13 December, 2016

".....The better the voyce is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God there-with" (William Byrd)

Pat's ancient copy of the Messiah (cost when new 2/6!)
So they came. At one point half an hour before the performance they queued out of the church entrance and into the December night, waiting to pay their £6.00. Most clutched their battered copies of the Messiah – many family heirlooms. Graham and his wife came over 30 miles from Lincoln to take part in their second Messiah  in as many weeks – the first in the grandeur of the mighty Lincoln Cathedral, one of the great places of worship in the country, but tonight in an ordinary parish church in a small Nottinghamshire village. Graham and his wife had eaten a fish and chip supper, from the village chip shop, as they sat in their car before coming to the nearby St Peter’s. And then they had taken their places, Graham holding his 1928 copy of the Messiah – it had belonged to his father – and inside it was a programme dating from 1982 when Graham had sung the Messiah as a young man.

And this is the nature of the Messiah.  It is for every man and every place and every time: from great cathedral to village church, from world renowned choirs to humble village amateurs; from father to son and mother to daughter. It can speak to us as we enjoy a fish and chip supper listening to the car CD player or when dining at some elegant and sophisticated Archbishop's table with glorious choristers supplying the accompaniment. It speaks for and to everyone, it is not only a great and wonderful piece of sacred music but part of our individual and national heritage. When we lose a love of this great work then we will lose something of our national identity and our national soul. Like so many great pieces of music it is more than simply a few good tunes - it is about the very nature of who and what we are and what we want to be. When it was performed in Lincoln a couple of weeks ago the world famous Lincoln imp gargoyle would have been looking down on it from his perch high in the ceiling, his mocking, grotesque face forever fixed in stone  – because, it is said, in mediaeval times this imp had mocked the wonderful Lincoln Cathedral choir and his punishment from God, so the legend has it, was to sit frozen in stone forever listening to the wonderful sound of the Cathedral choir. There was no scowling, mocking stone imp at St Peter’s in Ruddington last night but had there been he would have been forced to listen grumpily not only to the wonderful music of Handel but have had to “suffer” a magnificent rendering of the masterpiece by all those who came to the annual community, “sing along” Messiah  led by the Ruddington & District Choral Society. People like Graham and his wife who had travelled many miles, joined local villagers, friends and neighbours to give their voice to Handel’s great work, and in doing so, celebrated the coming of Christmas and all that it means.
The mocking Lincoln Imp

This year, conductor Paul Hayward made a small but very significant change to the usual format in that a small section of the choir were singing at right angles to his conducting and to the main body of the singers. The result was stunning. For the audience (and I suspect the singers too) this allowed the acoustics to fill the church. In previous years with the singers all facing the conductor their voices have been facing away from the audience who sit at the back but the new arrangement opened the whole thing up. From where I sat the sound, instead of being rather “flat” because all the voices were going away from me, was multi layered – almost quadraphonic; each section – tenors, bass, altos and sopranos able to be picked out perfectly. Having sections of the choir facing each other and at right angles to other choir members and the audience was a "trick of the trade" often used by JS Bach when his St Matthew or his St John Passions  were performed in the Nilolaikirche in Leipzig three centuries ago. Perhaps Paul Hayward was emulating the great Bach – but whatever his motives, it doesn’t matter because  it worked to perfection;  most of his choir were close to him and consequently so, too, were the singers who had turned up on the night and sound created and the cohesiveness of the whole, choir and visitors, was obvious.

“Sing along” Messiahs must be difficult for any conductor – after all you don’t know who or how many are going to turn up and join in. Those that do will have lots of enthusiasm and probably a knowledge of the music but in the end will not have sung together before  and probably not have sung with that conductor before. Of course, having a choir there as the core of the singing helps enormously but in the end it is all down the leadership and ability of the conductor to lead and to get the best out of the disparate bunch of singers who have turned up on the night – and that is exactly what Hayward did. Over the years the Ruddington Choir have performed this piece more times than can be counted – the community sing along Messiah  has become almost an annual event and an integral part of village life. But none could have been better sung, more rousing or more spiritually uplifting than this one. The wonderful organ skills of Michael Overbury again  provided a rich back drop to the voices of choir, audience and soloists and the enthusiastic and inclusive conducting of Paul Hayward not only made the whole spectacle visually engaging but without any doubt ensured that every voice went that extra mile. The effect was quite electric. The great solo arias such as Comfort Ye, He was despised  or I know that my redeemer liveth were movingly and serenely sung by superb soloists Peter Nicholson (Tenor), Emily Hodkinson (Alto) and Jane Harwood (Soprano); their individual arias and recitatives counterbalanced  perfectly by the magnificence and joyousness of the choruses: And the Glory, For unto us a Child is born, the Hallelujah, and the Amen.  Both Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury must have gone home feeling drained with the sustained efforts that they had put in but at the same time they must have been delighted with the result. The singers and audience too, I think, knew that they had been involved in something very special. For me, from the gentle and haunting opening organ Sinfonia, to the majesty of the opening Chorus (And the Glory), through to the splendour of For unto us and the Hallelujah with its terrifying soprano high notes (which they carried off beautifully) and to the sublime and spiritually uplifting Amen I knew this was a Messiah to remember and treasure.
St Peter's, Ruddington last night (Picture by Graham Peck) My friend Graham
who came all the way from Lincoln with his wife wrote this on Facebook
today: "An excellent evening singing Messiah at Ruddington Parish Church.
The soloists and organist were superb.  Yes I did sing it, hard to believe I
know but 35 years ago I did sing in a choir and before that in a  choir with
my lovely father. Anyway thoroughly enjoyed it in a truly lovely church
 in a great chrismassy setting"

