City break

One of the things I have most missed since leaving London has been the Spitalfields Winter Festival, with its unique blend of absolutely top-notch concerts, community events and a seasonal atmosphere that is full of warmth and good cheer, yet gives the briefest of nods towards Christmas itself. So this year I decided to combine a couple of social events with a whistle-stop visit to the festival, fitting four performances into a little over 24 hours.

The geographical focus of Spitalfields Music’s summer and winter festivals has been edging northwards over the past few years, with an increasing number of events taking place in and around St Leonard’s, Shoreditch rather than in the festival’s original venue, Christ Church, Spitalfields. The late Richard Hickox started putting on concerts in crumbling, freezing Christ Church as part of the campaign to save Nicholas Hawksmoor’s masterpiece from destruction, but now that it has been gloriously restored it is no longer such an appropriate venue for a festival that has accessibility in its DNA. The restoration of St Leonard’s – location for the TV series Rev – is still very much a work-in-progress, so it feels more like Christ Church used to; to quote the church’s website: ‘Shoreditch Church has always been committed to its community. (When the Spanish Armada was coming up the channel, the church was giving out bread and coal to poor people.) So when it was recently rebuilt, a large amount of money was spent on its community needs and no funds were left to buy paint. Hence it still looks a bit sad and tatty.’ However it has a wonderful acoustic and a long history that includes associations with some of the most famous actors of the Elizabethan era.

The area around St Leonard’s, where Hoxton and Hackney meet the City,  juxtaposes the wealth of  banks and stockbrokers, the cutting edge of the art and club music scenes and some of the most impoverished communities in London. P1090253The first Spitalfields Festival event I went to this year took place at Rivington Place,  a modern, purpose-built gallery in a narrow street just across Shoreditch High Street from St Leonard’s. IMG_1210With a running time of around 40 minutes, Remember Me: A Desk Opera was performed eight times over two nights to no more than 20 people, who assembled in the venue’s foyer before being greeted by composer/writer/performer Claudia Molitor and invited to step in to a white box studio space. We stood to watch a short, impressionistic film before being escorted to three rows of seats arranged in front of the desk of the event’s title. This became a stage for the rest of her performance, which was more art installation than concert, involving gestures, assorted items being placed slowly and delicately in and around the desk, a variety of amplified sound effects and only the most fragmentary music. There are images on the Spitalfields Music blog here  if you want to have a look.

Distribution to the audience of tiny pieces of rose-perfumed Turkish Delight added taste and fragrance to the sensory experience and for me evoked a compelling image of the Presbyterian seated sharing of Communion. Described in the festival brochure as an immersive journey into an imaginary world,  inspired by a desk that Molitor inherited from her grandmother, Remember Me drew on the stories of Dido, Eurydice and Cinderella, but the themes were never developed into an explicit narrative and the experience concluded as impressionistically as it had begun. One by one we received a whispered message from Molitor which was our cue to leave. Everyone had obeyed the request not to speak at all for the duration of the performance and it was difficult to speak afterwards; I’ve no idea what it all meant, but the atmosphere was enthralling.

Then it was down Bishopsgate at a brisk pace and across Spitalfields Market to Commercial Street and the next event – Toynbee: Fragments of Other Lives and Times – a ‘performance installation’  by Geraldine Pilgrim taking place around Toynbee Hall and Toynbee Studios, commissioned by ‘arts lab’ Artsadmin, which is based in Toynbee Studios, in partnership with Spitalfields Music and Toynbee Hall. This took the form of a guided walk through the two adjoining buildings, in even smaller groups of just ten people at a time, setting off 15 minutes apart from the box office a few doors further down Commercial Street.

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Toynbee Hall describes itself today as a community organisation that pioneers ways of reducing poverty and discrimination in the east End of London, particularly in its own borough of Tower Hamlets. Resident and non-resident volunteers work with local people to identify and deliver the services they need to improve their lives and help them take action on community issues. The settlement was founded in 1884 by Samuel Barnett, a Church of England curate, and his wife Henrietta as a place where future leaders, many of them students at Oxford or Cambridge, could live and work as volunteers among some of London’s poorest communities. The Barnetts’ vision was that this would bringing their privileged volunteers face to face with poverty and give them the opportunity to develop practical solutions that they could take with them into national life.  Many of the individuals who came to Toynbee Hall as young men and women – including Clement Attlee, William Beveridge and Pierre de Coubertin, pioneer of the modern Olympic movement – went on to bring about radical social change and maintain a lifelong connection with Toynbee Hall.The former Tory cabinet minister John Profumo came to Toynbee Hall as a volunteer in 1963 after the scandal surrounding his relationship with Christine Keeler, and continued to work tirelessly for the organisation until his death in 2006.

Geraldine Pilgrim’s installation took the form of a series of vignettes reflecting this and many other aspects of the history of the settlement itself and the adjoining studios, housed in a 1930s extension to the original (though bomb-damaged and rebuilt) Arts and Crafts main building. Outside in the split-level courtyard garden a collection of Salvation Army instruments and a recording of hymn tunes played by a similar brass ensemble set the scene. We were taken first to a small archive room where photos and memorabilia were displayed, including some of the very small quantity of letters and account books that survived the WW2 destruction. Then we passed down a narrow corridor past brown-overalled staff loading   packages into a service lift, through a large, elegant drawing room where a pianist in a silvery-white gown played Chopin… the panelled lecture hall where a group of bankers appeared to be having a marketing meeting… and so on up stairs and down, along passageways, up and down stairs, inside and out through one tableau vivant after another. Characters in the impressionistic drama flitted ahead of us down staircases or were glimpsed through half-open doors. A case was in progress in the courtroom – petty theft, perhaps? We eavesdropped on a rehearsal in one auditorium, then found ourselves processing along the back of the stage in another during a performance of ‘Three Little Maids from School’. One minute we seemed to be in a life-drawing class, another in a corner of an old-fashioned hospital ward. Several string players, a flautist and a cabaret singer serenaded us in the narrow passageways of the studio building.

One room represented the destruction of the WW2 air raids – we picked our way through smashed crockery, overturned furniture and plaster dust and were led into a tiny room about the size of an air raid shelter, floored with bright green artificial glass and with a pattern of tiny stars on the ceiling. The door closed and we were left in total darkness for a couple of minutes before another door opened and we emerged into the brilliant whiteness of a modern dance studio where an energetic fitness session was in progress. Round a corner, and instead of young people in vests, track pants and sweat bands we encountered an elderly couple in Edwardian or 1920s ballroom attire waltzing contently around another studio space.

Other characters flitted in and out of our vision, entering or emerging from lifts, preceding us up or down stairs, vanishing round corners: a bride and groom; a courier; 60s office girls in natty little suits. There were hints at the many-layered culture of the area: references to the match girls’ strike at the Bryant & May factory, to the rag trade and to the bagel bakeries and Indian restaurants of nearby Brick Lane.

Eventually we found ourselves in a cafe-bar and gradually realised this was the end of our tour. But the performance wasn’t quite over yet; a courier arrived and each of us was summoned to receive ‘A delivery for…’ This turned out to be a brown envelope containing a luggage label and a tiny double-sided map, with Charles Booth’s 1898-99 ‘poverty’ map showing the demographic of the area on one side and a modern A-Z on the reverse. Then we were free to order drinks, relax and digest the experience before heading out into the chilly night.

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An extra frisson was added by the fact that my group included Vicky Pryce, former wife of politician Chris Huhne and recently released from prison following her involvement in his attempt to avoid conviction for speeding by claiming she’d been driving his car when an offence took place. She was with friends and we all obeyed the instruction not to speak during the walk so the fact that a character from a contemporary political scandal, albeit one on a rather smaller scale than the Profumo-Keeler affair, was among us went completely unacknowledged. And I was able to add my own point of historical reference as Toynbee Hall was where several years ago I chaired a pre-concert talk with the artistic team that produced Spitalfields Festival’s community opera On Spital Fields, including composer Jonathan Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton, my first experience of such a role.

Groups of participants in the various dramas were also sitting around in the bar, some possibly still in role, others definitely off duty and waiting for their next performance. From snippets of their conversations it was evident that choreographing and timing all the scenes had been quite challenging but the effect was wonderful – atmospheric and evocative and provoking all sorts of responses.

