Stockbridge Music – Sansara
St Peter’s Church – Monday 11th December 2016
Had Jean Mouton been in St Peter’s Church Stockbridge for this additional Stockbridge Music concert (he was born around 1459 and lived for at least sixty years) a warm glow would have infused his spirit. Quite simply, Sansara’s performance of his Nesciens mater, one of the evening’s items, was divine. This choir, twenty one in all this time, spread themselves around the church down both the side aisles from east to west to sing the complex work written in canon form. We were wrapped in beautiful sound and treated to the vocal quality of the individual singers as the choir passed musical themes one to the other.
But then Sansara has become a choir to rival any of this country’s finest. Some remain former Winchester choristers or quiristers, others with equal choral credentials have come on board. As with any of the best, all must possess unspoken musical understanding and matching voices to create balance and impeccable ensemble. Sansara ticks all the boxes.
This programme was devoted to works inspired more by the human dimension of Mary mother of Christ than the majestic aspect. Whether the music was contemporary or Renaissance, the choir performed with impeccable accuracy. For example in Sir John Taverner’s Mother of God, alive with texture; Halgrimsson’s Joseph and the Angel, a modern setting of a 1396 manuscript; and three works by the choir’s associate composers, Oliver Tarney, Marco Galvani and Owain Park. The latter’s The Mother of God and in particular Celia MacDowell’s O Oriens place great demands on the singers in a wealth of exposed dissonance, sopranos singing notes in clashes next to each other for example, here superlatively.
However it’s always a joy to hear music from the Renaissance in a dryer acoustic such as St Peter’s. Usually written originally for cathedrals, monasteries and abbeys, where their resonance swallows up the sounds, at least here musical detail and words are audible! Sansara relished shifting subtleties to and fro in works by Praetorius, Victoria, and des Prez. Thomas Tallis wrote Vidite Miraculum in chants followed by responses in six voices. The work has been described as possessing ‘heart-achingly gorgeous cadencies’. It does, and this performance proved it.
With its philosophy of shared conducting the Sansara sound is now well established, though graduation and some inevitable dispersion will arrive soon. Some members will turn fully professional, others remain amateur. Our best hope though is that we won’t lose the ‘banner’. After all, this singing is the very definition of choral excellence.
Stockbridge Music – David Owen Norris
St Peter’s Church – Saturday 15th October
Does Professor Norris ever sleep? He must be the most energetic and prodigious musician alive today. You name it, he’s done it, does it, plays it, and will tell you anything about it. A walking, talking, broadcasting, teaching, instrument-playing encyclopaedia of music. A flag bearer too for a 19th century musician who possessed the same attributes (except broadcasting of course), and whose surname was similarly unhyphenated – William Sterndale Bennett.
The name may not trip off the tongue, but Sterndale Bennett was in many ways Britain’s most influential mover and shaker of the 1800s, and not just in the music world. Mr Owen Norris devoted the concert’s second half to his Piano Sonata Opus 46, composed in 1871 and based loosely on Schiller’s story of Joan of Arc. All the movements reflect vividly their titles, whether battle, prison, pastoral paradise, sorrow or joy. Owen Norris played the sonata impeccably, with all the drama and contrasting peace the music demands.
Although his programme was devised to mark two bi-centenaries, Sterndale Bennett’s birth in 1816 and the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma, the most musical of her novels, he called his concert simply ‘A Musical Soirée for Jane Austen’. One piece he performed was copied in Jane Austen’s own hand, Fandango E Los Giganos. Originally a lady called Ann Thicknesse from the so-called leisured classes played this on the guitar. Her father was so outraged that his society daughter could have been ‘… placed in a becoming Attitude …’ while playing the instrument, that he set the Bow Street Runners on her, causing the Horse Guards to be brought out in her defence.
The evening’s music was charming, most of it written in Jane Austen’s time when, because of the expense, music was lent or borrowed rather than bought. Happily many of the manuscripts from that era are viewable not only at her former house at Chawton near Alton, but now online. Interestingly though, only in Emma is piano music alluded to specifically in any of her novels. Robin Adair was something of an Irish hit in those days, and Frank Churchill tells Emma that Jane Fairfax, ‘ … is playing Robin Adair’ on the new Broadwood piano that he’s given her anonymously.
