Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Countertenor James Bowman joins Counterpoint Choir for 'An Evening of Handel' Buckfast Abbey Saturday 13 October 2012

James Bowman
countertenor soloist

Countertenor, James Bowman, started singing as a chorister at Ely Cathedral. He earned a choral scholarship to New College Oxford and continued voice training in London while completing his education diploma and master of arts degree in history. In 1967 he went to London to sing at Westminster Abbey.

James Bowman
choral scholar
Meanwhile, in 1947, Benjamin Britten had left Sadler's Wells to start the 'English Opera Group' with Peter Pears. They opened with the première of Britten's opera 'Albert Herring' at Glyndebourne. Peter Pears played Albert.

(N.B. It just so happens that Michael Rosewell will be conducting the Aurora Orchestra, and English Touring Opera, in Albert Herring at the Exeter Northcott Theatre on Thursday and Saturday this week (25 & 27 October) with Mark Wilde playing the part of Albert . . . see previous post and ETO website.)

In 1948 Britten and his English Opera Group put on the premiere of his opera 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' at the Jubilee Hall Aldeburgh - as part of the very first 'Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts'.

James Bowman is Endimione
Janet Baker is Diana
in Francesco Cavalli's 'La Calisto'
In March 1967 the two stories connect. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II opened the 'Queen Elizabeth Hall' at the South Bank Centre. The first opera was performed by the English Opera Company with a new member invited by Britten himself - James Bowman.

On 2nd June 1967 (the 14th anniversary of her coronation), Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth was in Aldeburgh to open the 20th Aldeburgh Festival - and the newly completed Snape Maltings Concert Hall. Five days later Britten's English Opera Group performed his Midsummer Night's Dream in the new hall. Playing Oberon opposite Margaret Price's Tytania was the group's new countertenor - James Bowman.

Since then James has played operatic roles at venues around the world. In 1970 he was the first countertenor to perform in opera at Glyndebourne - as Endimione in the seventeenth century opera 'La Calisto'.

in 1992 James Bowman
is awarded

'la Médaille d'Honneur
de la Ville de Paris
'
In addition to extensive work in London, James' contribution to the musical life of Paris was particularly appreciated and, in 1992, to mark 25 years of professional work, James was made a member of 'l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' and awarded 'la Médaille d'Honneur de la Ville de Paris'.

In June 1997, 30 years after his first professional performance, James was made a 'Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire' (C.B.E.) in the Queen's Birthday Honours.

On 21st May 2011, James returned to the scene of another of his early successes, Wigmore Hall. (It was at Wigmore Hall in November 1967 that James performed an audition in front of Emmie Tillett and was selected to join David Munrow's 'Early Music Consort'.)
The concert last May was to be James' final London performance. In a double bill with harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, James sang three compositions by Henry Purcell, 'The Queen's Epicedium', 'Fairest Isle' and 'Thrice Happy Lovers' - and as an encore, 'Evening Hymn'.

James Bowman
sings Purcell's 'Evening Hymn'
accompanied by David Davies
Exeter Cathedral 16 June 2012
For audiences in London, that concert marked the end of an extraordinary career. But in Devon  audiences could still enjoy James' singing. Later the same year he sang beautiful renaissance songs with lute accompaniment by lutenist Dorothy Linell at Buckfast Abbey (15th October).

This year, on 16th June, James was at Exeter Cathedral to be received into the 'Fellowship of the Royal School of Church Music' (FRSCM) at the Celebration Day Service. The congregation were treated to another delightful performance by James Bowman accompanied by Exeter Cathedral Assistant Director of Music, David Davies, playing the organ. Once again James delighted everyone with Henry Purcell's 'Evening Hymn'. (David Acres has posted a link to a recording on his facebook page)

Together again
James Bowman and David Davies
at Buckfast Abbey
for 'An Evening of Handel'
Saturday 13 October 2012
On Saturday 13th October this year, James Bowman and David Davies were together again. This time they were at Buckfast Abbey to perform four arias from operas by Handel, with string quartet. David played a chamber organ, while the string section was provided by Vicky Evans' Divertimento Ensemble. Vicky played 'cello while Brenda Willoughby led on violin with Catherine Hayek second violin and Andrew Gillett viola.

Although James was undeniably the star of the show, There was also equally stellar choral singing by David Acres' 'Counterpoint' choir. The whole programme was billed as 'An Evening of Handel' It opened and closed with anthems from Handel's 'Music for the Coronation of King George II'. The main part of the concert was made up of excerpts from Handel's oratorio 'The Messiah' - the perfect complement to James' Handel arias.