P1090286P1090298Next morning London was bathed in sunshine filtered through an unusually low-lying, gauzy fog, producing some extraordinary effects that enhanced my walk from Liverpool Street Station through Spitalfields and Shoreditch to Rich Mix, the community arts centre where the next event took place. Dropping in on the way to Christ Church, to check on the progress of its organ restoration, I was welcomed on the doorstep by the Rector and encouraged to join the church primary school’s Christmas Carol Service.

P1090307After many years of attending concerts and talks in Christ Church, first in its dilapidated state before the church restoration and then in its current gold-and-white glory, it was wonderful to see it being used for its original purpose. IMG_1223 But here too the layers of memory, community and identity were surreally blurred, not only by the fact that the children taking part in the service were around 98% Asian, with just a handful of African or West Indian and three or four white faces among them but by the fact that the service was being led by an assistant curate with a strong Northern Irish accent who preached the sort of evangelical children’s sermon that was a regular feature of my childhood in such a very different place.

P1090350On to Rich Mix, and ‘Musical Rumpus: Mudlark Dances’, an example of Spitalfields Music’s work with the very youngest members of its local community. This was presented by musicians from the Genesis Sixteen singers’ training programme and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s OAE Experience, for 0-2-year-olds. The children arrived in their buggies with their parents and carers in a large, darkened studio where a gentle drama was already beginning in a spotlit stage area surrounded by benches.

P1090354As the audience gathered round and settled, the central character – the mudlark, sung by tenor Tom Kelly – was moving quietly around the space, interacting with the babies, blowing and catching bubbles, responding to their gestures of delight and showing them some of the small percussion instruments and a few items of kitchen ware that were strewn around. Crouching in an old oil drum was soprano Molly Alexander, who played a magpie and a robin. Violinist Anna Curzon, cellist Sam Glazer and theorbo player Toby Carr made up the ‘Bullrush Orchestra’, providing a soundtrack to the action with the help of a few percussion instruments. A story gradually unfolded involving the mudlark and the magpie searching for treasures along the banks of the Thames, but what made it different from most toddler music sessions was that the ‘score’ was entirely constructed from the music of Monteverdi. This worked brilliantly, taking us aurally into another world. P1090359The performance was also notable for the skill of the young singers in coping with the unpredictable interventions of the more inquisitive toddlers and also with the fearful reactions of one or two who were less comfortable with being sung to or invited to touch a waving coloured scarf or shake a set of bells. There were about 50 children and babies in the audience and the performance lasted around 50 minutes, yet because the event was so well set up and delivered, the atmosphere was extraordinarily peaceful. As with the previous day’s performances, I felt that I had been drawn into a magical experience.

Finally, that evening, a very different audience assembled in St Leonard’s Church for the first concert in the Hilliard Ensemble’s year-long farewell tour marking their 40th anniversary and the end of their distinguished career as one of the world’s leading vocal consorts; they plan to retire after their final concert on 20 December this year. I’ll try to do a separate blog about the Hilliards at a later date, as this one is already quite long enough; suffice to say for now that you can read my article about them in the January/February issue of Choir & Organ magazine ( ). For the Spitalfields Winter Festival concert, the current line-up of David James, Steven Harrold, Rogers Covey-Crump and Gordon Jones was joined by former members Paul Elliott, John Nixon, John Potter and Errol Girdlestone. Only Paul Hillard was missing, due to his prior commitment to the high-profile relaunch and rebranding in Dublin of Chamber Choir Ireland, which he directs.

The first half of the Hilliards’ programme began with the early 13th-century composer Perotin’s Viderunt omnes, a real calling card for the ensemble, and was built around the great plainsong ‘O Antiphons’ for Advent, interspersed with sections of Victoria’s Magnificat secundi toni. The second half featured music by British composers, from the anonymous 15th-century ‘Lullay lullow’ and ‘There is no rose’ through Byrd and Sheppard to Britten’s Canticle IV ‘Journey of the Magi’, with Errol Girdlestone playing the piano, and a substantial new work by Roger Marsh, ‘Poor Yorick’, a setting of a text from Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy which is dedicated to ‘The Hilliard Ensemble and Friends’ and brought all the singers together to reflect ‘on the vanity of the world and the swift passing of time’.


Thanks to my friends at Spitalfields Music for the ringside seat that enabled me to have a privileged view of this memorable performance, and for their usual warm hospitality. Very much appreciated. They are already gearing up for the summer festival which takes place in June; check out their plans here:


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Messiah time

For the past three Mondays we have been rehearsing Handel’s Messiah with Hereford Choral Society, in three different venues: our usual bright, spacious but low-ceilinged rehearsal room in the  Zimmerman Building of Hereford Cathedral School, tightly packed into St John’s Methodist Church due to a diary clash, and in the cathedral. The fact that it sounds and feels so different in each is just one of the challenges we face in preparing for Saturday’s performance in such a short time, although it is of course much easier and vastly better-known than the B Minor Mass which we performed last month. A few minutes in to our first rehearsal those who had never sung the work before were invited to identify themselves, and as usual there were a handful of novices, but the annual pre-Christmas performance has been an HCS tradition for many years, so note-bashing is unnecessary, and some people even pride themselves on singing it virtually from memory. Nevertheless, there are pitfalls aplenty.

The first arises from the fact that for the past couple of years we’ve been using the new Oxford University Press edition of the score, edited by Clifford Bartlett.Scan Its aim is to reflect contemporary ideas about period performance practice by sticking as close as possible to the original sources, but with the minimum of instructions – there are no dynamic markings, for example – so that the director and performers are free to work out their own interpretation. The vocal edition is very clear, with much larger print than the Prout and Watkins Shaw editions with which most of us are familiar, and is certainly much easier to read in a candle-lit performance such as ours on Saturday will be (though we will have some spot-lighting for the choir and orchestra). But after years of using the old editions it is quite disconcerting to switch to one that is laid out completely differently, especially with so few rehearsals in which to get used to it  – knowing the work well, one doesn’t often look at the music, but that means it’s all the more important to be able to glance quickly at tricky passages as they fly by. And I wonder if anyone has been more diligent than I am, and transferred their own personal road signs to their new scores – things like ‘THINK!’ and a reminder that the chorus sopranos enter on an A natural immediately over the page at the end of the alto aria ‘O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion’; and  ‘count, don’t wait’ (to hear the alto entry on the up beat)  at the transition to the second section of ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs’.

MessiahProutMessiah is another of the works that I first performed at university in St Andrews, though I can’t remember much about that performance. Not long after moving to London I sang in a performance with the Fulham & Hammersmith Choral Society in Fulham Town Hall; it probably wasn’t terribly good, but the choir was very friendly and it was one of the last performances to be directed by a long-standing conductor before his retirement, so I recollect it as an enjoyable experience. By the following year I had joined the Alexandra Choir, based in Central London and conducted by David Hill, now chief conductor of the BBC Singers and artistic director of the Bach Choir. In those days he was still commuting from a postgraduate job at Durham Cathedral for Alexandra Choir rehearsals. It was obvious that he was a really good conductor, and I was very proud to have passed an audition with him, but the average age of the choir was very high and many of the elderly members were not keen to accept David’s direction – I remember in particular how they simply wouldn’t alter their habitual seating arrangements when he wanted to move people around to get a better distribution of voices.

The Alexandra Choir Messiah, at St John’s Smith Square, was my first encounter with the Watkins Shaw edition of the score, Messiah WatkinsShawwhich has a lot more editorial markings with regard to ornamentation and textual variations than Prout, particularly in the solo recitatives and arias. Period performance practice was in its infancy, and the main thing I remember about this concert was that each of the four soloists had a different idea about how their part should be sung. One stuck resolutely to the old-fashioned no-frills Prout version while the other three employed varying degrees of embellishment, resulting in a performance that was far from coherent. That did tend to happen quite a lot in the 80s – these days there seems to be much more consensus about baroque style.

