21 May, 2017

"Music To Hear" - Indeed It Was!

The title of the concert performed by the Ruddington & District Choral Society last night (Saturday May 20th) at St Peter’s Church in Ruddington was well chosen – Music to Hear. It was indeed, music to hear - and to enjoy, to reflect upon and to be quietly moved and inspired by. The programme notes were clear: “A selection of light choral music for a Spring Evening” – well, it was certainly a selection, it was definitely choral, and it was indeed very suitable for a Spring evening. But, although it might be rightly described as “light” this was in no way popular or easy listening music. This was music to listen to and to think about; music to keep singers, players and audience on their toes throughout the performance: an eclectic selection of works each in its own way taxing for both performers and listeners.

Neither was this a “pick and mix” concert of thrown together “bits and bobs”: there was a common theme that shone through and added to the success of the performance. It was a concert of very English music – both in terms of composers and of musical style: Vaughan Williams, John Rutter, Charles Hubert Parry, Charles Villiers Stanford – and, surprisingly but wonderfully, George Shearing the jazz pianist and composer. The church was full with an eager and attentive audience and had every member of that audience closed their eyes for the whole of the performance, and at the same time been unknowing of the content of the concert, the music would have told them exactly where they were – in an English church on an English Spring evening; it could not have been otherwise.  Musical Director Paul Hayward had chosen his programme well – not only was it a successful and very appropriate programme for the time and place but, importantly, one which widened the repertoires of both singers and audience.  With Hayward’s sympathetic, skilled and confident conducting ably supported by the exquisite accompaniment of Michel Overbury’s organ and piano the Choir rose to the occasion magnificently, gaining in stature as the concert progressed. It all ensured that as the last triumphal notes of Vaughan Williams’  Let All the World in Every Corner Sing – the final movement of his Five Mystical Songs – rang out everyone in the church knew that they had much enjoyed and been very much inspired by what they heard. In the months that Paul Hayward has been in charge and that Michael Overbury’s undoubted musical input has been there the Choir has been transformed. It was already good, indeed, a leading light in the local musical scene, but there is now something else – a new dimension. There is a joyousness and depth to the singing and the sound; to watch the faces of the Choir as they face their conductor or their response to Overbury’s accompaniment is to see a choir at one with itself. The widening repertoire has brought a new confidence and musicality; both Musical Director and Accompanist have much to be proud of – I suspect the Choir know it and the audience can certainly see and hear it. 

The programme allowed the Choir – and the solo tenor, Geoffrey Hicking – to show off their musicality to the full. Opening with a subdued but reverential  singing of Parry’s much loved  I Was Glad  the Choir then gave an exquisite rendering of his My Soul There is a Country  from his song cycle  Songs of Farewell. Written after the carnage of World War 1 when Parry was at an emotional low having witnessed the destruction of a generation the Choir gave a haunting and elegiac performance of a difficult work, and in doing so set the tone for what was to come. And what was to come was a serene and beautifully crafted short piece by Stanford – The Bluebird based on the poem by Mary Coleridge, grand-niece of the great Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Michael Overbury’s flowing accompaniment and the gently soaring voices of the sopranos painted a haunting, delicate and memorable musical canvas.
St Peter's, Ruddington

The evening also provided superb musical interludes in the form of piano duets from young pianists Chris Ebbern and Matt Henderson. This was a marked contrast to the choral works and in being so enhanced both. A quiet and beautifully articulated playing of the popular Canon in D by Pachelbel was followed by a bright and majestic performance of Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba – as I sat in my seat I saw that wasn’t alone in quietly drumming my finger or nodding my head in time with the breezy and confident playing of this glorious piece of Handel. And, in the second half of the concert these two talented musicians really tugged at the emotions with a splendidly performed medley of works from the hit musical Les Misérables; from the great revolutionary marching anthem Do you hear the people sing?  to the plaintive Castle in the Clouds  to the emotional roller coaster of Bring Him Home -  these two young pianists captured the audience. At the end of the concert they seemed reluctant to take a final bow – they should not have been so, they had provided a very much appreciated and wonderful interlude between the choral works and not only that, I suspect that many in the audience went away humming and remembering their fine playing as a very real highlight of the evening.