Indeed it’s on a treasured 1828 Broadwood, just one of his beautifully kept and precious collection of instruments, that we were privileged to hear Owen Norris give his recital. As usual, he invited audience members to inspect his piano in the interval, and between each musical item he read amusing extracts from contemporary diaries and articles in his characteristic, inimitable and lively style. Hardly surprising that we left for home feeling happy.
Stockbridge Music – Index Cantorum
St Peter’s Church – Saturday 17th September
Thomas Weelkes was described by the authorities at Chichester Cathedral as a ‘comon drunckard, notorious swearer and blasphemer’ and sacked in about 1615 for being inebriated while playing the organ, but not before he’d written ground-breaking music – forty anthems, at least ten church services and yes, a hundred or so madrigals, sad ones, joyous ones, oddball ones. His works were nearly all for the voice, as were those written by the other composers featured by Index Cantorum in this latest concert in the Stockbridge Music series.
The choir kicked off with Thule, the period of cosmography by Weelkes, tackling with gusto its musical reflection of how even a far away icebound volcano’s sulphurious fire cannot compete with human emotions of love.
Six of the other composers featured in this concert also lived in the sixteenth century, and some of their works were written for eight parts, a sound that always warms the spirit. Omnes de Saba by Orlando Lassus is a fine example, well displayed here by the twenty five singers.
The evening’s theme was ‘journeys’ whether it was a soldier’s wish that the wind would blow him home in an excerpt from John Taverner’s Missa Western Wynde; the calming of a dangerous sea storm by Jesus in de Giaches de Wert’s Ascendente Jesu in naviculam; Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus Paulus apostolus by Christóbal de Morales; or the eight part depiction of the Israelites’ escape through the Red Sea Super flumina Babylonis by Philipe de Monte. All this music ebbed and flowed, effortlessly carried along by first class singing.
Index Cantorum’s founder and director, Mark Williams, describes his choir as a well-established ‘list of singers’ who from time to time gather to perform music that spans several centuries. Indeed, how good it was to hear their singing of the favourite anthem Beati quorum via by Stanford, the spiritual Wade in the water in an eight part version, two folksong arrangements by Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, and that simple poignant classic by Flanders and Swann, The Slow Train, in an arrangement with suitable sound effects from the choir!
Five or so years ago, the American composer Eric Whitacre declared that he’d make recordings of his works only with British choirs. They were the world’s best. And this was proved by the performance of his Leonardo dreams of his flying machine, an imaginative and vivid musical expression of a likely Da Vinci dream. Whitacre had just as much fun writing this as the choir had singing it, a fitting close to a most pleasurable evening.
Stockbridge Music – The Alauda Quartet
Stockbridge Town Hall, Saturday 23rd April 2016
With attack, that’s how these young players began their performance. This was the spirited first of four movements of Haydn’s String Quartet Opus 76, written in his twilight years at the same time he was working on The Creation. In this quartet’s Adagio, Haydn used the similar complex, adventurous and inventive harmonic progressions that he wrote for the beginning of the Creation, musically advanced for the time. Clearly we were in for a rewarding evening. The players especially enjoyed the tugging and teasing in the third movement’s Minuet dance.
While Haydn’s life was long – he died in 1809 aged 77 – Mendelssohn’s was tragically short – exactly 40 years less, but he still wrote 750 works before his death in 1847. His Capriccio in E minor is one of four string quartets, published together three years after he died. He famously championed the music of Bach, the master of the fugue. Hardly surprising then that he was a dab hand at it too, displayed here in this short work by giving the players much joyful ducking and weaving. The Alauda Quartet tackled it with gusto, and in the few gentler moments gave us a most pleasurable richness of sound.
It was Mendelssohn to whom Schumann dedicated the evening’s final work, his String Quartet, opus 41 number 1. They and Chopin were contemporaries, all of whose compositions were the very essence of 19th Century romanticism. This Schumann Quartet was performed charmingly by the Alauda. Youthful energy in the meandering first movement, bows bouncing off the strings in the second, textures resonant of the composer’s four symphonies in the fourth.