Neither David Hill nor I stayed long with the Alexandra Choir, but after meeting my husband (another David) I was introduced to the much smaller group that got together at Christmas and Easter to augment the choir of St Mary’s Church, Bryanston Square for performances of Messiah and the St Matthew Passion. I have such fond memories of these concerts, partly because the standard of singing was much higher than I’d been used to but also because of their atmosphere. It was my first real experience of performances that were part of a church’s liturgical programme and hence had a sense of worship, enhanced by the intimacy of the setting. ????????????????????????St Mary’s, a beautiful Georgian building designed by Robert Smirke, architect of the British Museum, is in Marylebone, not far from Baker Street. It has now been restored, modernised and reinvented as the home of a charismatic church, but 30 years ago it was cold, dark and in a very poor state of repair, with a dwindling Anglican congregation. Its music tradition was very strong, however, with a good four-part robed choir including a few choristers, and the concerts attracted large audiences. They were conducted by the church organist, the late Brian Blackwood, a very gifted musician who was also on the staff of Trinity College of Music, then based nearby in Mandeville Place. At around the time when I started singing for him he had famously been arrested for being drunk and disorderly in the street outside the church, on his way home from the pub on the other side of York Street, but conducted his own defence in court and managed to get off on the technicality that when the police spoke to him he was actually inside his own house. Some years later he was sacked by the church after one argument too many with the rector – and one too many irreverent post-Evensong voluntary – and moved to the South Coast. he died far too young after suffering a heart attack on the organ bench of a church in Britanny, while leading a tour for organ enthusiasts. Appropriately, however,  he had just played the ‘Carillon de Westminster’ by one of his musical heroes, Louis Vierne, who also died on the organ bench.

Although I have such vivid and happy memories of singing for Brian and learned a huge amount from the experience, the St Mary’s Messiah that stands out most clearly for me is one I didn’t actually sing in or even attend. It was on 8th December 1984, and I attended the rehearsals for it up to the previous weekend despite being eight months pregnant – my due date was 18th December, so I had hoped to get through to do my last concert before babysitting became an issue. But after a particularly energetic penultimate rehearsal the previous Saturday I went into labour early, and spent the concert night on the other side of the Edgware Road in St Mary’s Hospital with my new baby son. David, however, did do the performance and my mother, over from Northern Ireland for an unexpected pre-Christmas visit to meet the new arrival, was able to be in the audience.

Scan 2 Then there was a gap until 1992, when our son Alexander became a chorister at St Paul’s Cathedral and David and I joined the Cathedral Chorus – we’re all probably in the photo on the left which dates from our era. The chorus rehearsed very thoroughly every Tuesday from September to December for the annual performances, which were also of course part of a liturgical programme but on a very much larger scale in every way than at St Mary’s. Director of Music John Scott’s meticulous instructions about note lengths, articulation and underlay (how the words fit with the notes) are the ones that are etched most firmly in my mind; we used the Prout edition and speeds were slow by modern standards because of the acoustic effect of the nine-second echo in St Paul’s. Soloists were chosen from the cathedral choir, with different alto, tenor and bass vicars choral getting their turn each year and the soprano arias usually shared out for each performance between different senior boys. For the chorister parents in the cathedral chorus it was a real thrill to get the chance for once to sing alongside the boys – sometimes literally, as in their last year efforts would be made with the seating to put soprano mums next to our sons. I know I also sang in a few complete performances of the work with other choirs during my years in London – including a couple in Christmas week itself in St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square, which were memorable for the sheer exuberance of the audience, packed into every last inch of pew space with their Christmas shopping squeezed in at their feet, and clearing loving every note. But when I hear the distinctive first phrases of the Sinfonie that opens the work I’m always taken back in the first instance to St Paul’s, and the unique atmosphere of those six Messiah performances that we were lucky enough to take part in there with the City of London Sinfonia under John Scott’s direction. They were very special indeed.

In Alex’s last year, 1997, a lavish Christmas concert was recorded for television, directed by Humphrey Burton and broadcast on Christmas Day. It didn’t include the chorus but it did include a couple of choruses from Messiah, including ‘Glory to God’. A good way to sign off this post, I think. Alex is on the extreme left of the second row of choristers, wearing the yellow and blue-ribboned medal of the Girdlers’ Company. Future England cricket captain Alastair Cook is also easily recognisable, and in one of life’s satisfying symmetries there’s also a glimpse or two of Gwilym Bowen, a few years younger than Alex and Alastair, whose father Geraint will be conducting the performance that we are singing in tomorrow in Hereford.

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Britten 100

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Happy Birthday Benjamin

The world and his wife were in Suffolk last weekend celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten’s birth on St Cecilia’s Day, 22 November, in Lowestoft. BBC Radio 3 moved its entire broadcasting operation to Aldeburgh for two days of live and recorded performances of Britten’s music and chats about his life and work. The results have been packaged here: and you can read Aldeburgh resident Humphrey Burton’s diary of attending every local live event here:

I went further north to Norfolk, for two events at Britten’s old school, Gresham’s, in Holt. Britten only attended the school for two years, arriving at 14 from a day prep school in Lowestoft, and leaving at 16 with a major scholarship to the Royal College of Music in London, but during his time at Gresham’s he wrote no fewer than 160 pieces, mainly songs or works for violin, viola and/or piano. They include two real gems: the song for treble or soprano voice The Birds, written in 1929 and dedicated to the composer’s mother; and the Hymn to the Virgin, for SATB choir and SATB quartet, the last of his Gresham’s compositions, written in July 1930 and performed in January of the following year in Lowestoft Parish Church. Britten’s chronic ill health meant that much of his time at Gresham’s was spent in the sick bay of his boarding house, Farfield; but this gave him valuable time by himself to compose.

Farfield, Britten's boarding house at Gresham's

Farfield, Britten’s boarding house at Gresham’s

Tony Britten (no relation), whose drama-documentary Peace and Conflict, about the influence of the school on Britten’s life, was released earlier this year, believes that he wasn’t really as unhappy as his meticulously-kept diaries have led biographers to think; he was simply itching to spend all his time on music. He was certainly intolerant of the conservative attitudes of the Head of Music, Walter Greatorex, and of the limited instrumental skills of most of his fellow-students and the staff who played in the school orchestra; but the seeds of his pacifism and his liberal political attitudes seem to have been sown at Gresham’s, which was famous for radical thinking. Among Britten’s contemporaries were a group of active Communists including the Soviet spy Donald Maclean.

In later life Britten claimed to remember his time at Gresham’s with great affection, and he returned with Peter Pears in 1964 to give a recital for the Concert Society. The school is rightly proud of its famous pupil – as it is of many other Old Greshamians who have gone on to make their names, including the poets Stephen Spender and W H Auden, composer Lennox Berkeley and most recently the actress Olivia Colman. The centenary weekend marked the end of a year-long Britten at Gresham’s Festival, highlights of which have been music workshops for local schools, a residential summer music course, exhibitions of Britten memorabilia and a talk by his nephew and performances of numerous works including Noye’s Fludde and, remarkably, the War Requiem, an extraordinary undertaking for a school.

During the course of the year Old Greshamian Tom Appleton was appointed to the permanent (though part-time) post of Music Outreach Director, tasked with strengthening the school’s relationship with the local community and beyond. A member of the Monteverdi Choir, he is also a choral conductor and a former chorister of St Paul’s Cathedral. He was a contemporary of my son and our paths have crossed from time to time since, which is how I came to be invited to Saturday’s Britten Centenary Dinner at Gresham’s.

But I made sure I arrived the previous day in time for the birthday itself and a very special performance of Britten’s song cycle Friday Afternoons, by children from Gresham’s Prep and six North Norfolk primary schools: Blakeney, Burnham market, Corpusty, Hindringham, Kelling and Walsingham. This was part of a much larger project initiated by Aldeburgh Music and originally intended to go no further than Suffolk; but it rapidly expanded to involve 100,000 children all over the world, thanks largely to the inspirational leadership of another old friend and former colleague of mine, Ann Barkway, and the education team at Aldeburgh, who persuaded the BBC, Glyndebourne, the CBSO, Scottish opera and countless other ensembles and institutions to join in. The set of 12 songs was commissioned by Britten’s brother Robert for his prep school in Prestatyn, North Wales, where they always had singing on Friday afternoons, but had run out of enjoyable yet challenging material. Britten obliged with Friday Afternoons. What made the songs particularly suitable to be performed in honour of his centenary was that his birthday this year actually fell on a Friday. There are videos of some of the worldwide performances on the Friday Afternoons website here


Tom Appleton conducting ‘Old Abram Brown’

Not all the Norfolk primary schoolchildren who had taken part in preliminary workshops led by Tom Appleton could come to Gresham’s in person, but each school sent a small group of representatives to join Gresham’s Prep for a ‘big screen’ event in the school’s Auden Theatre. We watched performances of most of the songs which had been filmed a week or so previously in the schools or in a neighbouring arts venue. One recording turned out not to have worked, so the three children from the relevant school joined Tom on stage to sing their song in person; and two of the songs were performed live by Gresham’s Prep. Finally all the children present gathered on the stage to learn ‘Old Abram Brown’ from scratch, with the audience roped in to provide the fifth part in the round. Piano accompaniments where necessary were provided by Nathan Waring, Head of Music at Gresham’s Prep and clearly a driving force behind the centenary festival, and the school’s commemorative bust of Britten looked on from the side of the stage.


