ALL good things come to an end — but that doesn’t mean they can’t go out on a high.
This time last year, Henley Choral Society musical director Benjamin Goodson was preparing his singers for an acclaimed performance of Bach’s St John Passion
at St Mary’s Church.
Henley Standard music critic Trevor Howell wrote of the resulting concert that it “must surely go down as Henley Choral Society’s finest hour”.
High praise. But this week the society announced that Ben’s recent appointment as director of chapel music at Somerville College, Oxford, will no longer allow him the time to continue in the post of musical director.
Happily, though, a grand finale is in the offing — a full-scale performance of Elgar’s choral masterpiece The Dream of Gerontius
in the magnificent setting of Reading’s Concert Hall, which can hold up to 780 people.
Starting at 7.30pm on Saturday, March 5, the concert will bring together more than 200 performers on stage, including three internationally acclaimed soloists, two choirs totalling around 150 singers, and a full professional symphony orchestra.
Henley Choral Society’s members, who have been rehearsing the piece since September, will combine with the Lea Singers, also conducted by Ben, who will sing the semi-chorus.
Written by Elgar in 1900, The Dream of Gerontius
was inspired by a celebrated 1865 poem of the same name by the Roman Catholic cardinal John Henry Newman.
Both works depict one man’s death and his soul’s spiritual journey into the next world, voyaging through fear, hope, dread, sadness and ultimately peace.
Asked what had inspired his choice of the work, Ben said: “Well, The Dream of Gerontius
is not something that anyone gets to do very often.
“It’s an enormous piece for a full symphony orchestra, three soloists, an enormous choir and a smaller choir — and I thought that the choir was in a pretty good position to take something like this on. They really did so well with their big concert last year, Bach’s St John Passion
, which is a smaller scale work but just as challenging — they’re both very challenging — and I thought that they’d be in a very good position to do this.
“And it’s also a very nice occasion for me, especially being my last concert, because it brings together various different elements of my life — these are soloists that I’ve wanted to work with for a long time, and also it’s combining two of my choirs.
“As a sort of final farewell I wanted to do something that would be memorable, large-scale, and bring together lots of different people that I work with.”
He added: “It’s one of the reasons we have to go to Reading, because there’s nowhere in Henley that’s big enough to hold everyone that’s involved in the piece.
“We normally perform in St Mary’s Church, but for an orchestra the size that this piece requires, which is about 50 people, it wouldn’t be big enough.
“The Concert Hall in Reading is a pretty big venue and it’s got space up in the gallery where the choirs sit. It’s not necessarily a thing we’d want to do all the time, but for something this scale it’s nice to use a slightly grander venue.”
On Saturday, Henley’s Holy Trinity Church was the venue for a one-day workshop aimed at honing the singers’ performance of The Dream of Gerontius
and cementing their understanding of it.
Speaking on Friday, Ben told the Henley Standard
: “It gives us a chance to explore the piece over a bit more time, because obviously at our Monday night rehearsals we’ve got to get through the notes — we’ve got millions of notes to learn and things like that.
“Tomorrow [Saturday] is more of a chance to relax into it and really explore what the piece is about, what it means.
“He [Gerontius] goes up to heaven and looks God in the eye. There’s a sort of journey of the soul immediately after death.
“Which sounds really morbid — and it is quite dreary, actually, in lots of ways — but it’s amazing music and very poignant.
“Having done that, Gerontius realises how flawed he is in comparison to God, and then his soul ends up in purgatory as a place where it can heal itself.”
To modern sensibilities, that might not sound like the happiest of endings, but as Ben makes clear the theological debate over the nature of purgatory has a long history.
“Well, it’s interesting because this text, which is a poem by Cardinal Newman, was really trying to re-establish purgatory as something positive. It had really fallen into this idea of purgatory being a sort of terrifying, hellish place — a sort of punishment.
“And actually, Cardinal Newman in the poem tries to redress the balance, tries to suggest that purgatory is not this hellish realm at all but a place of cleansing and healing.”
Elgar’s version of The Dream of Gerontius
falls into two parts, running for around an hour and a half in total.
Among the talented musicians joining the production are tenor Joshua Ellicott — hailed as “outstanding” by the Times
— who will play Gerontius.
Mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard has received critical acclaim for previous interpretations of the Angel, while bass soloist Matthew Brook has been described by the Observer
as turning “everything he sings to gold”.
Henley Choral Society chairman Susan Edwards said: “Ben is an inspirational conductor and under his expert guidance we have delivered some outstanding performances.
“We are of course extremely sad to see Ben go, but are all delighted that our last performance with him will be a spectacular performance in such a fitting venue as the Reading Concert Hall.”
She added: “To make life a little easier for Henley residents, coaches are being put on to take audience members from Henley Station via Shiplake to the Reading Concert Hall and back again after the performance. So do come and join us for an unforgettable musical experience.”
Tickets for the concert are priced £18 and can be booked by calling Jan French on (01491) 572795. They are also available over the counter from Gorvett & Stone, 21 Duke Street, Henley. Coach tickets are £7 return and must be booked before Friday, February 26.