Despite the extensive building work which is going on in the Abbey, involving scaffolding, tarpaulins, and harsh temporary strip lighting, the instrumentalists and singers dazzled the audience with their musical brilliance from the very first note.

Counterpoint Choir
and accompanists: The Divertimento Ensemble
lead violin: Brenda Willoughby  2nd violin: Catherine Hayek
viola: Andrew Gillett  'cello: Vicky Evans
organ: David Davies

My Heart is Inditing
From 1710-1712 Handel was kapellmeister to George's father, Prince Georg of Hanover. He then came to England where he was paid £200 a year by Queen Anne until her death two years later. Then Georg became King George I and in, 1717, Handel composed his famous 'Water Music' for the royal procession down the Thames. In 1919 Handel was a founder member the Royal Academy of Music.

In June 1927, George I, on one of his many visits to his native Hanover, suffered a stroke and died a few days later. His son became King and, on 25th October, was crowned King George II. Handel was commissioned to write four anthems for the ceremony, including one to celebrate the coronation of George's wife, Queen Caroline.

For Caroline's coronation, Handel reworked an anthem composed by Henry Purcell for the coronation of James II, 32 years earlier. Purcell had taken the words of Psalm 45 and the Book of Isaiah to create the anthem 'My Heart is Inditing'. The word 'inditing' means 'speaking' but also 'overflowing' - with good things (that I do and say for the King).

conductor: David Acres

The concert began with the sound of the Divertimento string quartet and David Davies playing the organ. The opening instrumental phrases echoed the rhythm of the words 'My Heart is Inditing' while a distinguished figure was seen leaving the bass section on the right of the choir and joining the tenors on the left.

It was Julian Rippon, who joined tenor Edward Woodhouse, Alto Juliet Curnow and soprano Daisy Walford to sing the solo line in four voices. First Julian, then Juliet, sang the opening line before joining in duet. Then suddenly Daisy's soprano voice began the process again, closely followed by Edward's tenor.

bass: Julian Rippon  tenor: Edward Woodhouse
alto: Juliet Curnow  soprano: Daisy Walford
What a start! Those four singers, with their incredibly powerful voices, filled the Abbey with beautiful sound. The full force of the choir then made itself felt, lovingly controlled by musical director, David Acres. The anthem continued through four movements, lasting nearly a quarter hour. During that time all distractions, including dust sheets and strip lights, were forgotten as the sound of the choir commanded everyone's full attention.

There were no trumpets for the final fanfare - just a jubilant concord of exhilarating sound as the choir sang the words of Isaiah chapter 49 - 'Kings shall be your nursing fathers, and Queens your nursing mothers!'. A thrilling close.

(An unfortunate translation, some might think. It's not quite clear why the compilers of the James I Bible imagined fathers nursing. The word used in the original Hebrew is 'amnik' which actually means 'foster fathers'. 'Nursing mothers' is a more faithful translation of 'miniqthik' which means 'wet-nurses'.)

Solomon & Theodora
As the choir retired and filed into the benches of the choir-stalls, a familiar figure made his way to the front of the quire - James Bowman. After a brief introduction, with David Davis playing the bass, and the string quartet providing the treble, James sang a beautiful aria from Handel's oratorio 'Solomon' - continuing the theme of Kings.

James sang Solomon's air from the end of act 1 of 'Solomon', 'What though I trace each herb and flower', which was sung at the première in 1749 by mezzo soprano Caterina Galli. A 'trouser rôle' sung by a man - and in an exquisite countertenor voice. As clear and as enchanting as ever, James' soft tones, sometimes in duet with Vicky's 'cello, expressed the mood perfectly - all the world's beauty cannot compare with the glory of Jehovah.

James then moved on to another of Caterina Galli's Handel opera rôles. In 1749 Handel's was also composing an opera about a Christian martyr, Princess Theodora. At the opening of the opera, Theodora and her companion Irene are at an early morning Christian celebration when they are interrupted by Roman soldiers who order everyone to make votive offerings to Venus for Diocletian's birthday.

Despite the threatened punishments for non-compliance, Irene continues the celebration with the, now famous, aria 'As with rosy steps the morn advancing'. Caterina Galli played Irene in the première of 'Theodora' in 1750. James was as convincing playing Irene as he was playing Solomon. This time the admiration of God's creation being tempered with the defiance of an alternative belief system. Handel - and Caterina Galli herself - would have been impressed by the tenderness and determination of James' delivery.

The Messiah
Then followed nine choruses from Handel's 'Messiah', interrupted only by the interval - and a marvellous recitative by tenor Edward Woodhouse, 'All they that see him, laugh him to scorn' which continues 'They shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying . . . ', before their final chorus mocking, 'He trusted in God, that he would deliver him.'