Gresham’s Chapel

Afterwards Tom gave me a short tour of some of the school buildings and beautiful grounds, which include an outdoor theatre hidden in the woods. The chapel was completed in 1912 so would still have been relatively new in Britten’s day – looking at the names of the enormous number of OGs who perished in the First World War carved into the backs of the pews, it’s not hard to imagine the impression that the still-raw grief of the community would have made on him, and how that as well as his own observations of WWII would have influenced the War Requiem. Many of the school buildings appear to be little changed since 1930, at least externally, but the one significant difference that is immediately obvious is that Gresham’s is now fully co-educational.

Britten features on this honours board...

Britten features on this honours board…

The centenary dinner on Saturday evening was held in the main assembly hall or ‘Big School’, where we were surrounded by honours boards naming Britten and countless alumnae not only for leaving scholarships but for awards in later life such as knighthoods and peerages. A new Grace featuring Britten’s  EBB initials and also those of Peter Pears in acrostic form had been written for the occasion by the school chaplain, set to music by Nathan Waring, and was performed by the head boy and girl from the school choir, accompanied by Director of Music Mark Jones. The most unexpected aspect of the meal was that the menu consisted of Britten’s favourite dishes, delicious but redolent of a bygone era: kedgeree; steak and ale suet pudding with mash; and queen of puddings with custard.

... in 'Big School'

… in ‘Big School’

Singer Nigel Douglas spoke eloquently of his working relationship with Britten, recalling very movingly how he alternated with Pears in the role of Aschenbach in Death in Venice, and ahead of the second performance received a handwritten note from the composer, himself very ill, wishing him luck, apologising for not being strong enough after the tiring first night to come to the performance, but hoping to see him later in the run. Composer Robert Saxton had brought photocopies of the letters written by Britten in response to scores that Saxton had sent him as a very young boy. From the elder statesman’s tactful, avuncular replies we could guess why Saxton says he is too embarrassed to look at his own side of the correspondence, though he knows his letters are in the archive at Aldeburgh, but of course the references to the minutiae of his school and family life will have appealed to the side of Britten’s nature that never grew up. On the subject of composition, however, he was an exacting tutor, and Saxton expressed his enormous gratitude for insights and encouragement that set him on the right path at an early and impressionable age.

The selection of songs performed by Tom Appleton and Mark Jones that concluded the evening gave us a snapshot of the range of Britten’s style, and provided the first opportunity for one member of the audience to hear a song which was dedicated to his grandfather, the school doctor in Britten’s day. The manuscript had been in his family for years and has now been presented to Gresham’s.

Yesterday there was an exciting postscript to the Britten at Gresham’s Festival. The manuscript of another song dating from Britten’s time at the school, a setting of Tennyson’s ‘Lilian’, came up for auction at Sotheby’s and Tom Appleton was sent off to London with authorisation to bid for it, using funds raised by an appeal to OGs and others. He successfully secured it for £5,625 and it will join the other Britten memorabilia in the school’s archive.

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Song City reposted

Oops! This disappeared for some reason so hope reposting it will be successful. Sorry I’m still getting the hang of the technological side of blogging.

No doubt there will be much discussion as 2013 draws to a close of the legacy of Derry-Londonderry’s year as the first UK City of Culture. Last month I attended the inaugural City of Derry International Choral Festival, which was launched under the City of Culture banner but seems certain to continue independently. It has been a glint in the eye of artistic director Dónal Doherty ever since he started bringing choirs to the Cork International Choral Festival almost 30 years ago; subsequent visits to other European festivals strengthened his determination to create something similar in Derry and the City of Culture year was the perfect launch pad for an event that has been very thoroughly planned.

Craigavon Bridge, St Columb's Cathedral and the old city of Derry looking across the Foyle from Waterside station

Craigavon Bridge, St Columb’s Cathedral and the old city of Derry looking across the Foyle from Waterside station

The Guildhall, River Foyle and Peace Bridge, Derry

The Guildhall, River Foyle and Peace Bridge, Derry

My own experience of competitive choral festivals is limited to the BBC Choir of the Year Competition, which I’ve been reporting on for many years, and attending a couple of youth choir sessions at last year’s competition in Bangor, County Down, which is on a much smaller scale with very few choirs attending from outside the immediate area. I don’t have much of a standard of comparison between what happened in Derry and similar events. But the quantity, quality and variety of performances that took place over the four days were very impressive; and the consensus from the experienced panel of judges – Ragnar Rasmussen from Norway and Peter Broadbent and David Lawrence from England – and from the visiting choirs and their conductors was that CODIChoral, as the organisers refer to it, had got off to a flying start. They all commented that it was extraordinary that so many of the ingredients of a successful festival were already in place in a new event.

What struck me forcefully as an observer was the fact that CODIChoral had managed to draw in so many sections of the local community as performers, while offering them completely new experiences through listening to so many choirs from further afield.

Derry has a reputation as a ‘City of Song’ that goes back for generations. The first opera house in Ulster, and only the second in Ireland, was opened in the city in 1877; there is a long tradition of choral singing; and Derry-born artists from Josef Locke to The Undertones have made international reputations. Dónal Doherty is the city’s undisputed current champion of choral singing; a former Director of Music at both St Columb’s College (alma mater a generation previously of Seamus Heaney) and St Eugene’s (Roman Catholic) Cathedral, he is now Head of Music for the Western Education and Library Board, with responsibility for all schools in the city and its hinterland. He also runs the City of Derry Civic Choirs scheme, which grew out of the Two Cathedrals Festival which Doherty established in 1992 with his counterpart at St Columb’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Tim Allen. The chamber choir Codetta is his flagship choir, made up of young adults many of whom study or work in other parts of the UK and Ireland but return regularly to Derry for rehearsals. Their impressive performance schedule has included appearances this year and last at the BBC Proms, as part of the Proms Youth Choir. Codetta hosted the new choral festival – quite literally, with members taking on roles ranging from stewarding, page-turning, accompanying and escorting visiting choirs around the city to choir member Fiona Crosbie’s full-time job of festival manager. A key role in the organisation was also played by Matthew Greenall, Executive Director of the Walled City Music Trust.
Most of the festival performances took place in St Columb’s Hall (above), built in the 1880s as a recreational and educational space for the Roman Catholic community. In the Edwardian era it had its own bands, choirs and drama and music societies, and saw performances by musicians such as John McCormack, Edward Sousa and the Halle Orchestra, while in the 1960s it was famous for its Sunday Night Variety Shows starring the likes of Ruby Murray, Val Doonican, the Clancy Brothers, Roy Orbison and Jim Reeves. After a period of neglect during the Troubles it came back into use and has now been bought by the Garvan O’Doherty Group, which has commissioned a major restoration, phase one of which was completed in time for the choral festival.

I missed the post-primary school competitions which were won by St Mary’s College (unison or two part pieces) and Thornhill College (three or four part pieces), both from Derry, but was able to attend the opening gala concert on the first evening. Codetta opened proceedings, giving us a taste of some of their contributions to the City of Culture programme, beginning with Northern Irish composer Ian Wilson’s setting of lines from Seamus Heaney’s play ‘The Cure at Troy’, which has provided the narrative for the entire year. The concert also featured local pianist Ruth McGinley and saxophonist Gerard McChrystal but the second half took a completely different turn with sets by Latvian Voices, an all-female a cappella group similar in style to the Swingle Singers, with Spanish beatboxer Lytos. It was obvious from the reactions around me that most of the audience had seen nothing like this before, but they were hugely enthusiastic. You can get a flavour of the evening here:

The Friday evening concert focused on the second performance of ‘City Songs’ by Latvian composer Eriks Esenvalds and Australian poet Emma Jones, which was premiered last spring at the Voices Now Festival at the Roundhouse in London’s Camden Town. Codetta took part in that performance, and were joined in Derry by two of their fellow choirs from that occasion, the Roundhouse Choir and the Holst Singers, plus three local groups, the Encore Contemporary Choir, Music Promise Junior Choir and Columcille Ladies Choir. The Orchestra of Ireland and these combined forces were conducted by Stephen Layton, and a narrative linking the sequence of 13 songs was provided by ‘digital diva’ Imogen Heap. Others around me seemed to share my opinion that Heap’s contribution was difficult to understand and extended a long evening unnecessarily, but she has a strong following and there were many who clearly enjoyed her performance. The song settings were masterly, giving each group a chance to shine individually as well as contributing to the wonderfully effective massed choir sections.

