Gala Concert: Gloria
Date: Tuesday 22 March 2011
Gala Concerts in the cathedral are always very special occasions for St Edmund’s: the best of the School’s musicians and an incomparable setting. Will Bersey invited us to be uplifted and so it proved with an interesting, challenging but above all an inspiring choice of choral and symphonic pieces. Walton’s Crown Imperial was a triumphant beginning, a reminder of a time immortalised in the film of the year, ‘The King’s Speech’. The sonorous power of this Coronation Anthem from 1937 brought out the pomp and majesty as surely as the film had played up the human side of monarchy. The Englishness of the evening was then put on pause till the interval and we were treated to three superb orchestral compositions. Beethoven’s Romance in D provided an opportunity for Timothy Edlin’s violin solo which he performed with dextrous suppleness and sensitivity in his final Gala concert as Leader of the Orchestra. Filling the vast space of the Cathedral with a single stringed instrument is a daunting prospect: Tim held his nerve and each note in his arpeggios had a clarity that ignited the ‘tender dialogue’ with the orchestra that Will Bersey had pointed out in his programme notes. What a contrast with the next piece, the magisterial Mussorgsky’s Old Castle from Pictures at an Exhibition! In this evocative melody, Tom Vafidis demonstrated a mastery of the alto saxophone that has graced many a school occasion. The surprise to me was to register what range this instrument has in Tom’s capable hands. Its plaintive power and sustained melancholy did indeed take us into the medieval world of the lonely troubadour. The orchestra, guided by Spencer Payne’s baton provided a superbly controlled performance as Tom held the Nave spellbound with his confident hauteur, another soloist calling out to high stone walls.
The final selection of the first half was in celebration of Franz Liszt’s bicentenary, his Symphonic Poem Hamlet. I knew nothing about this piece and found it mesmerizing. It seemed to produce great waves of sound that lapped the ramparts of Elsinore. The sense of ghosts on the battlements, the suggestions of self-lacerating soliloquies and the lyricism of the maddened Ophelia were all brought to life in this highly demanding work, amusical challenge for even the talented musicians of St Edmund’s. It was impressionistic, an utterly different Liszt to the pianistic virtuoso more familiar to this layman listener, but from strings to woodwind, it was an exciting revelation.
The second half began with Purcell and the polish and panache of the Jubilate Brass followed by a choral spectacular as Will Bersey brought together a variety of choirs – choristers, Chapel Choir and Choral Society joined by the Choral Society Youth Choir for Rutter’s Gloria. A veritable wall of sound was created, as visually spectacular as it was aurally sumptuous. The Jubilate Brass were bolstered by excellent school performances from percussionists Lucy Crooks, Stefan Fletcher and Oscar Jackson, all under the watchful eye of Ross Underwood, not to mention Spencer Payne (organ). Sopranos soared, choristers lent crystalline clarity and basses boomed, in this ‘joyful noise’ in the Director’s well-chosen phrase. E.M. Forster had a similar taste for the deprecating oxymoron (for him, Beethoven’s noise was ‘sublime’) and the following piece - noted in the programme as a ‘grand noise in praise of God’ - perfectly describes Vaughan Williams’s O Clap Your Hands as the exultant beginning and end sandwich a quieter incantatory middle! What better way to finish than to sing forth I Was Glad, Parry’s magnificent anthem. Vivacity even without ‘Vivats’ - a glorious end indeed to a heart-warming and joyous evening of music making. I left uplifted, my instincts vindicated in the overheard compliments of more expert listeners as coats were gathered. The cathedral, its stones once more enriched, stood quiet again.