Highlights of the 'Evening of Handel' included Juliet Curnow's alto voice breaking through the bass in 'And He shall purify', amazing tenor singing in 'His yolk is easy', and the inexorable fugue of 'All we like sheep have gone astray' which really made the most of the powerful bass voices. The altos excelled too with the countertenors impressively audible from the second row.

Saul & Judas Maccabaeus
After all that excitement Brenda muted her violin for something very gentle from the visiting countertenor James Bowman. In soft plaintive tones James, as the prospective King David, begs that the 'fiend' that has possessed King Saul will be brought under control by God, 'O Lord, whose mercies numberless'. For the reprise of each line he managed to interject a series of grace notes as sweet as birdsong - delighting the audience each time.

As his parting gift, James sang 'Father of Heaven' from 'Judas Maccabaeus'. This aria, from Act III, is sung by a priest preparing to dedicate the Temple at Jerusalem to Hebrew worship after two years (167-165 BC) as a Temple to Zeus under the Seleucid King, Antiochus IV. The ceremony was called 'Hanukkah' (Hebrew: 'to dedicate') and is now known as 'The Feast of Lights' - because of the extra illumination brought in for the festival.

For the Lutheran Christian Handel this is a very important moment. Hanukkah has continued as a Jewish winter festival starting each year on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev. Jesus is described, in the John Gospel, as pronouncing himself the 'Good Shepherd' at Hanukkah, and the Christians replaced Hanukkah with 'Christmas' on the nearest equivalent date - 25th December.

The back-story of 'Judas Maccabaeus' parallels 'Theodora'. Antiochus has threatened persecution if Hebrews would not make offerings to Zeus. The story opens with Judah's father Mattathias resisting the edict, not by accepting death, but by killing a Hebrew man who was willing to comply. Then follow two years of guerrilla warfare, continued by Judah after his father dies. Violent conflict, religious fervour, and the enormous historical significance to Jews, Christians and Muslims, are all compressed into this one passionate aria.

The gentle introduction by Vicky's quartet gave way to James' exhilaratingly tender appeal to the Hebrew God to look down with blessing on the preparations 'to solomnise the Feast of Lights'. James' exquisitely sweet voice, and delightful diction, were infused with all the passion implied in the momentous story.

Time stands still, and history is brought close when we hear such beautiful music.

This was James' last performance of the evening and, seventeen months after his official retirement concert at Wigmore Hall, possibly his last major public performance in Devon. What a perfect choice of music, and what an expressive performance, for such a special moment.

Hallelujah & Zadok the Priest
To bring the Abbey back to it's Christian role, and send everyone away with a spring in their step, the Choir then sang three of Handel's best known and most popular choruses - 'Hallelujah' and 'Worthy is the Lamb' from 'The Messiah', and the anthem 'Zadok the Priest' from the coronation of George II. Always thrilling, these choruses were especially moving when performed by the extraordinary voices of Counterpoint choir under the expressive direction of another countertenor - David Acres.

The builders' scaffolding might have obscured the beautiful stonework of the Abbey, but it could not detract from the exceptional beauty of the music that Saturday night. During its twenty five years, the Counterpoint Choir have seen many superb vocalists amongst its ranks, and has always been synonymous with glorious music in Devon. The addition of an honoured international opera star - the wonderfully expressive countertenor, James Bowman - made this a truly memorable evening for everyone - 'an Evening of Handel'.

Counterpoint will be back at the Abbey for their hugely popular Carol Service at 3pm on Saturday 15th December, and will perform another selection of renaissance songs, reflecting 'The Life and Times of Queen Mary I', at 7.30pm on 9th February next year - and even a perfromance of Fauré's Requiem, with the 'Jef le Penven' choir from Britanny, on 10th May. (Details on the Counterpoint website)

James Bowman will now be enjoying his well deserved retirement - or might we hear him sing again some time? Juliet Curnow is taking up her new post in Gloucestershire and will not sing with Counterpoint at their forthcoming concerts. It is hard to express the gratitude that is due to Juliet, who has performed so many parts for so many choral societies, orchestras, and individual events.

One consolation will be that Juliet thinks she will be able to continue with Janet Macdonald's 'Opera Glass' - who could forget her magnificently flirtatious performance of 'Cosi fan Tutte' with Julian Rippon at Poltimore (15 September). We wait with eager anticipation for her next appearance.

And, of course, we look forward to more outstanding choral music from - 'Counterpoint'.

A fond farewell to alto Juliet Curnow
"My Heart is Inditing"
and countertenor James Bowman
"Father of Heaven"

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