Details of all the competition categories and the results are on the CODIChoral website here so I won’t go through them all. In the primary competitions, the judges commented particularly on the skill of all the choirs in projecting and communicating, which they said was inspiring – ‘older singers can become more focused on technical issues and forget what the music is about’. While some of the choir directors were clearly more experienced than others, there was a uniformity of tone and tuning across all the school choirs that prompted Ragnar Rasmussen to declare at the end of the weekend that he would be bringing a Norwegian delegation to next year’s festival not just to compete but to learn from Derry-Londonderry’s expert music teachers how to train children’s voices.

The Music promise Junior Choir, Derry, winners of the youth competition, conducted by Maurice Kelly

The Music Promise Junior Choir, Derry, winners of the youth competition, conducted by Maurice Kelly

Audiences for all the events were good and built steadily throughout the weekend as word got round about the festival, with workshops, pop-up performances by some of the choirs in shopping centres, libraries and hotel foyers and participation in local church services on the Sunday morning stimulating interest. A notable feature was how knowledgeable the audience seemed to be – ‘Oh, they’re very disciplined, aren’t they?’ and ‘I love this piece’ were the sort of comments I heard around me. Although there was enthusiastic support for friends and relations they were also quick to recognise and applaud outstanding performances from the visiting choirs.

Derry, Donegal and other parts of the Republic of Ireland were well represented, the eastern counties of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK less so. Community choir Funky Voices, based in Essex and Suffolk, made a tremendous impression with their lively programmes in the national mixed-voice competition and closing gala; they weren’t technically good enough to be in the running for a prize, but they really set the hall alight. A highlight for me were the appearances by the Open Arts Choir from Belfast, who some years ago were finalists in the BBC TV competition ‘Last Choir Standing’ – they are an inclusive community choir, many of whose members are visually impaired or have mobility problems to varying degrees or other disabilities. Their auditioned ensemble performed in Derry and I could scarcely believe the difference in the quality of their singing since I heard them two years ago in an audition round for BBC Choir of the Year. Varied repertoire choices really showcased their ability to capture different moods, from the stillness of a lovely performance of Stanford’s ‘The Blue Bird’ to the humour of a nifty, very characterful delivery of Passereau’s ‘Il est Bel et Bon’ and the self-deprecating ‘Short People’ by Randy Newman.

The standard in the International category was high enough to put this first ‘edition’ of CODIChoral firmly on the competitive festival map and give local choirs something to aspire to, such as the richly operatic sound of the Ruda Polifonico male voice choir from Northern Italy. But I don’t think there was much doubt about the winners, the young chamber choir Voci Nuove from Cork, conducted by Colm O’Regan, who demonstrated all the qualities of tuning, ensemble, blend, diction and musical variety that adjudicators are looking for in any choral competition and then added that extra magic that defines a show-stopping performance. In addition to carrying off the beautiful trophy designed by local sculptor Maurice Harron to represent an oak tree, symbol of Derry, Voci Nuove won the Sacred Music competition, held together with the Youth competition in another beautifully-restored venue, First Derry Presbyterian Church.The judges did manage to make some stylistic criticisms of their Moses Hogan spiritual ‘My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord’, but I think it would be fair to say the audience was blown away by their energy, vitality, dynamic control and sheer joie de vivre.

Voci Nuove conducted by Colm O'Regan compose themselves to sing after winning the international competition

Voci Nuove conducted by Colm O’Regan compose themselves to sing after winning the international competition

First Derry was one of the churches my Presbyterian grandmother was in the habit of attending when she lived in the city in the early years of the 20th century, initially as a boarder at what was then Victoria High School in Crawford Square, and then as an apprentice pharmaceutical chemist working in a shop in Ferryquay Street, just across the famous 17th-century city wall from St Columb’s Hall. She actually went most frequently to Great James Street church, where her headmistress at VHS had a pew, but it has been deconsecrated and seems to have been turned into a night club, so I decided to follow in her footsteps by going to the choral festival service at First Derry.

On a wet, blustery morning the church was packed almost to the rafters, but as the service began the atmosphere was rather subdued and the singing of the first hymn was fairly lacklustre. Then the minister invited guest choir Incognito, a gospel group most famous for its winning streak on ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, to sing their first couple of songs. All black, dressed in brilliant white, they made an instant impression – an unlikely sight in a Northern Irish Presbyterian church. Then they began to sing, and the congregation visibly sat up and took notice, particularly the small number children present. ‘That was wonderful!’ whispered the boy in front of me, aged about ten or eleven, who had seemed extremely reluctant to be in church at all when he arrived with his family. Everyone was overwhelmed by the impact of Incognito’s performance. The minister ditched his planned sermon and preached briefly and simply about God’s grace, the gift of music, and how it’s something that we all share, black or white, Catholic or Protestant. Everyone listened intently and appreciatively, including the children.

The choir had to rush off to catch their plane before the end of the service, but they sang another couple of songs before they went. They weren’t using microphones – and actually sounded better without them than they had done giving a non-competitive performance with mics the previous evening in St Columb’s Hall – but the last song featured a tiny amount of vocal percussion – ‘Mum, that’s beatboxing!’ exclaimed the boy in front of me. As Incognito finished and left, the reserved Presbyterian congregation almost jumped to their feet, applauding furiously, and the mood of exhilaration continued right to the end of the long communion service, infusing the hymn-singing with new energy and sending everyone out into a windy sun-shower chattering and laughing. It was one of the most remarkable demonstrations of the transformative power of song I’ve ever seen. If CODIChoral did nothing else, it would have been a worthwhile event just for that.

The congregation leaves after the Sunday morning service in First Derry

The congregation leaves after the Sunday morning service in First Derry

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Done and dusted

So much for my plans to track the rehearsal process for the B Minor Mass via regular blog posts – Hereford Choral Society’s performance took place on Saturday, and my score is about to be put back on its shelf, its pages somewhat looser and a little more dog-eared. The cathedral was very full, with the nave and crossing appearing to be sold out and lots of people packed in to the unreserved seating at the sides, and the applause at the end was enthusiastic if not particularly prolonged. For me the highlights of the evening were the instrumental solos, although apart fImagerom the flautists Jenny Thomas, whom I spoke to afterwards, and Jonathan Morgan, I can’t credit the individual members of Marches Baroque as the players weren’t listed in the programme. That’s a shame as this ensemble of specialist freelance players is utterly superb – it is a real privilege to sing with them. Particularly impressive in this performance, in addition to the flautists and the ensemble’s leader, Sharon Lindo, were the two oboes d’amore and the virtuosic corno di caccia, the natural horn, which is so fiendishly difficult to play but gives such a distinctive character to the bass aria ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ and the following ‘Cum Sanctu Spiritu’ chorus.

We also had an outstanding team of soloists, possibly the most consistent in quality of any that I can remember in previous performances of the work. My first encounter with it all those years ago in St Andrews was certainly marred for me and many of my fellow chorus members by the individualistic, vibrato-laden singing style of the soloists. They were all well-known in Scotland at the time, but the historically informed performance practice movement was still in its infancy and its influence was not yet universally felt. By contrast, in Saturday’s performance Charlotte Mobbs, Catherine King, James Oxley and Colin Campbell – particularly the upper three voices – shared a fluid, undemonstrative yet expressive style that allowed Bach’s music to speak for itself. The duets between King and Oxley (‘Domine Deus’) and Mobbs and King (‘Et in unum dominum’ in particular) were exquisite and Oxley’s ‘Benedictus qui venit’ was a wonderful moment of serenity after the overwhelming rush of double choruses towards the end of the second half of the piece.

