Thursday, 07 July 2022

Magical night of classical music reimagined for modern instrument

Magical night of classical music reimagined for modern instrument

IT felt like stepping into A
Midsummer Night’s Dream
in February, the darkened interior of St Mary’s lit by soft shades of flickering purple and green, like a dappled forest canopy.

Quiet birdsong completed the setting for the concert In Windsor Forest, a point of calm amid a terrible week of news.

The welcome from Chiltern Arts reflected the mood — their programme in Dorchester Abbey the previous evening had been changed to include a harp recital by a Ukrainian musician.

I was intrigued at the prospect of hearing Vaughan Williams’s compositions arranged for saxophone and early Baroque and Renaissance choral music set to the instrument (surely one of the more unusual things to come out of lockdown). I could not have imagined the standard of musicians or innovation that I was to hear.

The concert featured the Corvus Consort, a vocal ensemble of young professionals at the early stage of their singing careers, conducted by Freddie Crowley, and the new generation of artists, the Ferio Saxophone Quartet, featuring four saxophonists, including Henley’s own Huw Wiggin. It was enlivening that all the musicians were young (under 40 or so).

The first half included works by Bach (J S, J C and J M), Handel, Purcell and Schutz, some pieces performed by the ensembles together and some separately. Conductor Crowley described how Schutz imagined his composition for voices being performed with instruments but could not have imagined the
saxophone, which was not invented for another 200 years.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto performed by saxophone sounded so breezy, it was a joy to hear and see the musicians enjoying it too.

I liked the poetry readings by Ellie McMurray (alto sax) of Wordworth’s Composed Upon Westminster Bridge and With Ships The Sea Was Sprinkled
followed by The Wordsworth Poems, set to music commissioned by the Ferio Saxophone Quartet in 2017.

This composition by Dutch saxophonist Guillermo Lago was, for me, the most exciting piece. It had a very contemporary feel, unusual rhythms and vibrance that reminded me of contemporary dance.

It looked challenging to play but the saxophonists looked to be having a lot of fun performing it.

In complete juxtaposition, we were then treated to the introspective, lyrical phrases of Vaughan Williams’s Three Shakespeare Songs, with the voices of the Corvus Consort and an outstanding solo by Fiona Fraser sounding at once divine and magical.

This led us into the title piece, In Windsor Forest, a cantata adapted by Vaughan Williams using music from his opera Sir John in Love and arranged by Freddie Crowley.

Comprising five songs, we were led on a playful Shakespearian romp; a denunciation of men for women’s voices; a rollicking drinking song for men’s voices; a sparkling depiction of fairies; blissful wedding chorus and powerful celebratory epilogue.

This arrangement for choir and saxophone was commissioned specially by Chiltern Arts for the occasion in celebration of the 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’s birth this year.

It was received enthusiastically by an appreciative audience.

I was reminded of how lucky we are to have the freedom and peace to be united by the arts and how music and poetry connects us in community, through time, place and across generations.

I thought of my grandmother introducing me to her love of Vaughan Williams and my mother learning On Westminster Bridge on Westminster Bridge on her way to school. I am sure we all said a prayer for loved ones. Thank you to Chiltern Arts, namely founder and creative director Naomi Taylor and producer Fi Harding, for bringing such excellence in the arts and making it local and accessible for us all.

Also to the Corvus Consort and Ferio Saxophone Quartet for transporting us to a magical place, if just for a short time, and Steve Woolmer for the sound and lighting.

It seemed to me that faith or hope — whichever you choose — were experienced in St Mary’s this evening.

We have many festivals in Henley and this one needs to be placed firmly on our festival map. To discover the magic, put the Chiltern Arts Festival from May 14 to 21 in your diary (chiltern

Sue James

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