However it is the third movement, the Adagio, that endures. It echoes the song and piano works for which Schumann was so renowned. Here the cello is given the elegant, undulating melodic cornerstone, decorated by the other instruments. This haunting theme was played beautifully.
The Alauda Quartet, (named incidentally after one of Haydn’s other string quartets – Alauda is Latin for lark), is a truly European group. They met five years ago while studying at the Royal Academy of Music – the first violinist is from Spain, the second from Serbia; the viola player is from Wales; the cellist is Italian. Many plaudits have already come their way during their concert travels here and abroad.
The hallmark of the great string quartet ensembles – the Brodskys, Juilliards, Salomons, and Takács for instance – is the ultimate fusion of musical minds, souls and bodies, a quality that with time and further study will come to this talented group, that is if they decide to stay together. We hope they will. They played superbly, and whatever their futures, they deserve the best of luck.
Review of The London Harp Trio concert on Saturday 12th March 2016
What other instrument played these days possesses more than four thousand years of beguiling musical pedigree? I suspect hardly any. The ancient Egyptians would have marvelled at how their single stringed legacy would become multi-stringed and enable a vast variety of key changes and sonority. To show us how, Francs Kelly with a spellbinding performance or the virtuoso piece for solo harp, ‘Impromptu-Caprice’ by Gabtiel Pierne. Deceptively, the harp demands great strength,co-ordination and deft feetto adjust the seven pedals, and boy, was it in evidence here.
For the rest of the programme Frances was joined by the viola player Gustav Clarkson and flautist Judith Treggor, both fine soloists in their own right. Just two of the other six concert pieces were classical, a charming Rondo byMozart, and a four movement ‘sonate’ by Handel in which the accompanying harp subsituted for the harpsichord – no coincidence there.
In the audience was the prolific composer Paul Lewis who’s written a mutitude of scores for television, film & radio. His ‘Divertimento’ was penned specifically for the flute,viola and harp. Such an ensemble has inspired many composers and the Trio conveyed beautifully the skillful range of visual images, instrumental colours and evocative threads for which he is so renowned. A spectacular flourish of ripples ends the work, the sound we so much associate with the harp.
Frances arranges works to suit her Trio, for instance her adaption of movements from Ravel’s orchestral work ‘the Mother Goose Suite’. From it we heard three fairytales, ‘The Sleeping Beauty ‘, ‘Tom Thumb’ and ‘TheLittle Ugly Girl,empress of Pagodas’, the latter conjuring up a flavour of the Far East.
You couldn’t hear a pin drop during this concert, a testament to just how absorbing was the Trio’s playing a majority of comparatively contemporary sounding music. Take the ‘Elegiac Trio’ by Arnold Bax written one hundred years ago. He was classed as a Romantic, but this dissonant music reflecting the world’s turmoil at the time, ending with the uncertainty of a single note played on the flute.
The Trio finisged with a tour de force, Debussy’s ‘Sonate pour Flute, Alto et Harpe’. we were led through three contrasting movements written exactly at the same time as Bax’s work. Unsurprisingly this was confused , tortured, indeterminate sound, uncertain of where to go next, conveyed consummately by these oustanding artists. Debussy’s jagged music concludes abruptly with a stabbed major chord. The audience was ecstatic . Quite right too.
Review of ” The Time Traveller’s Guide to the Harp. A lively and humorous history of the Harp presented by Sarah Deere-Jones.
Etruscans, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, angels(of course) and a full house at Stockbridge Music’s concert in the Town Hall last saturday( 17th October 2015) have all thrilled over nearly three milenia to the ethereal sound of harp music. Rulers from Agamemnon to Edward VII have joined their company. Sarah Deere-Jonesis is as accomplished and knowledgeablea performer on the instrument as one will find anywhere, and in her lecture recital entitled ” The Time Traveller’s Guide to the Harp”, she squared up to its historical and technical complexities befroe her delighted audience. In effect, her evening combined the easy, extremely amusing delivery of a top class university lecturer with the skills of a faultless performer. Assisted by her husband, ( himself no mean musician) as occasional accompanist on the guitar and a collection of no fewer than five harps ancient and modern, she took us on a time-tour of harp music through the ages, ranging from medieval Scottish laments and dances, via an eighteenth-century Danish composer who wrote in a Mozart-Handel idiom ending with Dave Brubeck’s “Take five”. She told us that jazz and atonal , arhythmic modern music pose particular challenges for any harpist, and her tutors bullied her into these channels in order to enhance her skills. They had clearly been successful.