And what of the chorus? Well, there’s no denying that the B Minor Mass is a huge sing, and by the time we got to the end a lot of people looked exhausted rather than elated. Quite a few shared my frustrating experience of having made more mistakes in the performance than in the rehearsal. Although our rehearsal period had been quite long, and a really good momentum had built up over the first few weeks, it was interrupted by a lot of absences in October due to coughs and colds and then by the half term break and I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing we could have had a couple more sessions before the concert.

Personally, I certainly didn’t manage to make the transition successfully between second soprano which I learned 30+ years ago and first which I’m now singing. I thought a Choraline recording, which highlights the required part, might help to speed up this process, but I’m afraid it didn’t. I’ve never used one before so it was an interesting experiment. Having bought a CD version and loaded it onto iTunes on my desktop computer, I then tried to load it onto my iPad so that I could work on it on my trip to Northern Ireland, but found that although everything else in my iTunes Library had transferred successfully,the Choraline B Minor had not: Problem No 1. When I did eventually play it through with the score I found the artificial sound of the keyboard on which it’s all played horribly jarring, especially the second soprano line which reminded me of a low-cost doorbell chime. And I hadn’t realised that you only get the notes in these versions, not the text – I can see why, of course, because not all performing editions of the score are the same and some conductors may want to change the underlay – but fitting the text to the notes is one of the main challenges in the more difficult choruses, so the Choraline recording was no help with that.

Downloading the Monteverdi Choir recording recommended by our conductor, Geraint Bowen, proved to be much more useful, especially as Geraint really did run most of the work at fairly close to John Eliot Gardiner’s legendary break-neck speeds – but I do wish I’d had time to listen to it more often. There’s one page in the ‘Et resurrexit’ on which I scribbled during one of the post-half-term rehearsals: ‘This page needs to be completely unpicked and learned’. I really did try to do this one afternoon, together with a few of the other black spots where my score is littered with asterisks, exclamation marks and circles – but the main result of my session seemed to be that I learned to play the offending passages on the piano. I couldn’t detect much improvement when I came to sing them again in context with the rest of the choir.

All of which goes to show, I hope, that there is no substitute for attending rehearsals. This is one occasion when I enjoyed the rehearsals so much that I’m really sorry to be moving on tonight to something else (Messiah). However, having assumed that Saturday’s B Minor was likely to be the last I might ever do, since it doesn’t come one’s way very often, I was so dissatisfied with my own contribution that I’m hoping that isn’t so. I’d like another opportunity to get some of those awkward runs absolutely right, and not to miss the first sop entry at letter D in the ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ – where it says in my score ‘Careful of this entry! Don’t miss it!’, but despite that, I did. As the conductor of my previous choir in London used to say: ‘There’s always another mountain to climb.’

Despite all those caveats, I think we did successfully reach the summit of a good few mountains on Saturday night. There were certainly a few moments – no, long sequences – where I felt that singing music like this with a good choir and a terrific professional orchestra and conductor in such a wonderful building as Hereford Cathedral must be one of the most fulfilling experiences in the world. In the lovely contemplative ‘Et incarnatus’ and ‘Crucifixus’ sections, for example, most of the thrilling ‘Gloria’ and ‘In sanctu spiritu’ and above all of course the matchless ‘Sanctus which is not actually difficult to sing but has the most incredible effect on both participants and audience.

I’ll finish with a story told by the Dean of Hereford in his introduction to the concert, with apology for errors in any details which I couldn’t quite hear. The Dean is a musicians as well as a clergyman, and many years ago he was asked to play the organ for a performance of the Faure Requiem which was to be followed by a performance of a work by John Tavener, who died last week. Tavener himself was taking part and as the Requiem drew to its close the Dean was aware of his looming presence (he was 6’6″) in the organ loft. Almost before he had played his last chord the great man was taking his place on the organ bench, and he proceeded to play the whole of the Sanctus from the B Minor Mass. What an experience that must have been.

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A couple of contemporary nights: Take 2

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) was established from within the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in 1987, with Simon Rattle as its founding patron. Committed to presenting new work by composers at every stage of their careers, it is one of the UK’s most ambitious and innovative ensembles; its Sound Investment scheme has been involving audience members in the commissioning process and enlisting them to provide financial support for more than 20 years, and its education programme goes far beyond the usual schools workshops and performances, offering older pupils in particular a real insight into and experience of the possibilities of musical composition. Artistic director Stephen Newbould and executive producer Jackie Newbould (husband-and-wife) and their team deserve great credit for constantly forging new partnerships and finding new sources of funding in the face of constant financial challenges.

I’ve been aware of BCMG’s work for years, but haven’t often seen the ensemble perform. So last weekend we accepted another invitation from Faith Wilson and went to the opening concert of their season in the CBSO Centre in Berkley Street (‘walk up Broad Street from Symphony Hall and turn left at the lap-dancing club’, as CBSO chief executive instructed me on my first visit some years ago.)

In many ways the experience of spending a Sunday evening listening to a programme of Niccolo Castiglioni (‘Tropi’), Schoenberg ( the chamber version of ‘Five Pieces for Orchestra’), Alexander Goehr (his Suite Opus 11), Ligeti (his chamber concerto) and Helen Grime’s impressive ‘Luna’ was like stepping back 20 or 30 years to London Sinfonietta concerts on the Southbank, with many of the usual suspects both on stage and off. Even the audience members whom we didn’t know (which was most of them, although it was lovely to catch up briefly with our old friend and colleague Sally Groves) looked somehow familiar and there seemed to be an interesting cultural mix and wide age range, including a couple of children and even the tiny baby son of Helen Grime and Huw Watkins. Some of the locals were exchanging stories about having spent the beautiful, sunny afternoon on country walks, but quite a few composers, publishers and contemporary music enthusiasts from London and elsewhere had clearly spent the day on trains or motorways in order to be there. The atmosphere was rather like a club, but not an exclusive club. To our surprise, we certainly felt we belonged in a way that we didn’t in Cardiff the previous week.

I enjoyed all the works, particularly the Schoenberg set and Helen Grime’s piece which had turned out to be so effective in rehearsal that it was switched from before the interval to the be concert opener. But I found the opportunity to study Oliver Knussen’s conducting technique the most rewarding aspect of the evening. Perhaps I have never been sitting so close to him, perhaps I’ve always been on his right – I can’t remember – but I certainly haven’t previously noticed how he uses every digit on his left hand separately to give incredibly precise instructions to the performers. It’s completely different from Gergiev’s fluttering fingers that never seem to me to convey very much at all. Knussen is a huge man, and not in good health, as was apparent the other night. Once he had lumbered slowly to his stool he hardly moved from the beginning to the end of each piece, yet he was in complete control of what was happening in front of him. Fascinating.

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A couple of contemporary nights: Take 1

In this era dominated by social media, it’s a good thing there are still a few remaining PR people who follow up their emailed press releases with more specific invitations to individual journalists encouraging them to come along to the event they are promoting, rather than just mentioning it in a listing or adding it to an ideas list. One of those diligent people is Faith Wilson, whose clients include Music Theatre Wales (MTW) and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG). Thanks to her persistence in not letting me forget about interesting performances we found ourselves earlier this month attending two contemporary music events within a week.

First up was MTW’s revived production of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s 1988 opera Greek, which I associate primarily with the television version directed by Peter Maniura, but which has in fact been staged by several companies including English National Opera since it was commissioned by the city of Munich for its first International Festival of New Music. As MTW director Michael McCarthy explained in his bravura pre-concert talk, the composer Hans Werner Henze had been funded by BMW to create the festival, and having met Turnage, then in his mid-20s, at the Tanglewood Summer School in Massachusetts was convinced he had it in him to compose an opera. Turnage’s declaration that he had no interest in writing an opera was brushed aside and Henze pursued him, BMW’s chequebook in hand, until he agreed to take on the task. After some difficulty in finding a subject or a libretto, Turnage came across Steven Berkoff’s  modern interpretation of the Oedipus story, Greek, and set it to music with the help of writer and director Jonathan Moore.

The drama is set in the East End of London – although Berkoff’s shorthand reference for the bleak, violent district which he imagined was ‘Tufnell Park’. He envisaged Britain at the time as ‘a gradually decaying island, preyed upon by the wandering hordes who saw no future for themselves in a society which had few ideals or messages to offer them. the violence that streamed through the streets, like an all-pervading effluence, the hideous Saturday night fever as the pubs belched out their dreary occupants, the killing and maiming at public sports, plus the casual slaughtering of political opponents in Northern Ireland, bespoke a society in which an emotional plague had taken root’. The hero, Eddy, is a belligerent, angry character, very much part of that society, so the first challenge of any production of either the play or the opera is to engage the audience’s sympathy for him.

