand what was going to happen to him. Although Frances' voice sounded reassuring as always, her words were disconcertingly vague. Gerontius would see God, but it would not be an experience of unalloyed pleasure. Gerontius was more perplexed than ever.
As Frances paused before confronting Gerontius with the confusing contradiction of redemption (as conceived by Newman) Andrew pulled off one of the simplest, but most unnerving, effects of the concert. As the angel was about to speak, and all eyes were on Frances, a strange new sound was heard. No more than a rustle with a few squeaks mixed in - it was the entire female section of the choir rising to their feet, but what for? Would they be demons, or would they be assistants?
After a beautiful exposition of Christ's passion by Frances we got our answer.
"Praise to the Holiest!" They were a choir of archangels! The sense of returning hope was almost palpable. Francs interrupted briefly to explain who they were and, as they continued their praises to the accompaniment of the tinkling harp, Frances interjected periodically to explain that we were entering into the 'House of Judgement'.
First Clarinet Chris Gradwell
Excitement mounts. Iain, as the soul, joins in, resigning himself to whatever fate awaits him. But his calm acceptance turns to anxiety as the enormity of the situation dawns on him. His mouth opened wide, singing at full volume, and Frances did likewise (to a celestial harp accompaniment) as she overpowered the orchestra and choir with the news that they were now 'crossing the threshold'.
Second Clarinet Victoria Loram
The archangels repeated their 'Praise to the Holiest' but now they somehow represented that very transition, and shocked us all with the volume and passion of those few words of adulation. As I concentrated on the sound of the choir, I felt a tug on my sleeve. The person sitting next to me was trying to direct my attention to Andrew on the rostrum who, clearly filled with passion himself, was exhorting every member of the orchestra to give everything they could to this crucial moment.
Then softly, and appropriately for a Christian image of Heaven, the choir began their own exposition of Christian belief in redemption. Very reassuring words for any Catholic to hear, as Newman surely intended.
Bass Clarinet Chris Caldwell
After the deadly slow and ponderous final words, 'To suffer and to die", the "Praise to the Holiest" is repeated, not volubly, but in a complex and increasingly passionate fugue, but with occasional bursts of that same mad excitement. The final, additional words, "Most sure in all his ways", was drawn out before suddenly stopping, leaving a pregnant silence.
It surely can't have been planned this way, but into that silence came strange creaks, groans, and snaps which added immeasurably to the tension. With nearly one hundred people in the two choirs there was no way they could all sit perfectly still. Every time one of them moved even a muscle, the folding chair under him or her would complain audibly. Music from the most unlikely source!
and - ranged behind the imposing figure
of Leader Brenda Willoughby -
the great Double Choir
Then as Frances introduced the hour of judgement, Iain hears more voices. They are the voices of penitents praying to Jesus for intercession on behalf of the deceased. Suddenly James, who had been inactive for most of the performance, reanimated his resounding bass voice, as the 'Angel of Agony', for the words of the prayer for intercession. The exhortation, in the name of Jesus' sinless suffering, pleaded clemency - for all lost souls. Edward's timpani and the huge sound of the trombones backed up each line, with Andrew carefully controlling their power at each outburst.
Then, after Iain announced that he was about to face judgement, very softly with a gentle accompaniment of strings and clarinets, ending on a long sustained single note on the organ, the choir repeated the prayer as 'voices on Earth', but the entreaty was now personal: "Spare him Lord - Deliver him." To an excited crescendo from the orchestra Frances finally announced the resolution - his suffering soul is safe!
Conductor congratulates Leader
- and vice-versa!
The end? Not quite. As Frances repeated "Praise to his Name" the woodwind began to increase their volume, and to be joined by brass. Incredibly Iain then begged masochistically to be 'cast down' (as threatened by the demons). In true Catholic penitence he eschews the sin of pride and dismisses himself as worthless - without which admission he can't be redeemed. (Newman's pushing it a bit now!) Instead of Anglican heaven he craves the deferred benefits of purgatory, in preference to a worse fate.
Into the stillness the choir, now as souls in purgatory, confirm the expectation that the sure hope of poor sordid humans (as long as they are good Catholics) is in the salvation 'earned' (if I'm understanding Newman right) through pre-planned suffering, willingly endured. Gently backed up by the 'cellos and timpani, this was where the choir, softly and carefully created the very best harmonies of all. How do they do it? - I've no idea!
Andrew acknowledges three great soloists
Mezzo Soprano Frances Bourne
Tenor Iain Milne
Bass Baritone James Arthur
Now that any non-Catholics were nicely confused, Frances confirmed that Gerontius will indeed be 'dipped into the lake' of purgatory but, although it is a place of suffering, he will be tended by angels while, on Earth, Masses will be held to bring about his day of redemption.
Finally (and this time it really is the end) The choir come in with a very softly delivered message that the 'Elder Race' (sorry, yet another new idea at the last moment - and not a very appealing one) have been favoured by God by being given a preternatural battle to fight - and also the promise of victory. This essential addendum to any Catholic account of resurrection, though confusing and inviting further consideration, was clearly seen by Newman, and Elgar, as the natural and fitting end to Gerontius' story. Certainly the choir made it the most magical time of the whole evening, singing softly under gentle strings and harp, and taking the final amens down and down to end in perfect peace with just Ruth's harp strummed quietly over their last breath.
. . . and the Two Choirs ! !
After all the hard work and preparation, 'The Dream of Gerontius' was an enormously complex and intriguing piece of work, beautifully played and sung, with great feeling, by all the performers. Every instrument, every section of the choir, seemed to have their moment. And each rose to the occasion with extraordinary brilliance. With quite incomprehensible skill and expertise the conductor, Andrew Daldorph, was able to bring all the wonderful elements together into an impressive and coherent whole - which was definitely more even than the sum of its parts. In addition Iain Milne and Frances Bourne, as Gerontius and the Angel, sang faultlessly and wonderfully, both separately and in duet. Despite his lesser part, James Arthur's bass voice also demands equal praise. Lastly the two choral groups, singing as semi-choirs, having practised separately and been brought together only shortly before the performance, harmonised with each other exquisitely. To hear either choir alone is a treat in itself, but together, and singing as perfectly as they did, they transformed that May evening, which was otherwise quite ordinary - and quite rainy - into a voyage of discovery. And, with the church filled, there were plenty there to enjoy it.
Last man standing
An exultant - and exhausted - Edward Scull
wheels out one of his four heavy timpani
And did the audience enjoy it? They certainly did. The audience were ecstatic! Some said they were literally transfixed by the time the final amen sounded - held by the spell of the music and emotion. When they were able to 'untransfix' themselves enough to clap their hands, the applause was long and loud and Andrew Daldorph humbly (as always) accepted our sincere thanks, extending his own appreciation to the soloists, the orchestra - and to that heroic double choir. Bouquets, curtain calls, all were in order. This was a choral concert truly worthy or any amount of acclaim. To everyone involved, thank you and well done!