John Rutter is almost a mainstay of 20th and 21st century choral events in this country and further afield so it is difficult to always do him justice such is the ubiquity of his work. But last night the Ruddington & District did just that; their singing of his I Will Sing with Spirit and This is the Day  were both quietly joyous and celebratory. These two works are typical Rutter, music not only to enjoy, but rather to think about, to feel good about but at the same time with an undeniable spirituality about them. Rutter’s music is what one might call “contemporary English” – distinctly subdued, simple, perhaps even homely it is music that is understated but powerful for all that and the Choir captured this completely and in doing so set the scene for the final work of the first half of the concert - George Shearing’s Music To Hear.
John Rutter
This little known work is an absolute gem and in a way quite unique. Born into humble circumstances in London Shearing was blind from birth but from an early age showed a phenomenal talent for the piano. Becoming captivated by some of the great American Jazz musicians of the inter war years Shearing, after working as a pub pianist in London, eventually found his natural home in the jazz scene of New York. He quickly rose to international fame, working with some of the greatest names of the era such as Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitgerald. His compositions September in the Rain and Lullaby of Birdland are  recognised as two of the all time great songs and his jazz group the George Shearing Quintet acknowledged as one of the greatest jazz ensembles. He became a US citizen, played for US Presidents, received numerous awards including a CBE and later a Knighthood, and, as he aged, increasingly turned his attention to the classical world and especially to choral work. One of the results of that interest was his composition Music to Hear, a musical working of some of Shakespeare’s words: Music to Hear, Is it for Fear to Wet a Widow’s Eye, Shall I Compare Thee, Sigh No More Ladies and Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind.

This work is and was last night an absolute delight. Taxing in the extreme for any choir it requires much unaccompanied singing; the layered voices and changing rhythms means that everyone has to be on top of their game. Sitting in the audience I watched and listened quite mesmerised; the Choir totally focused on their conductor as he led them through the musical intricacies and potential pitfalls this complex work where Elizabethan airs intertwine with jazz melody and where Elizabethan courtly dance rhythms vie with sophisticated jazz syncopations. It was a rich tapestry of gentle reflective almost elegiac music interwoven with beautifully articulated, bright jazz phrasing  that would have equally found favour at some great jazz venue like Ronnie Scott’s. It was not an audience of jazz aficionados that listened in that village church in the middle of England last night but we all knew that this was something special.  Michael Overbury’s subtle and often swinging accompaniment gave added brilliance – yes, that is not too extreme a word - and as the final notes died away and brought an end to the first half of the concert there was an almost audible intake of breath; the concert, and Shearing’s work as  performed by the Ruddington & District had in the very gentlest of ways a “wow factor”  and I suspect that many, like me, felt that we had been part of something that had cut to the very soul and to the very heart of Englishness – even though it had been composed and first performed across the Atlantic, far from middle England and a Nottinghamshire church!
The multi-talented George Shearing

Refreshed with a glass of wine we all took our seats looking forward to the second half and we were not disappointed as the Choir began with conductor Paul Hayward’s own splendid arrangement of the old English song Soldier, Soldier Will You Marry Me. With the tenors and basses often providing a military marching beat this was another work that everyone needed to concentrate upon. And this they did – every word crisp and clear the ladies of the Choir carryied on a musical conversation with the men until, as the final bars approached, the wayward tenors and basses had to confess to those ladies of the Choir that that they could not marry for they had a wife and babe of their own at home!  Smiling at this bit of musical fun the audience burst into applause – it was English music and history to the core, a tale of an English Redcoat soldier and the young girl bedazzled by the his fine uniform and apparent bravery, and all brought to life with Hayward’s fine arrangement. He must have been well pleased with his Choir for  their enjoyable and much enjoyed rendering of his work.

And so to the final three works – all by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Williams, born of a well to do family with strong moral views and a progressive social and political outlook sought, throughout his life to be of service to his fellow citizens and believed in making music available to everybody. Declining many offered honours such as Master of the King’s Music he rose to the top of the English musical world of the early twentieth century and wrote music that touched and continues to touch and tap into the very essence of England and Englishness. It is not inappropriate that despite his lifetime rebuttal of fame and fortune he was buried in Westminster Abbey. For many, Vaughan Williams’ greatest legacy to his country and to music is his transcribing of English folk songs – in 1903 he “discovered” this interest when he heard a 70 year old labourer sing a folk song at a vicar’s tea party. This musical heritage was becoming extinct as country life changed, literacy became more widespread and printed music became more easily available.  So Vaughan Williams set himself the task of travelling the country and transcribing for posterity this great musical heritage. In all he set down over 800 such works which otherwise might have been lost and in doing so had a profound and lasting effect upon the music that he himself, and others, composed: The English Folk Song Suite, Fantasia on Theme by Thomas Tallis, Five Variants on Dives and Lazarus and various parts of his nine great symphonies are all witness to the impact of English folk music; in short he created an English sound.