The MTW production didn’t take an easy route in that respect, going beyond the script to have Eddy swearing at a programme-seller as he stumbled on stage for his first entry. But we were soon drawn in by the compelling performances of Marcus Farnsworth as Eddy and Sally Silver, Louise Winter and Gwion Thomas playing all the other roles including his mother, wife and father respectively. Michael McCarthy has brought the setting more-or-less up to the present, which requires no great leap of imagination. The only conceptual flaw in the production to our minds was the occasional use of television screens (in the on-stage room settings) to supply the text of what was being sung, which was an irritating and unnecessary distraction. McCarthy’s major innovation, given the requirements of MTW’s touring performances in a great variety of venues, is to place the orchestra centre-stage rather than in a pit or to one side, so that they become completely involved in the action. This is particularly effective in the riot scene, when they swap their conventional instruments for bin lids, football rattles and whistles, turning the whole musical interlude into something like a performance by the percussion ensemble Stomp!

Although the cast was superb, with Marcus Farnsworth an absolute revelation in a role so utterly different from the concert hall settings in which I’ve previously seen him, it was the score that made the biggest impression on me: inventive, expressive, wonderfully paced, drawing on a multitude of musical influences yet with its own coherent identity, powerful and not at all dated, and brilliantly played by the MTW Ensemble conducted by the company’s music director, Michael Rafferty.

We saw the opera in the Donald Weston Studio of the the Wales Millennium Centre, which was slightly too small to accommodate it comfortably – I longed for the singers to have more space and from where we sat some of the details of stage business were lost. It was the first time an MTW production had been presented as part of Welsh National Opera’s programme, and I hope the collaboration will continue; it seems a natural fit artistically, if not on this occasion practically.

You can get a flavour of the MTW production on the company’s website, which includes a photo gallery and video clip:

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Time to mention the ‘O’ word

Somewhere on an old computer in a Central London scrapheap there is a photo of me in a high-viz jacket and hard hat, checking in with some colleagues from other publications for a farewell performance by Thomas Trotter on the organ of Birmingham Town Hall before it was swaddled in protective plastic and mothballed for the duration of the building’s restoration. The auditorium was already dusty and very dark, lit only by bare bulbs strung around the gallery. A couple of years later I was back on my own for a private tour of progress on the building, and this time I got to scramble up to the top of the birdcage scaffolding that filled the central space, so that I could almost touch the beautiful plasterwork on the ceiling, which was being painted at the time. I’ve been back a few times since the Town Hall reopened, but still can’t help doing a double-take every time I walk into the refurbished auditorium, now so elegant with its pale blue colour scheme and full of light.

Town Hall 544lightened credit Mike Gutteridge

Birmingham Town Hall [Mike Gutteridge]

Last Sunday the auditorium was brighter than ever, with sunshine pouring through the windows and lending a real party atmosphere to Trotter’s afternoon recital marking his 30-year anniversary as Birmingham City Organist. He has written at length about his role in the July/August issue of Choir & Organ magazine , explaining how he was just at the beginning of his career when he was appointed, unlike his predecessors G D Cunningham (1924-1949) and George Thalben-Ball (1949-1983), who were at the height of theirs; and how his first contract was just a photocopy of Thalben-Ball’s with the names changed. The nature of the job has changed scarcely at all since then, consisting simply of being required to plan and prepare for a regular series of recitals. Most of these take place on Monday lunchtimes, originally every week throughout the winter season, but now fortnightly. Occasionally there are guest recitalists and from time to time Thomas is joined by another instrumentalist or by a choir – for example on 16th December, when the Choristers of Salisbury Cathedral and their director of music, David Halls, will be taking part in a lunchtime recital of Christmas music. Details here:


Thomas Trotter [Adrian Burrows]

The role of city organist is closely linked to the traditions of the Victorian Town Halls that boasted such wonderful instruments, and is continued by the likes of Ian Tracey in Liverpool, Simon Lindley in Leeds, John Kitchen in Edinburgh, Gordon Stewart in Huddersfield, Peter Morris in Walsall and Colm Carey in Belfast. Most of Thomas Trotter’s Birmingham recitals are given on the 1834 William Hill organ in the Town Hall, with occasional forays over to Symphony Hall where the instrument by Klais of Bonn was installed as a tenth birthday present to the hall in 2001.
TT concert ticket
For the anniversary recital he made a very personal selection of favourite pieces from his now vast repertoire, with his usual skilful balance of old and new,lighter and more serious works,fluently introduced as ever – Thomas has a real knack for providing just the right amount of information to help his listeners engage with the performance, whatever their level of knowledge. Only the best players can get away with opening a recital with one of the great Bach works – in this case a flawless Prelude & Fugue in G major, BWV 541 established the standard for the afternoon. Then there were magically deft, lyrical performances of three of Schumann’s ‘Six Studies in Canonic Form’- Nos 3 in E major, 4 in A flat major, and 5 in B minor, for any organists who are reading – followed by a new work commissioned by Thomas himself from Judith Weir.
He explained that The Wild Reeds is an original folk-like theme, played initially on the oboe stop, with six variations, inspired partly by Eastern European music for outdoor wind instruments and partly by this photograph of a Hungarian shepherd in a bleak, windswept moorland landscape.Hungarian-shepherd-593x375
Thomas comments in his Choir & Organ article that it’s always interesting to work with composers unfamiliar with the organ ‘and the more diffident they are the better the work they seem to produce’. He didn’t say whether Judith Weir was one of the diffident ones but did say that he admires her economy of style: ‘she writes just the right number of notes and no more – although they may sometimes be rather confusing notes’. For the player, perhaps – but we wouldn’t have guessed it. Weir has written one other substantial organ work, Ettrick Banks, which is established in the repertoire of several leading recitalists – it was written for Michael Bonaventure in the 1980s and recorded by John Scott, who included it in his Hereford Cathedral recital earlier this year, and Thomas will be playing it in Russia in December and at Haileybury School in February, together with the new piece. It’s hard to describe The Wild Reeds fully without having the opportunity to listen to it again or to see the score, but Thomas will be including it in his Royal Festival Hall recital in March, so a second hearing is already in my diary.
It wouldn’t have been a Town Hall recital without a couple of transcriptions, and the first half concluded with the Meistersinger overture arranged by Edwin Lemare. The second began in similar but even more lighthearted vein with Trotter’s own captivating arrangement of Eric Coates’s Knightsbridge March. A wistful miniature by Thalben-Ball, ‘Edwardia’ from The Hovingham Sketches composed by members of the Royal College of Organists as a gift for the Duchess of Kent, provided a transition to the climax of the recital, the 25-minute single-movement Sonata on the 94th Psalm by Julius Reubke, written in 1857, just a year before Reubke died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. It’s a real musical and emotional tour de force, heavily influenced by Liszt with whom Reubke was studying at the time, and is a very dramatic setting of this particularly bloodthirsty psalm. I first heard it performed liturgically in gathering darkness at a Lenten (I think) service in my former church in Dulwich, a more appropriate atmosphere for such a raw penitential work than a town hall on an unexpectedly balmy autumn afternoon, but it was wonderful to hear it again in a breathtakingly virtuosic performance.
That was the end of the published programme, but there was of course an encore – another of Thomas’s own arrangements, this time a new one, of Percy Grainger’s Molly on the Shore, which sent everyone away dancing an Irish jig, marvelling at Trotter’s pedal technique – and perhaps looking forward to his 40th anniversary recital. He certainly doesn’t seem to have any plans for imminent retirement.

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Early day

It would be hard to get much further into the sticks than the village of Peterchurch, in Herefordshire’s Golden Valley. It is surrounded by farmland and approached through winding, leafy country lanes and in my case over the 1 in 4 gradient of Dorstone Hill. Fairfield High School in Peterchurch was the venue on Saturday for a sight-singing workshop organised by the hugely active Border Marches Early Music Forum (BMEMF, or ‘Bumf’ as everyone seems to call it; read more here and directed by Sebastian Field, a lay clerk of Gloucester Cathedral, and three colleagues from his Ensemble Sine Nomine professional chamber choir. (Not to be confused with Susan Hollingworth’s Sine Nomine International Touring Choir, which visited Presteigne Festival this summer.) Around 60 singers took part, from all points of the Welsh borders – I met people from Llangunllo, Leominster, Abergavenny and Malvern, as well as several fellow members of Hereford Choral Society.

