Sometimes an event seems to come just at the right moment in life, and for Shrewsbury School and the wider community in Shropshire, Zimbe appeared last Sunday like a burst of warmth and sunshine in the middle of the wettest winter on record, giving the soggy spirits of Salopians old and young a deserved lift ,and an injection of joie de vivre. Alex Mason’s decision to mount a performance of this inspirational work was itself an inspired decision, and combining the performance of Zimbe in the first half of the concert, with an equally sublime second half of performances from the Chamber Choir and Big Band, proved the perfect partnership.
Zimbe is a composition by one of the UK’s leading young composers, Alexander L’Estrange for Children’s Choir, Student Choir and Adults, accompanied by jazz instrumental ensemble. To have Alex L’Estrange himself there for the performance was an essential part of the evening’s success, from his enthusiastic warm-ups in the afternoon rehearsal, to his leading from electric bass his Call Me Al Quintet of superb jazz musicians. Alexander has taken traditional African tunes and texts, and melded them into a wonderful blend of glorious harmonies, which combine multi-layered with the rhythms and harmonies of jazz, with its African roots, to become truly a work for today’s performers and audiences. Accessible, but never patronising, Zimbe holds the audiences attention from its anthemic beginning to its increasingly exciting and rich textured ending. It passes through songs of comfort, through songs of celebration, but at the heart lies wonderfully, in the words of the composer “Ear-Worm” tunes, which stay with the listener long after the final notes have sounded.
Alex Mason worked tirelessly in the weeks preceding the event to pull together nearly 200 or so performers – the biggest choral group to perform in the Alington Hall for many years. He drew his forces from Shrewsbury School’s own Community Choir, the School’s Chapel Choir of which he is Director, and also managed to bring three prep schools, Prestfelde, Birchfield and Shrewsbury High School Prep together to sing the enchanting children’s choral parts. Alex trained and rehearsed all of these forces, with support from the Directors of Music from the various schools taking part, to whom we are of course very grateful for their support and hard work.
Alex conducted the work, and his talents as a wonderful Choral Trainer and inspirational musician were constantly evident during the course of the performance. A beautiful choral blend, attention to detail, a relaxed, happy approach to the music (including some fine moves from members of the Community Choir!), but above all terrific musicianship imparted to his performers and delivered back to the audience in bucket loads. The audience responded by enthusiastically clapping along with the performers and frequently between movements.
The global village that we now live in musically has brought the rhythms of Africa and the West together before. David Fanshawe’s ‘African Sanctus’ was virtually the only kid on the block for choirs before Zimbe. Paul Simon in his two albums, Graceland and The Rhythm of the Saints fused the popular American song tradition with the rhythms and sounds of South Africa. Duke Elington achieved a near perfect blend in his Sacred Concertos for Chorus and Big Band, but Alexander L’Estrange’s ability to create a fusion of the two genres in a deceptively simple yet effective way, must be one of the most successful ever.
Mention must also be made of some lovely solo and quartet singing from the Chapel Choir – in particular George Fowler, Henrike Legner, Charlotte Harris, Laurence Jeffcoate, Awen Blandford and Henry Craig – the prep school children singing their hearts out from memory, and of course the excellent singing of the Community Choir, who are involved with the School on so many joyous musical occasions and whose support for Shrewsbury School music is so important. Accompanying all this was Alexander L’Estrange and his Call me Al Quintet of superb jazz musicians. The jazz breaks in the piece gave them special opportunities to shine as players, and they took every opportunity to do so. There were some really inspired piano solos from John Turville, a wonderful percussion moment from Tim Goodyer and Adam Riley, and mellifluous sax from Simon Allen, all underpinned by the bass playing of Alex L’Estrange himself.
The second half consisted of a programme from the Chamber Choir and Big Band. The Chamber Choir are a small but perfectly formed group of student singers, who under Dympna Nightingale’s direction produce a wonderfully blended sound, always capturing the essence of their repertoire, and are a delight to listen to. The Big Band under their tireless director Maria McKenzie then rounded the evening off in terrific style, with a really high standard of instrumental ability on display and some fine individual moments, all held wonderfully together by the rhythm section of Joe Dodd on Drums, Jonty Robinson on bass and Andrew Spicer on piano.
The Band were joined by two guest soloists. Ben Higgins, still only in his second year at Shrewsbury, delivered a superb rendering of ‘Come Fly with Me’, and Connie Osborne, who is in her final year at the School, sang a blistering version of ‘Skyfall’. The Band’s rendition of ‘Harlem Nocturne’ featured Henry Newbould on fine form on Alto Sax, and also Andrew Spicer, who has blossomed into a fine jazz player, on piano.
In conclusion, it was a wonderful evening, enjoyed by a packed Alington Hall, and is an undoubted prelude to other similar occasions in the future. It’s perhaps worth mentioning finally one other simple stroke of genius by Alex Mason, and that was to preface the performance of Zimbe with a beautifully, hushed, hummed rendition of the South African national anthem. With only weeks having passed since the death of Nelson Mandela, no more fitting tribute could have been paid, and no more fitting sounds could have been heard to start last Sunday’s remarkable concert.
To listen to an audio recording of the Big Band and Chamber Choir performing during the second half of the concert, please click on the link below. (The recording was made by the students of Shrewsbury School TV group):
Shrewsbury School Big Band and Chamber Choir in performance, Sunday 9th February 2014