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Cumbria Choral Initiative 10th Anniversary Concert – Finzi and Fudge: Nichola Hurndall Smith (tenor) New Millennium Chorus, Youth Chorus and Orchestra/Roland Fudge , Kendal Parish Church, 27.3. 2010 (RB)

Gerald FINZI - Intimations of Immortality

Roland FUDGE - Celestial Light


The Parish Church of Kendal in the South Lake District is in the Kirkland part of Kendal and dates back in parts to the 1340s. It is said to be the second widest parish church in the UK. Widthways there are four ranks of pews divided by three aisles. Facing the audience/congregation are various church features that prevent the standard centre-focused spread of choir, orchestra and soloist. To the left-hand side of the pews there is a wider than usual aisle running most of the length of the church.


Performance of choral-orchestral pieces in churches presents particular challenges. Each has its own set. Cumbria Choral Initiative (CCI) came up with their own solution to putting on a concert of regional attraction and significance in this extremely attractive church. The choir were placed on four ranks of raise-tiered seating running along the left-hand wall of the church so that some of the audience would have had the choir on their left-hand side. The orchestra was deployed across the front of the church either side of columns and other features. The soloist stood facing the audience centre-front with the conductor to the soloist’s right hand side – our left. It all worked rather well from an audio point of view in this complicated venue. There were however natural difficulties with all the performers seeing and being seen by the conductor. Visually – as is usual with such venues – columns got in the way but the music communicated admirably even when for the second half of the concert (the Finzi) I chose to sit in the rank of pews furthest away from the choir on the right hand side of the church. The church also hosted an exhibition of work by local schoolchildren on the theme of Darkness and Light.


This concert was quite an event. It served to mark CCI’s tenth anniversary. CCI is not a choir but a committee. On average once every two years they make a major concert happen drawing on artistry, skill, effort and inspiration across the North-West and beyond. Its founder, leading light and mover and shaker is the dynamic conductor Ian Jones. He is well practised at every aspects from the musical to the committee to grant applications and the machinations of the patchwork quilt of grant funders and hitting their priorities in presenting applications. Over the years their productions at Kendal have included a Finzi weekend in 2001, the Missa Solemnis, RVW’s Dona Nobis Pacem and Britten’s War Requiem. The start of the latter had to be delayed by ten minutes while the large number of audience members found their seats. There weren’t quite so many at last night’s concert – perhaps 300, 350.


Jones should have been conducting last night but he and his wife (a member of the choir) were knocked off their tandem in a road accident on 16 February and Ian was unable to take the podium though both he and his wife did sing in the choir. In Ian’s place the composer Roland Fudge stood in not only for his own piece but also for the Finzi. Fudge, who several years ago performed The Lark Ascending to great acclaim with the CCI, would otherwise have been last night’s Leader. As it was CCI had to draft in a professional Leader from Manchester.


Performances of the Finzi are not that common. It’s an expensive and demanding piece though not that long at about 40 minutes or so. The last performances I have noted were in Bushey last year and Cambridge this year. This was only my second live event. My first was in Bristol’s Colston Hall circa 1982 with the tenor Neil Jenkins and the Bristol Choral Society and orchestra.


I was fortunate to be allowed by the very cordial Ian Jones and Ann Heap to attend the Kendal rehearsals from 2pm to 5pm. The always good-humoured choir (at least while I was present) numbering circa 100-120 were first of all limbered up with a series of ascending Eee-aaah-eeh-aaahs. The time was then taken up by what amounted to performances of the two works starting with the Finzi. Each took up in total some 90 minutes with each played through from start to end with a halt being called by the conductor to adjust this and that detail from time to time. Balancing dynamics was a recurrent issue between choir, instruments and tenor soloist. The choir’s professionalism showed through repeatedly not least in their own requests to the conductor to re-take particular segments notably the final part of the Finzi: “Too deep for tears”.


The Roland Fudge piece came in the first part of the evening and played for about 30-35 minutes. It was written to CCI commission over a nine month period. In a pre-concert talk with Ian Jones, Fudge spoke in a relaxed and disarmingly revealing way. While he could not say that he had been “chosen by the words” in the way that Finzi claimed for his various settings it was clearly a work very close to his heart. The germ of the idea lay in part of Tolkien’s creation epic – an episode from The Silmarillion - in which the heavenly music of the primordial beings contends with the music of arrogance and disruption. For me that idea instantly recalls the freewheeling improvised assaults of the side-drum in Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony. Here the war in heaven came in part III Rebellion with a cauldron of tormented dissonance, crocodile jawed brass, the knowing insolence of two electric guitars, a brief blaze of raucous metropolitan jazz and a drum-kit inferno. As the composer said: in a heavenly battle wrong notes are essential.