Working with amateur singers has become an increasingly common activity for professional choirs over the past decade or so, whether it’s the BBC Singers running ‘Come and Sing’ days at Maida Vale Studios, The Sixteen running workshops in conjunction with their Choral Pilgrimage cathedral concerts, or Voces 8 delivering extended singing programmes within schools almost from their inception. My first experience of this phenomenon was in 2000 at Dartington Summer School, spending a whole week on a consort singing course superbly led by I Fagiolini, who skilfully disentangled the problems that some of the amateur singers were facing – their patience and diplomacy were often as much to be admired as their musicianship. In that situation the six amateur groups were graded according to ability; three teenage sisters in the top group, already showing remarkable talent in the informal performances that punctuated the Dartington week, went on to be founder members of the award-winning consort group Stile Antico.

For the BMEMF sessions last weekend, participants had signed up in advance for their choice of four groups: ‘I need general help in building up my confidence’; ‘I need practice with intervals, up and down’; ‘pitching and rhythms still catch me out’; and ‘I want to improve my ensemble singing’. We could stay in the same groups for morning and afternoon sessions or switch at lunchtime. In practice there seems to have been a lot of overlap between the material covered by the different groups, especially as we were one tutor down for the morning session which operated with just three groups. But the numbers in each group were quite manageable and there was a fair amount of shuffling of personnel between morning and afternoon sessions, which added variety and new challenges. I did feel a bit of a fraud at the beginning of the day because two of the pieces we were presented with weren’t actually new to me, so strictly speaking I wasn’t sight-reading; but it was perhaps a good thing that a few of us were able to sing confidently from the start, as it gave the performances a structure that others who were being presented with something completely new could lean on. And I enjoyed tackling some completely unfamiliar repertoire later in the day.

The difficulty with any one-off workshop or short course is that even if participants are asked to grade themselves in terms of ability/experience or the amount of help they need, it’s very difficult to establish a common standard against which they can measure themselves. That’s compounded by the fact that there are so many facets to being a ‘good’ singer. Those with the best voices may be the least confident at reading music, or the least sensitive to what is happening around them; those with good theoretical knowledge may be lacking in the innate musicality that enables them to shape a phrase expressively. Some participants who in their youth had all the necessary skills in abundance may now be hampered by poor hearing or eyesight. In general people tend to err on the side of caution and undervalue their own capabilities,but it only takes a handful of singers to go the other way and sign up for a course that is designed for more experienced musicians, and the whole event can be spoiled for everyone.

That certainly didn’t happen on Saturday, although the first group that I was in took a little time to establish an effective dynamic. Our Sine Nomine tutor was himself inexperienced in leading workshops, and had to work out how to pace the session and how to explain techniques and strategies that are second nature to him as a professional singer, at the same time as having to fill in the tenor line which is not his own usual part. But after singing through Farrant’s motet ‘Call to Remembrance’ a few times and doing a little work on a more difficult piece by Christopher Tye we got the measure of one another and spent a productive morning developing our skills in quickly getting to grips with an unfamiliar score and in listening and responding to other parts. A suggestion that some of us might like to have a go at conducting the group initially sounded like a bridge too far, but by lunchtime we had discovered that in a consort setting with a relatively small number of singers this can be a more subtle, less intimidating role than with a larger choir or orchestra. It was exciting to discover how much difference a change of leader made to the interpretation of a piece and in the end we were sorry that there wasn’t time for more of us to have a go.

A switch for the afternoon session to a slightly larger group directed by Sebastian Field himself led on very naturally from the morning’s work, and we finished by bringing all the groups together to sing through the pieces we’d been working on. BMEMF marketing literature stresses the friendly atmosphere of its events, and on the basis of the two that I’ve attended I think they’re right to do so. In the workshop setting participants in this event were generous and accommodating towards one another, appreciative of expertise, patient and supportive with those who found the tasks more challenging. Over lunch and tea breaks there was plenty of mingling, with no-one being left on the sidelines, it seemed, unless they wanted to to be. It’s not always like this at singing days, so full marks and thanks to BMEMF and its very welcoming office-bearers. My only regret was that due to a conflicting evening event back home in Presteigne I was not able to stay for the evening concert by Ensemble Sine Nomine up the road in Peterchurch Parish Church. I’ll be looking out for their future performances.

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A Bouquet for Hereford Cathedral

It would be churlish not to use this opportunity to encourage you all to listen to this week’s Radio 3 broadcast of Choral Evensong from Hereford, which can be found here until next Wednesday. It deserves to be heard mainly because it is so good - a wonderful demonstration of the musicianship, professionalism and prayerfulness that is demonstrated in places of worship throughout the UK day in, day out. Term has just started, key personnel may have left, boys’ voices may be changing, three new gap year choral scholars (alto, tenor and bass) and an organ scholar have only just unpacked their suitcases, yet performances of immaculate quality have to be delivered to an enormous radio audience listening live and later via the internet and Sunday’s repeat broadcast. It is an achievement that shouldn’t be taken for granted, from the limpid simplicity of the Introit -Grieg’s ‘Ave Maris stella’ -to the complexity of the concluding organ voluntary: assistant director of music Peter Dyke’s own arrangement of the final movement of Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’. Anyone who thinks the pipe organ is not a musical instrument (and there are a few) should listen to the lyrical adagio section, and think again.

The other reason why I’m keen to spread the word about the quality of this broadcast and get people listening to it is that we owe Hereford Cathedral Choir a great debt for accelerating our long-dreamt-of move out of London just over three years ago. In my then capacity as editor of Music Teacher magazine and contributor to other choral publications I was invited to attend a performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio; probably as a courtesy rather than with any real expectation that I’d travel all the way to Hereford in January. But it seemed a good opportunity to check out properties in this area, so we booked ourselves into the Green Dragon Hotel (of which I suspect more may be written later) for a night, arranged to spend the rest of the week with a friend near Presteigne, armed ourselves with a sheaf of house details… and here we are.

Not in Hereford, admittedly, but 23 miles away, and narrow winding country miles at that, which take a very long time to cover if you get stuck behind a tractor. That is proving to be more of a drawback than we expected, especially for me, as I would love to attend more services and organ recitals at the cathedral, but it just isn’t possible, especially in addition to weekly choir practices. The attractions of Presteigne are a topic for another time; for the moment I’d like to sing the praises of Hereford Cathedral for just a little longer.

It goes without saying that it’s a glorious building, predominantly Norman though heavily ‘restored’ in the nineteenth century. Like Chichester, Winchester and Salisbury among others it has been blessed some spectacular examples of modern ecclesiastical art, in particular the golden corona in the crossing and Tom Denny’s beautiful stained glass windows in a little chantry off the Lady Chapel commemorating the 17th-century poet and mystic Thomas Traherne, who was born in Hereford. The cathedral’s chief treasure is the 13th-century Mappa Mundi, an astonishing survivor of another age and another world- view which it is easy to take for granted. But I’m beginning to sound like a tourist guide, so I’ll refer you to the cathedral website for more about what you can see:

More important to me is what you can’t see but you can feel - the numinous of the building - the sense of harmony between its central role as a place of worship and all the other ingredients of its identity: sanctuary, inspiration, welcome, performance, companionship, solace, activity and calm. There never was a cathedral that didn’t have its Trollopian elements, and I am certain there must be tensions and disagreements within Hereford’ recently reordered close, but if so they are well hidden. Clergy, administrators, musicians, craftsmen, volunteers…  all give the impression of working well together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and co-operation.

Most importantly, as an occasional worshipper it seems to me that Hereford gets its ‘tone’ right, most obviously in the main Sunday services. The atmosphere is welcoming but reverent, warm yet dignified, often humorous but just as frequently serious. For me it is a place where one can rejoice and laugh or be still and grieve - where God is, if he is anywhere.

That was what I felt on that freezing January weekend when we came to hear Bach in the cathedral, and were welcomed with mulled wine in the Precentor’s house before the concert and in my case with handshakes, smiles and conversation at the Eucharist and post-service coffee next morning. The experience gave us the push that we needed to consider this possible move seriously. So, Hereford Cathedral: thank you very much indeed.

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