Folk meets art - that now matters more than ever
St Cecilia was a saint beheaded by agents of a repressive regime. Earlier in the day during the Service of Remembrance, we heard the Irish poet Michael Coady’s thoughts on the solace of art: that even while men – and women – are screaming in prisons, elsewhere orchestras are “releasing / Glories of the Spirit”. These thoughts lingered with this reviewer as last weekend Shrewsbury’s musicians shone light in abundance on a darkening world with a St Cecilia concert that offered the welcome counterbalance of vigour and expertise. It was glorious, indeed.
Maestro John Moore whisked the School Symphony Orchestra through the Vaughan-Williams’ English Folk Song Suite with a sparkling ebullience. For this suite originally composed originally for brass band, the orchestra proved as well-drilled as any bandsmen in capturing the boisterous certainties of the first and last movements, and the elegiac colours of its intermezzo captured with affecting, thoughtful sensitivity. Sounds of a more generous England, perhaps, that even in the 1920s, after RVW’s epic efforts to collect the genius of our native folk songs, were fast disappearing.
Next, Linda Zhao assumed her place in the pantheon of pianism that the School has established in recent years with a touching and moving rendition of Mozart’s K488. Here was stylish yet impeccably neat playing that found its most expressive voice in the cheekiness of the final rondo and in the pearly vivacity of Linda’s superb technique. In the tragic aria of the slow movement the Orchestra found deft and conversational balance with the dying falls of the piano – soloist and band were clearly listening in a display of mutually exemplary musicianship.
Tight ensemble playing characterised the rest of the half, too, with the opening movement of Dvorak’s eighth symphony, which, despite the allegro con brio marking held its nerve to inhabit the expansiveness suggested by allegro, that is, not a marking of tempo, but of attitude, happy – and jolly good it was too.
Folk songs followed with the verdant splendour of Grainger’s English Country Gardens summoned into airy existence by the ever excellent Shrewsbury School Wind Orchestra under Donny McKenzie, who delivered one of the highlights of the half – Adam Gorb’s Midnight in Buenos Aires. The wind players delivered an enthralling performance of this challenging contemporary take on tango, with Frank McCoughlan trumpet solos, so smokily sultry that I wonder why he persists on hanging around in my English lessons when he clearly has the talent to hotfoot it to the dives of BA and clean up pronto on the nightclub scene.
Folk went pop as it met Art (and Paul) with the School’s vocal talents to the fore after the interval. First, Dympna Nightingale’s coaxed an immaculate rendition of the Simon and Garfunkel ‘Sounds of Silence’ album from the impressive Chamber Choir.
The control that characterised their performance, in many respects, floated effortlessly into the starring solo roles in the behemoth that is the Bach Magnificat in D, a monumental piece of epic proportion and fine detail. Yet despite the piece’s considerable complexities, the massed forces of the Shrewsbury School Community Choir and orchestra carried it off with indefatigable aplomb and the highest ideals of musicianship. It is a remarkable fact that all soloists were drawn from the student body (Sophia Price, Jessie Inglis-Jones, Ben Lloyd, Ngo Hin Chen, Tianci Wang, Stephanie Christenson): how often does that happen at other schools, I wonder? In any case, to hear young voices brave the currents of some of the repertoire’s trickiest writing and deliver in such fine style truly emboldens the spirit.
Et exultavit in arte spiritus meus.