The Choir’s beautiful singing of Vaughan Williams’ The Turtle Dove was a delicate and mellow rendering of the song first heard by Williams at The Plough Pub in Rusper, Sussex in 1903 when the landlord sang the old song to the composer. As I sat listening to this haunting song of love and loss I couldn’t help but feel that this the England of Thomas Hardy, of rosy cheeked, fresh faced girls, of strong young farm hands, of harvest time and of great rural skies. Tenor Geoffrey Hicking’s gentle solo voice was an admirable foil for the choir’s sublime singing as the last of the Spring sunset died through St Peters’ church windows. And as the sky turned dark, one of the great English songs – Vaughan Williams’ Linden Lea -  based on the poem by Dorsetshire poet William Barnes was sung. This was Williams’ first published song in 1912 and, so to speak, brought his name to public attention. We sat spellbound at the sheer musicality of this lovely melody and the Choir’s almost reverential singing. It spoke of a different time – of ladies in pastel flowing dresses and feathered hats, of men in waistcoats, of village greens and the sound of bat on willow. It spoke of the last sunset of Edwardian England before the grotesque carnage of the Great War and the much harsher and perhaps more cynical and mistrustful modern world that we now inhabit. Yes, maybe it spoke of a mythical world that never really existed, a rose coloured place that we like to believe in but that mattered not for the Choir transported us back to this better place and we loved them for it.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
The final work was also Vaughan Williams: his Five Mystical Songs  the musical  settings of George Herbert’s seventeenth century The Temple: Sacred Poems. Simple and yet deeply spiritual Vaughan Williams’ lingering, poignant and evocative composition weaves a complex fabric of sounds, melodies and words. The solo tenor part was exquisitely sung by Geoffrey Hicking and the choral accompaniment at different times mysterious, magical and then majestic. Sitting listening one couldn’t but recognise the influence of the English folk song tradition on Williams’ composition and at the same time feel the spirituality of the work as echoes of great liturgical music made their presence known. The lonely, almost bleak sound of the tenor contrasted with the subdued but rich devotional voices of the choir and produced a moving and mystical atmosphere. And as the song cycle moved into its final section, too, and the finale of the concert the magnificent and glorious words and sounds of the great hymn of praise Let All the World in Every Corner Sing rang through St Peters. In a trice the music and the atmosphere changed from the mystical and mysterious to the celebratory and triumphant; the Choir’s soaring voices, Michael Overbury’s majestic chords, the tenor’s glorious sound and Paul Hayward’s swooping baton brought it all to a sparkling and exultant yet reflective and meditative climax. A fitting work, indeed, to end such a concert in an English church on a Spring evening.

Yes, this was indeed Music to Hear – but it was more. I suspect that it wasn’t just me who walked out of St Peters’ into the dark night and knew that this was music to think about not just to hear. It was music to remember, music not just as entertainment but music to enrich the soul and perhaps remind us of our humanity and of our tiny place in the great scheme of things. Thank you Ruddington Choral Society, and thank you Paul Hayward, Michael Overbury, Geoffrey Hicking, Matt Henderson and Chris Ebbern  for such a wonderful evening that will stay in the mind for a long time.

As I flicked through my programme this morning - the day after the concert I noticed the programme for RDCS's next concert in December! What a treat - especially so for me as a Baroque music enthusiast. A huge change from last night's programme and a programme that will test the performers in so many different ways and to their musical limits: JS Bach's glorious Magnificat, his much loved Cantata No. 140 Sleepers Wake and ,from the Ruddington Chamber Ensemble, the exquisite Corelli Concerto grosso in G minor. Op 6. No. 8 - The Christmas Concerto. What better way could there be to start Christmas! Come and join us at St Peter's on Saturday Dec 9th to enjoy the choral glories of the world's greatest composer, Johann Sebastian Bach and the stunning beauty and brilliant musicality of Arcangelo Corelli's timeless and Concerto - you won't be disappointed!

You can find out more about the Choir at http://www.ruddingtonchoral.com/

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