Monday, 17 February 2014

QUORUM: Piano, Soprano & Clarinet at Glenorchy Church Exmouth Wednesday 12 February 2014

Soprano: Janet Macdonald
Piano: Margaret Chave
Clarinet: Philip Bonser

What a storm we had on Wednesday. What a fabulous concert the Quorum members served up to take our minds off the tempest.

Quorum comprises pianist Margaret Chave, with soprano Janet Macdonald and clarinettist Philip Bonser. At St Lawrence Chapel in Ashburton, on Sunday 16 March (3pm), they will be joined by another regular member, baritone Iain McDonald.

At Wednesday's Lunchtime Concert at Glenorchy Church, Margaret, Janet and Philip provided forty five minutes of delicious classical (and modern) music. To add to the enjoyment, Janet's husband Peter introduced each item in his inimitable after-dinner style.

Peter Macdonald

Peter Macdonald introduces:

Jimmy McHugh: "It's a Lovely day"
[Andreas Spaeth: "Alpenlied" - omitted]
Ralph Vaughan Williams: "Orpheus with his Lute"
Samuel Barber: "Sure on this Shining NIght
Hubert Parry: " My heart is like a Singing Bird"
Giuseppe Tartini: "Concertini for Clarinet & Strings"
(II Allegro Molto III Adagio IV Allegro Risoluto)
Gabriel Fauré: "Les Berceaux"
Hector Berlioz: "L'Ile Inconnue"
Thomas Dunhill: "Phantasy Suite for Clarinet & Piano"
(I Andante Espressive II Allegretto
     IV Andantino Serioso V Vivace Assai)
Henry Mancini: "Moon River"
Ludwig Spohr: "Zweigesang"
                         "Das Heimliche Lied"

Janet Macdonald

The gentle opening song for voice clarinet & piano, "It's a Lovely Day", belied the weather outside, but suited the sunny mood inside the church.

Sadly this was not followed by the scheduled song, the Alpenlied "Froh, durch blüthenvolle Gründe" (Happy among the Flower Fields) by nineteenth century German composer Andreas Spaeth. Instead Janet sang a seventeenth century song, with twentieth century piano and clarinet accompaniment by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The words were taken from Shakespeare's "Henry VIII". Catherine of Aragon, Henry's first wife, beset by troubles, asks her lady-in-waiting to accompany her song on the lute: "Orpheus with his lute made trees, and the mountain tops that freeze, bow themselves when he did sing."

That song from 1904 was followed by something more 'modern' - from Samuel Barber's 1940 publication "Four Songs", his musical setting of the poem "Descriptions of Elysium" from "Permit Me Voyage" (1934) by James Agee, which Barber called "Sure on this Shining Night".

(Peter couldn't resist mentioning the culmination of this series, the surreal  "I have observed pink monks eating blue raisins" by Filipino poet Jose Garcia Villa, which Barber set to music in 1943. Sadly that little number was not included in Wednesday's programme.)

Finally Janet slipped back in time to 1909, for Sir Hubert Parry's setting of Christina Rossetti's 1862 poem "A Birthday" for Agnes Hamilton Harty: "My Heart is Like a Singing Bird".

Philip Bonser

Margaret's superb piano support continued as Philip took Janet's place on the stage with his clarinet. They had prepared a baroque treat for us.

Margaret and Philip had been working on a very modern version of Tartini's eighteenth century sonatas for clarinet and strings, reworked by twentieth century English composer (and tutor of Malcolm Arnold and Imogen Holst) Gordon Jacob, as a delightful 'Concertino'.

Eschewing the opening Grave, Phil leapt into the liquid legato of the Allegro, flying up the scale to begin each phrase with Margaret echoing on the piano. The gentle and emotive Adagio involved some beautiful and lyrical playing in the high range by Phil, ending with a perfectly sustained final low note. Margaret immediately launched into the lively Allegro Risoluto with its strident clarinet cadenza flying inexorably towards the impassioned final trill.

A thrilling performance by two great musicians.

Margaret Chave

Janet was immediately back in action with the first of Gabriel Fauré's "3 Songs" (Opus 23) composed in 1879 - a setting of the poem "Les Berceaux" by Sully Prudhomme in B flat minor, and in French! There is a strange change in pronunciation when French is sung. "Les femmes pleurent" and "les horizons leurrent" end in an unexpected epenthesis. As Janet had taken pains to prepare a programme with the lyric in full (with English translation) this made a very interesting French lesson - as well as a very sweet song. (The opening notes of which are delightfully echoed in Howard Blake's "Walking in the Air".)

The French lyrics and nautical theme continued with a song from "Les Nuits d'Été" written by Hector Berlioz in 1841. The sixth and last of these settings of poems by Théophile Gautier is "L'Íle Inconnue". Whereas Prudhomme's poetry dwelt on the pain of parting when the ship sails, Gautier is much more upbeat. The emphasis is on excitement and adventure, and the music reflects the contrast.

As Janet withdrew, following her expressive vocal performance, Philip and Margaret had another piano/clarinet duet to share, which was equally expressive. Thomas Dunhill's "Phantasy Suite for Clarinet & Piano" (Opus 91, 1941) opens with a sensual and restful andante espressivo. The allegretto is more playful with the opportunity for a more conversational interaction between the clarinet and the piano. Philip and Margaret skipped over the allegro con fuoco to concentrate on the more intense andantino serioso. Dunhill also composed a second andantino espressivo to conclude the work, but our duettists chose wisely, and ended on a high note with the penultimate movement, the vivace assai. A lively gambol to finish - toot toot!