We learnt, among other things, that the harp for much of its life suffered from the serious restriction that it was a single key instrument, because the introduction of additional strings to cater for sharps and flats would have necessitated the provision of so many extra strings as to make playing the instrument too complex. eventually, about 300 years ago, it dawned on an ingenious Austrian that this problem could be accommodated by the provision of a small lever on the top of the bar framewhich, when depressed, shortened a string by an amount enough to make thebstring sound a semitone higher, there by making it into a sharp. The result was the introduction of levers for each string like little light switches along the top of the bar frame which now enabled the instrument to be played in different keys or , by rapidly using the switch while playing, to play a sharp note if thescore required it. A century or so later , the Parisien pino builder Erard, finding himself losing out to the superior piano made by John Broadwood, tuned to improving the mechanics of the harp and intoduced a pedal system. If you ever wondered what the pedalling carried out by a harpistis all about, the system introduced by Erard in 1809 is the cause. He introduced the system whereby adroit use of the pedal can either shorten or lenghten a sring by a semitone, thus enabling the harpist to play both sharps and flats with one tweak of the pedal with almost the same dexterity as a pianist, which in turn, removes the need for a small forest of extra strings which would defeat all but the most accomplished performers. We learnt a great deal from Sarah Deere-Jones, and her playing a wonderful evening enjoyed by all.
Review of Stockbridge Music Concert on Saturay June 6th 2015 by The Brook Street Band
James Montgomery writes:
The Brook Street Band are four consummate instrumentalists who played sonatas written purely by baroque composers who lived between 1653 and 1764. They performed as one, delighting in the thematic detail, the swapping of musical phrases, the suspensions before the resolutions, made so much more intense by the use of original baroque instruments played without vibrato.
The concert’s first half was devoted to three composers; that musical pioneer Corelli; Handel who without doubt was influenced by Corelli but didn’t get on with him; and Jean-Marie Leclair, a less well known composer who nevertheless wrote a great number of sonatas and founded the so-called French violin school by adapting the Italian baroque style to suit refined French taste. He also subjected his violin to dexterous gymnastics, well reflected in his composition ‘The First Recreation of Music’, which the Band played with impressive virtuosic vigour and appreciative grace as Leclair required. A superb performance.
Bach came along after the interval with two sonatas. While still officially baroque, how distinctive his chamber music sounds. Adagio or largo, the playing was fluid and sensitive. Vivace or presto, fingers ran up and down the frets at breakneck speed. The detail was impeccable.
And figured bass? As harpsichordist Carolyn Gibley explained after describing the workings of the instrument, the only music she had in front of her in each work was the bass line with numbers printed above every note. The baroque composers were happy for accompanists to provide their own musical decoration above the bass line, so long as they stuck to the harmonic structures indicated by the numbers. And if you understand that, you’ll understand anything.
If ever there was an example of why chamber music should be heard live, this was it, especially when performed so expertly and with such evident enjoyment.
Review of the Stockbridge Music Concert on 11th April 2015 by Sansara Choir
James Montgomery writes:
With surround sound – that’s how Sansara greeted the audience in St Peter’s Church for the second concert of this year’s Stockbridge Music series. The twenty one young singers split into smaller choirs along both side aisles to perform the complex motet Nasciens Mater by the French composer Jean Mouton (1459-1522). A divine sound enveloped the audience. Surely Mouton would have been impressed by such a faultless theatrical performance.
This outstanding singing set the tone for the entire concert, the first half devoted to more works written during the Renaissance. For its welcome return to Stockbridge, Sansara, a choir of university choral scholars and students who are mostly former Winchester Cathedral and College Choristers and Quiristers and who share the conducting, sang the music of Peter Phillips (c1560-1628), Alonso Lobo (1555-1617),Nicholas Gombert (c1495-c1560) and Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672).