Whether or not he is an influence this brightly lit filament of a work at times recalled for me the bright wattage encountered in William Mathias’s This Worldes Joie. It also has a parallel or two with the Finzi which clearly also means a very great deal to both Fudge and Jones. The Finzi has its calypso patterns and the Fudge piece evoked the rumba at least once. The primeval horn-call that closes and opens the Finzi is quoted fairly directly at the start of the second section of the Fudge: The Empyrean – Milton’s name for the heavenly dimension beyond the confines of the physical world Fudge said that in Celestial Light he wanted to address glory which he does but along the way, as we know, we also encounter negation and war. The piece opens and closes in prayer. “The whole thing is a kind of prayer” said the composer.


The work opens with silkily Sibelian strings – confiding and confident. The words chosen are from the greats: Milton, The Bible and Gerard Manley Hopkins. The tenor Nicholas Hurndall Smith provided brief linkages between the sections though it occurred to me, rather impertinently, that these were rather token and dispensable. Hopkins’ God’s Grandeur has also been set by two other major figures of the British choral scene; Bliss and Leighton. There is a less exalted source in the poem Steadfast Taper by Luci Shaw (1928). The latter perhaps ties in with Fudge’s Christian evangelical beliefs – he has written many devotional pieces – as well as with his regard for Arvo Pärt whose simplicity of utterance he mentioned during the talk. In The Empyrean all is rhythmically alive with the music radiating a golden gleam – a sort of Copland-like effervescence. Devastatingly effective at one point was the echoing dialogue between the main Choir and the vastly outnumbered Youth Choir; the latter had needed some words of encouragement during the rehearsal to be brave and sing out which they duly did during the evening concert. Perhaps coincidence but I thought I heard a touch of Roy Harris in the orchestra after the words “bright wings” at the end of the Hopkins section. The final episode rejoices is some voluptuously eruptive brass that recalled Howells Hymnus Paradisi and Missa Sabrinensis. It made for a truly satisfying close to a work full of effective writing and an inspiration that lifts it above the normal. It should be recorded and further performances really must follow. It’s one of those works which you want to hear again and discover more each time. It’s also a tribute to it that one sipping vernal motif has stuck in my mind in much the same way as the Mobius-strip hypnotism of a rolling lyrical note-group from Fricker’s A Vision of Judgement.


It’s a truism but the brass and some of the other details sounded out were less assertively than do are in the artificiality of the recorded performance. More than once they seemed discreet where I had expected them to be imperious. In the Finzi which came in Part 2 of the concert, Fudge several times drove the tempo very hard. On one occasion coordination came to grief during the live performance before synchronous playing and singing resumed. The Finzi setting of the words “Whither is fled the visionary gleam” was miraculously well done – with time softly but firmly held halted. You would half expect to look down at your wrist watch and see the second hand stationary. Much the same can be said of the final words “Too deep for tears”, the return of the calm primeval horn-call that launched the work. The long silence between the ebbing of that last note and the first crackle of applause was high tribute to both artists and audience.


The young tenor Nicholas Hurndall Smith is a stalwart of CCI projects. His voice is cut from the finest cloth. He is of the Ian Partridge school with steady tonal production and an intrinsically attractive English sound. In voice and facial expression he shows total confident identification with what he sings. With one momentary lapse in the Finzi – from which he recovered with true professionalism - he proved utterly reliable. Repeatedly tested in rehearsal on the torturously exposed entry on the words “Earth fills her lap …” he remained secure and hit the note slap-bang centre. The choir were also excellent with unwavering engagement with the texts and splendid unanimity which was remarkably moving in “Hence in a season of calm weather though inland far we be …”. The orchestra were distinguished apart from the odd and rare sour note from the brass. Its crack xylophone player was excellent. I look forward to hearing her when CCI tackles Brian’s The Gothic with its malevolent solo for that instrument – just a pipe-dream! Time and again the orchestra’s strings conferred their own perpetual benediction - for example in the silkily flowing release pattern from the strings following the words “Forbode not any severing of our loves!” in the last stanza.


Long then may CCI endure. Theirs is a grand enterprise. I trust that they will continue with their adventurous approach to repertoire. I perhaps have reason to look forward with hope to their tackling Maurice Jacobson’s utterly masterful The Hound of Heaven (for exactly the same forces as the Finzi and about the same duration), Howells’ powerhouse emotional Missa Sabrinensis, and further afield two wonders of the 20th century catalogue: Robert Nathaniel Dett’s The Ordering of Moses and Bohuslav’s Martinů’s The Epic of Gilgamesh. Not that any of these works have been mentioned but CCI are more than equal to the task. OK, then, let’s narrow it down. I challenge them to perform the Jacobson – it’s a glorious piece and if there is even a glimmer of interest I can put them in touch with Jacobson’s two sons.


Rob Barnett

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