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A Peal of Marmalade

St Andrew's Church, Penrith
13 February 2010

On Saturday St Andrew’s Church buzzed with an eager audience of parents and friends for a musical recipe for marmalade.

Children from Stainton C of E Primary School, the Wordsworth Singers and musicians of the 'Marmalade Philharmonic', all under the inspiring guidance of James Grossmith, a former director of the Wordsworth Singers, joined in an imaginative and colourful programme celebrating the Marmalade Festival at Dalemain.

Two songs by the Wordsworth Singers warmly conjured the atmosphere of a scented orange grove full of promise of the marmalade to come. Then recipes for the marmalade, words by Gervais Markham and Elizabeth Rainbow, were set to music by Liz Sharma.

Oranges and Lemons were added in a new, chunky arrangement by Daryl Runswick, especially written for the Wordsworth Singers and this concert. The boiling and bubbling were reflected in Fruit Machine by Bryan Kelly, where the fruit is spinning fast and thick, stirred by a magic arm.

The Marmalade Suite, composed by Liz Sharma, was interspersed with readings by Michael Pilling about the history of the preserve and evocative interludes from the nicely balanced orchestra.

The children from Stainton School, admirably well-trained by Mrs Helen Dunham, praised the zesty taste, which they preferred to caviar at the Ritz.

Finally, The Wordsworth Singers reminded us of A Magical Place where all the ingredients were gathered in golden jars, and brought the concert to a satisfying close.

Sheila Fletcher

Voci di Venezia

St John's Church, Keswick
23 January 2010

For his first concert as conductor of the Wordsworth Singers Mark Hindley didn’t choose an easy path but one which challenged the choir and in the main was very successful. His programme entitled "Voci di Venezia" was given in St John's Church, Keswick last Saturday and consisted of music from the sixteenth and seventeenth century associated with St Mark's, Venice either through influence or directly.  Such composers as Monteverdi, Giovanni Gabrieli and Schütz may be familiar to many of us but there were also works by less well known composers such as Willaert, Andrea Gabrieli, Croce and Hassler. The challenge of performing these works comes in their construction and the forces they employ. Only one of the works was written for the normal four part choir, with which we are so familiar, but the thirty two singers were frequently split into two and sometimes three choirs. To add to the difficulty of performing these works the choirs were sometimes placed around the Church to the front, sides and behind the audience with the conductor having to control these polychoral effects whilst standing in the middle at some distance from the performers. In addition to the choirs there was also a very fine brass quartet consisting of two trumpets and two trombones who joined with the singers as a separate group. To hear this type of music live, performed in such an authentic way is a very rare and overwhelming experience and one that any electronic media cannot accurately replicate.

One must congratulate the performers on the ease with which they repositioned themselves in the church between each piece which helped the concert flow. Only a choir of the calibre of the Wordsworth Singers can really do these pieces justice as they make considerable demands on the performers in both the complexity of the writing and the vocal range. Not all the vocal entries in the contrapuntal sections were assured and there was some lack of focus in some of the more complex rhythms and change of metre,nevertheless the overriding experience was of an excellent choir with a true musical understanding. There were some real highlights and the performance of Schütz’s motet Der engel sprach zu den Hirten and works in the second half by Andrea and Giovanni Gabrieli and Hassler will not easily be forgotten.

Mention should also be made of the brass who played with great musicality in two solo works and enhanced enormously many of the choral works. This was an excellent start to Mark Hindley's reign as conductor and if this programme is anything to go by Cumbria is in for some very interesting vocal concerts which should not be missed.


In Green Pastures

St Andrew's Church, Penrith
27 June 2009

The Wordsworth Singers were founded in 1997 and since that time have established themselves as one of the finest chamber choirs in the north of England. Much of the credit for their recent success can be ascribed to the inspirational direction of Edward Caswell. His final appearance as conductor featured works by three of the great 19th century German Romantic composers, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Brahms in a programme well suited to the spacious acoustics of St. Andrew's Church, Penrith.

From the outset the choir sang with a confident and relaxed sound, the soprano line in particular dealing with high notes and difficult intervals effortlessly. The intense harmonies of the opening unaccompanied motets by Brahms (O Heiland, reiss die Himmel and Es ist das Heil) would be a challenging start to any concert, but the control of dynamics and phrasing showed a choir assured in its teamwork and excellent in its balance. The gentler harmonies of Schubert's setting of Psalm 23 brought some beautiful sounds from ladies' voices while the rarely-heard Gebet was almost like a choral setting of a lieder ballad with its inventive piano accompaniment, dramatic moods and elaborate vocal lines.

Two contrasting works by Mendelssohn began the second part of the programme. Fiona Weakley showed both power and sensitivity as soprano soloist in the ever-popular Hear My Prayer while the rich harmonic textures of the unaccompanied Nunc Dimittis were sung most evocatively. Three further motets by Brahms followed, the choir responding to the challenging and advanced harmonic style of the third (Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein) with particular conviction. The final work, Brahms's Geistliches Lied was almost an epilogue, gentle and heartfelt, with a quite ravishing Amen.

Ian Hare was, as ever, an excellent and unobtrusive accompanist on the organ (and on the piano in the Schubert works) and made his own contribution to the evening with two Brahms choral preludes for organ, including the exquisitely-phrased Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen, and a lively performance of the majestic first movement of Mendelssohn's Sonata No 3.

Colin Marston

Sound the Trumpet

The Priory Church, Lanercost
2 May 2009

The ancient walls of Lanercost Priory were again host to a splendid musical event when The Wordsworth Singers, with their Director of Music, Edward Caswell and guest soloist, trumpeter Mark O'Keeffe, presented a remarkable programme of twentieth century music, with a final twist from the 16th century.

By any standards this was an ambitious programme that included works by Vaughan Williams, MacMillan (1959) and Taverner (1490-1545) and which at times provided severe challenges to choir and audience alike. With works which included Vaughan Williams Mass in G and Valiant for TruthIn splendoribus sanctorum by James MacMillan and Taverner's epic antiphonal motet, O splendor gloriae, the singers beautifully, and with sensitivity and power, expressed the threads which bind the music of our own time with that of the past.

In contrast, the solo, unaccompanied trumpet in an ultra modern piece by Peter Maxwell Davies appeared, at first hearing, to be a mere selection of random notes. There was, however, no doubt about the virtuosity of O'Keeffe, whose pure and at times almost ear-splitting tone in the soaring acoustic of the Priory made exciting listening and contrasted well with the simple beauty of the Irish Folk Song, My Lagan Love that he played in the second half.

But this is a choir that has now 'grown up'. Many a professional choir would have balked at tackling Amore langueo by Francis Pott (1957), an extraordinarily difficult piece, which they brought off with at least an outward show of assurance. Quite what the audience thought is impossible to say, although they clapped like heroes at the end of it.

Without doubt though, The Wordsworth Singers has become the premier choir of Cumbria. Their collective ability and the variety of artistic range is impressive, enabling them to delight, educate and move their audience in equal measure.

Anthony Peacock