All these composers lived comparatively long lives – some of them rocky lives – and wrote prodigiously. Gombert’s setting of Lugebat David Absalon in which David mourns for his son Absalom killed in battle in the story from the Book of Samuel, is extraordinarily musically advanced and complex for the time. Here Sansara wrapped strange harmonic progressions and rich contrasts with their heartfelt singing.
How wonderful to hear the German Magnificat by Schütz treated with the exuberance it deserves, the musical phrases thrown deftly from one half of the choir to the other in waltz time. A joy.
The second half opened in sharp contrast. Rudolf Mauersberger (1889- 1971), director of the Dresden Boys Choir, wrote Wie Liegt die Stadt so wüst (how desolate lies the city) only days after the bombing of February 1945. The baroque style Frauenkirche, really the city’s cathedral, was the choir’s performance home until it fell in temperatures of 1000 degrees. Sansara co-founder Tom Herring read out the text before the performance. Sadly many in the church found it difficult to hear him, an argument for including translations in the concert programmes. However the moving harmonies were deeply expressive, clearly reflecting the meaning of the words. Climaxing with the cry of ‘Warum’ (‘Why’), this is literate, figurative music, not a challenging listen, nevertheless provocative. The choir excelled.
As they did with their performance of the Mass in G Minor by Vaughan Williams. Solo chants introduced the five sections of the mass which was sung with dignified richness and impeccable accuracy. Four singers moved to the church’s west end for the interpolations within the Agnus Dei. A perfect and fitting interpretation.
The concert ended suitably with Gustav Holst’s Nunc Dimittis, sung with yet more perfection and feeling. At least it should have ended there, but for the choir adding an extra piece unnecessarily. The Holst was a moving and ideal enough finish. But this is nit-picking after an evening’s rewarding reassurance that the finest English choral tradition endures in the hands of a new generation of talented young singers.
Review of Stockbridge Music Concert on 14th March 2015 by La Serenissima
James Montgomery writes:
What’s in a name, in this case La Serenissima? To begin with, Venice, because that’s how the beautiful city was described when the music we enjoyed in St Peter’s Church in Stockbridge was composed. How rare and pleasurable it is to hear a concert devoted entirely to the baroque music of Venetian composers, all written at around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries.
A highlight was listening to the first performances of works in more than two hundred years. La Serenissima’s leader, the violinist Adrian Chandler, goes digging. He tours Europe digging in libraries for as yet undiscovered manuscripts and contemporary printed sources of Italian baroque music. In an evening entitled ‘Great Sonatas of Venice’ we were treated to some fruits of his success so far.
At full strength La Serenissima numbers up to twenty expert players. However the music we enjoyed was written either for three or four instrumentalists. So we heard two violins, a cello and a harpsichord. Not much you might think, but the baroque sounds filled the church.
Antonio Caldara is best known for his choral works, for example the glorious oratorio ‘Maddalena ai piedi di Christo’. But Chandler has unearthed two Caldara sonatas that he played with cellist Gareth Deats and Robert Howarth on harpsichord. These were eye-openers. In the allegros Chandler’s fingers darted up and down his violin’s frets at breakneck speed, even in one written in F minor, a key not suited to a baroque violin. Deats excelled here too. The largos were beautifully expressed.
The violinist Camilla Scarlett played with the group for the evening’s other works, including a clever and delightful Chiacona by Caldara in which the cellist plays the same theme in various keys while the violins dance with ornamental melodies above. Two sonatas by Albinoni (best known for the Adagio he didn’t write – but that’s another story) added beauty, sadness and dexterity played with admirable skill.
And then to Vivaldi with two sonatas by the great man. No wonder his works for ensembles large or small endure the test of time. Into his largos, allegros and andantes, La Serenissima injected subtlety, colour and virtuosity. The cellist’s lightness of touch, the harpsichordist’s faultless foundation, and Vivaldi’s musical chats between the violins were a joy, with sadness, regret, anger, irritation expressed in equal measure. The adagio in the concert’s final Vivaldi piece is a slow march, justifiably memorable for the expert jagged, accentuated ensemble playing by this impressive group.
With its added subtle, infinitesimal, well-judged pauses in the music to emphasise phrasing, no wonder La Serenissima is now established as a leading exponent of Vivaldi’s music and that of his contemporaries. A fine start to this year’s series of ‘Stockbridge Music’ concerts.