Next, Margaret and Janet were off to the Oscars - with Henry Mancini's 1961 award winning original song (with lyric by Johnny Mercer) "Moon River" which was sung by Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly in Blake Edwards' "Breakfast at Tiffany's". This was the first Academy success for Mancini. (The film also won him an Oscar for best original score.). (He won again in '62 with "Days of Wine and Roses".)

His most memorable contribution to film music with 'The Pink Panther Theme' which was nominated for best original score in 1963. He was in the nominations throughout the sixties and occasionally in the seventies and eighties, notably with the comic song "Come to Me", with words by Don Black, sung by Tom Jones and Peter Sellers for "The Pink Panther Strikes Again" in 1976. (Think Quasimodo!).

Mancini's final nomination came ten year later, for another Blake Edwards film, "That's Life!" starring Jack Lemon and Julie Andrews. His song "Life in a Looking Glass", with words by Leslie Bricusse, was performed for the closing credits by none other than Tony Bennett. (They lost out to "Top Gun" and 'Berlin' performing the Moroder/Whitlock song "Take My Breath Away". That is life!)

The song is so familiar because Andy Williams adopted it as soon as the film came out. The first few words of his recording were heard every fortnight from 1962 to 1971 on NBC's "The Andy Williams Show" (coincidentally reviving Johnny Mercer's career). Who can forget that crooning voice drawing out each word for his adoring audience.

The story recalls Mercer's youth in Savannah Georgia by the Black River (since renamed 'Moon River' in his honour). He recalls picking huckleberries with his friends and conflates the image with the story of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer living by the Mississippi in Missouri. The imagery is enchanting, conjuring up for the sixties audience a pre-war era of hillbilly existence - or even Mark Twain's 1870s, and for us the sixties themselves.

As the rain poured down outside Glenorchy Church, Janet's choice, "Moon River", (in honour of Valentine's Day) created a haven of peace and tranquility on a busy Wednesday lunchtime. That final haunting note, which usually fades into a continuo of voices and violins, gave way to a gentle coda by Margaret on the piano. Gorgeous.

Finally the whole team regrouped for a closing trio, something with a very different flavour.

Classical composer Ludwig Spohr created "Sechs Lieder für eine Singstimme, Klarinette und Klavier" (Six Songs for Voice, Clarinet and Piano) in 1837. Spohr had been a collaborator with Beethoven ("Ghost Trio") and was opera director at Vienna and Frankfurt, and put on his own opera "Faust". From the age of 38, until his death aged 75, Spohr worked as Director of Music to the Elector of Hesse in Kassel, a post he received on the recommendation of Carl Maria von Weber.

It was in Kassel, at the age of 53, that Spohr composed his Six Songs. The words were by various poets. Janet sang the second song, "Zweigesang" (Duet) from Robert Reinick's "Lieder eines Malers mit Randzeichungen seiner Freunde" (The Songs of a Painter and his friend Randzeichungen), and the fifth, "Das Heimliche Lied" (The Secret Song) by Ernst Koch.

Once again the programme contained the lyric with English translation. Janet's duetting partner was, of course, Philip playing his clarinet. (They have performed other songs from this suite at previous recitals). Philip's gentle bird-like playing perfectly complemented Janet's soprano voice and deft German diction - and Margaret, as ever, nimbly laced the two songs together with her sensitive piano accompaniment.

An interesting contrast to end with, but it worked perfectly. This was a lovely concert. Top marks for choice of songs and what a magical delivery. There certainly seemed to be some sort of magic at work because, as the last song finished the sun burst through the clouds outside - which was refreshing, despite the knowledge that most of the British Isles was now under water!

Many thanks to Janet Macdonald, Margaret Chave and Philip Bonser for all their work - and to Peter Macdonald for his witty and engaging introductions. The team will soon be back in action, as 'The Quorum Quartet', with the addition of baritone Iain McDonald (Minister of Southernhay United Reformed Church in Exeter).

On 16 March, they will be at the fascinating St Lawrence Chapel in Ashburton. The chapel was built for Bishop Stapledon (Founder of Exeter College Oxford) in 1301 and given to Ashburton in 1314 on condition that it would be used to pray for his soul. (He died twelve years later).

The Guild of St Lawrence maintained the chapel and installed a school in the building which later became a grammar school. The grammar school closed, after more than six hundred years, in 1938, but the building was still used as a school until the 1980s. The Guild reformed in 1984 and worked with English Heritage and Dartmoor National Park to restore the building, which retains its historic schoolroom.

The stage, where the schoolmaster stood to deliver his lessons, remains and will be used by the Quorum Quartet on Sunday 16th March. They are planning a delightful afternoon concert at 3pm with more Spohr Lieder, and a reworked version of their trademark ensemble piece, "Shepherd on the Rock" by Franz Schubert. After the concert the Guild members provide exceedingly good home-made cakes in the junior classroom, and there will be an opportunity to explore this exciting listed building.

St Lawrence Chapel Ashburton

700th Anniversary Celebrations
(St Lawrence Chapel granted to  Ashburton by Bishop Stapledon 1314)
St Lawrence Chapel Ashburton
Sunday 16 March 3pm
Piano: Margaret Chave
Clarinet: Philip Bonser
Soprano: Janet Macdonald
Baritone: Iain McDonald
Franz Schubert: Shepherd on the Rock
Ludwig Spohn: Lieder
Followed by afternoon tea and cakes
Tickets: £7
01364 653414 11am-4pm Mon-Fri
Proceeds towards restoration of the
St Lawrence Chapel Tower

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