So many times during last night’s performance I found myself back in time to when I was 15 in the winter of 1960 and when I had what I can only describe as a kind of “Road to Damascus experience.” I was in my final year at a tough secondary modern school in my home town of Preston and  one December afternoon a young woman geography teacher, Miss Bolton,  kept me and one of the girls - Ann Pilborough – back after the lesson. At first we thought we were in trouble but no! She asked would we like to go to a concert that night at Preston Grammar School – we should be smart, wear school uniform and not be late. We were going to see the Messiah. I had no idea what the Messiah  was. I didn’t even really know what a concert was but the prospect of going out at night with a teacher and going to Preston Grammar School was overwhelming. I never knew why Miss Bolton chose Ann and me - obviously she thought it would appeal and that we might benefit - but whatever the reason I am eternally grateful to this woman. Little did I know that it would become one of the defining events of my life.  So I called for Ann and the two of us walked through dark Preston back streets to the Grammar School. It was brightly lit and very busy. We met the teacher outside and went into the Great Hall which was already full. I was all eyes - it was so very grand. Not at all like the bleak hall at my own secondary modern school; grandly polished gold lettered boards filled  the walls and were covered with the names of past pupils of distinction; masters scurried around in gowns and mortar boards, the Hall was already filled with very well off looking people. This was a different world for me.

At the front sat the choir and a small orchestra. There were also lots of grammar school boys in the choir and the audience – one or two I recognised from my junior school  of years before (lads who had passed their 11+). Sitting in the choir I saw Billy Masheter who had once been my best friend until with the 11+ our ways parted; now we occupied different universes. Then the Messiah  began and from the first bars I was transported and transfixed, open mouthed, I think. I sat for the rest of the evening totally engrossed – mesmerised by the music and the glorious sounds coming from the choir. I quickly learned how to behave at a concert and when to clap but most of all I loved sitting in this atmosphere listening to something quite unknown to me but which I instinctively knew was worthy and something to be part of. At the end of the performance I went home through the dark streets breathless and overwhelmed at where I had been and, more importantly, what I had heard and seen. For days afterwards I could hear the ringing sound of 'For Unto Us A Child is Born' and the 'Amen' – a piece that I still regard as one of the great pieces of musical composition. It was the beginning of my love affair with classical music.
English Tudor composer William Byrd

And that was how I felt last night as the last ringing notes of the Amen rang through St Peters and Ruddington – uplifted and aware that I had just been part of something very special and precious. The Ruddington & District Choral Society made many friends last night. There was universal approval for what had occurred. Hopefully it will encourage more people to take up choral singing and to experience the uplifting, emotional and spiritual atmosphere and involvement of great choral works. As I said in a previous blog, under Paul Hayward’s direction and with Michael Overbury’s musicianship the Ruddington & District are on top of their game. Last night’s performance will have advanced their cause greatly.

In his preface to "Psalms, Sonets, and Songs of Sadnes and Pietie", written in 1588, the great English Tudor composer William Byrd (1543-1623) set out his reasons for singing. He wrote:

Reasons briefly set down by th'author, to perswade every one to learne to sing.

First, it is a knowledge safely taught and quickly learned, where there is a good Master, and an apt Scholler.

Second, the exercise of singing is delightfull to Nature, & good to preserve the health of Man.

Third, it doth strengthen all parts of the brest, & doth open the pipes.

Fourth, it is a singular good remedie for a stutting and stamering in the speech.

Fifth, it is the best means to procure a perfect pronounciation, & to make a good Orator.

Sixth, it is the onely way to know where Nature hath bestowed the benefit of a good voyce : which guift is so rare, as there is not one among a thousand, that hath it.

Seventh, there is not any Musicke of Instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voyces of Men, where the voyces are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.

Eighth, the better the voyce is, the meeter it is to honour and serve God there-with : and the voyce of man is chiefely to bee imployed to that ende - "Omnis Spiritus Laudes Dominum" [Every breath Praise the Lord]

Since Singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing.

I don’t think that anyone who sat in St Peter’s, Ruddington last night and had listened to or sung the great work would disagree with any of William Byrd’s reasons for singing – they would know exactly what he was talking about half a millennia ago. And I think, too, that had George Frederick Handel sat with Byrd alongside me at the back of the audience listening to his mighty work unfold then these two great musicians of history would both have nodded in quiet approval at what they heard.........And maybe if some Nottinghamshire cousin of that scowling, mocking Lincoln Cathedral Imp had by chance been present, high in the ceiling of St Peter’s, then surely, his scowl would have mellowed a little and turned to a smile at what he heard and saw beneath him! As Byrd so rightly said: "Omnis Spiritus Laudes Dominum" [Every breath Praise the Lord]!

05 December, 2016

Music to quietly inspire and to refresh the soul.

St Giles' West Bridgford, Nottingham
Ruddington & District Choral Society’s tuneful and elegiac concert (Saturday Nov. 26th) held in St Giles’ Church, West Bridgford was a sublime, quietly autumnal, and above all spiritual musical celebration. The thoughtful, meticulous and enthusiastic leadership of director Paul Hayward combining with the exquisite organ skills of Michael Overbury ensured that the choir again excelled under their stewardship.

The concert title, “Reflections”, was an apt description for an evening of music ranging from choral favourites, to requiems, solo piano and organ works and to operatic arias where each and every work provided an opportunity for both audience and performers to ponder and reflect upon life’s great mysteries and our own hopes, fears, dreams, aspirations and inspirations.. The opening work, an organ solo by Michael Overbury of Walford Davies’ Solemn Melody, a work so much associated with annual Remembrance Day occasions,  set the scene for what was to follow: an evening of music about our very being, about who we are and what we are; in short, music about our very souls.

Paul Hayward & soloist
Jane Harwood
Fauré’s much loved Cantique de Jean Racine and In Paradisum, the heavenly final movement  from  Fauré’s popular, serene and gently inspiring Requiem  provided a fitting, delicate and lyrical prelude to the evening’s main work, Rutter’s often bleak, haunting, poignant and chorally taxing Requiem. John Rutter’s great funeral work , like Fauré’s, speaks a different musical language from the mighty Requiem’s of Mozart or Verdi, and the choir, at the top of their game under Paul Hayward’s baton,  captured beautifully the sorrow, pain, the hope and the inherent humanity of Rutter’s masterpiece. The bleakness of the opening movement and its many other dark moments gave way to unmistakably optimistic and quietly joyous sections ensuring that its enduring message, as with Fauré’s Requiem,  was one of hope and comfort. It is not surprising that after the events of 9/11, Rutter’s Requiem   was the choice of music at the many memorial services across the USA. The subtle intricacies, nuance, lyricism and the quiet spirituality of each of this and the other works were quietly and sympathetically exposed by the choir as they gave voice to both the pathos and joy of the human condition both in life and in death.

Michael Overbury
Soprano Jane Harwood  was superb throughout - both complementing and leading the choir in the Requiem and in Mendelssohn’s  Hear My Prayer.  Her own solos: Handel’s V’Adoro Pupille  and Mozart’s achingly beautiful Dove Sono  were beautifully sung and worthy interludes between the main works as was Paul Hayward’s  piano performance of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Hayward’s  interpretation of this well known work painted a mysterious and yet captivating musical picture of shimmering moonlight. Accompanist Michael Overbury’s rendering of his own organ composition – Benediction - expressed exactly one of the most profound parts of the Eucharist when the Priest blesses the faithful and slowly raises the Eucharist before placing it back onto the altar. The crescendo  and diminuendo in Overbury’s composition  reflecting the intense devotion and expectation of the act magically captured both the spirituality and quiet beauty of the whole concert.
Taking a bow!

On a chilly and dark November evening this was both music and a performance to refresh and to still the soul. The Ruddington & District Choral Society are, to use modern day parlance “on a roll”. Paul Hayward’s skilled and sympathetic direction and leadership combined with Michael  Overbury’s highly talented musical skills are creating a choir that not only sounds good but which is capable of successfully tackling an increasingly wide repertoire. Choral singing is not only about hitting the right notes. It is as much about empathy with the piece and with what the composer intended; good conductors know this and good choirs are able to capture it. Both Paul Hayward and Michael Overbury, and the whole choir, should be pleased with themselves, together they captured perfectly the music, the autumnal atmosphere of the occasion and, most importantly, the essential ethereal nature and spirituality of these much loved works. The St Giles’ audience intuitively understood this and their appreciation showed it in their delighted applause.