British Embassy’s Choral Season: Music is Great

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Following on from a Great year of British pop performances in Romania (Ed Sheeran, Robbie Williams, Emily Sandé, Stormzy, Bastille, Jessie J and many many others), and a strong British presence at the superb Enescu Festival (LSO, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Britten Sinfonia, Sir Bryn Terfel, Tasmin Little), the British Embassy and British Council is assisting a series of events in Romania to demonstrate three aspects of the modern choral tradition in the United Kingdom.

Oratorio in the UK

The opening of this series of events sees a performance of Elgar’s “Dream of Gerontius” at the Ateneul Român on 17 and 18 October under the baton of guest British Conductor Alexander Walker. This is possibly the first performance in Bucharest of a much loved and popular work of the modern British choral repertoire. Written in 1900, The Dream is a setting of words by the then Provost of the Birmingham Oratory, John Henry Newman. Newman left the Anglican Church and subsequently was made a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church. “Newman is a towering figure of religious life in the UK in the 19th Century”, says British Council Director Nigel Bellingham, “but Elgar’s music brought him arguably to his biggest audience, that is until recently“.

This Bucharest performance takes place, by chance, just 5 days after Newman was declared a Saint by Pope Francis in Rome and therefore might be the first performance of the work of St John Henry Newman. The work relates the journey of a pious man’s soul from his deathbed to his judgement before God and settling into Purgatory. Despite its complex subject matter, The Dream of Gerontius is widely performed in the English speaking world. It is a piece which combines great power and finesse, fitting given its “story”.

Such is the prevalence of professional but also gifted amateur singing by Oratorio-singing choirs, that The Dream of Gerontius is guaranteed to have possibly hundreds of performances all across the United Kingdom every year. The same is true of works such as Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s Passions, the Masses and Requiems of Mozart, Haydn, Mendelssohn, as well as a host of other works. Given the special relationship between the British, Elgar (a sort of national composer) and The Dream of Gerontius, isn’t there a risk of entrusting a Bucharest premiere to a non-British choir?

With the skill and musicianship of the George Enescu Orchestra and Chorus, there was no need to import a British choir or orchestra for the debut performance of this monumental work”, said Maestro Walker. “I am glad that the linguistic and musical challenge represented by the role of Gerontius will be interpreted by the fine young British tenor, Oliver Johnston. This role is especially challenging, requiring a tenor of versatility and stamina with a subtle and deep understanding of the text”.

Cathedral and College Music

In December, the British Embassy is organising a tour in Romania of the choir of one of the Colleges of Cambridge University. Gonville and Caius College (pronounced as the word “keys” cheile) was founded in 1348 and has included within its alumni the world-renowned scientists Professor Stephen Hawking (Relativity/Astrophysics), Professor Anthony Crick (DNA) and a little earlier the discoverer of blood circulation, John Harvey. It is believed that there has been a choir at the College since its foundation. The Caius Choir is a top class example of a particular choral tradition in the UK of cathedral or college chapel choirs. Singing services either daily (in the case of cathedral choirs) or several times weekly (as in the case of the College of Cambridge and Oxford), these choirs both maintain a high level of performance of church music dating back as far as the Renaissance (sixteenth century), but they are also a driver for the production of much new music. Caius is fully within this tradition, with its Director a senior figure in academic and practical music making. Following on from Dr Geoffrey Webber, Caius has recently appointed Matthew Martin as the new head of Music in the College.

Through their recordings, Caius have acquired a well-deserved reputation for the re-discovery of forgotten choral repertories, including previously unpublished music from within the English choral tradition and beyond.  Recent releases include a CD of choral works by the leading British composer Judith Weir, as well as a ground-breaking CD of Choral Music from Brazil and most recently recordings of 16th century music found in the College’s own library and a CD of French Christmas music. During their Romania tour in December, Caius hope to sing concerts in Bucharest, Sibiu and Brasov as well as giving briefer performances at the monasteries, churches and Christmas markets along their route. They look forward to performing alongside a number of Romanian musicians, not least with the Philharmonic Orchestra of Brasov with whom they will perform Parts I and II of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Elsewhere Caius will focus on the rich British tradition of Christmas carol singing. Unbelievably for anyone who has heard them (try YouTube if you cannot wait for their December tour!), the Caius Choir is also an outstanding example of British amateur expertise. Aged between 18-22, the 24 members of the Caius ensemble are all undergraduate students in the University of Cambridge. Some are studying music, but most are not. This quality of choral performance is something they achieve in their time when lectures are over!

Choral music in the community

Finally, in July 2020, the Embassy will host an example of the community based choirs which is the very back-bone of British music making. With some 1.7 million regular participants, the popular choral tradition is immensely strong in the UK. Dorking Choral Society was formed in 1870s and came later to be conducted by the celebrated British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, who happened to be a “local boy”. It continues to perform nearly 150 years later, drawing only on its townsfolk for membership. Directed by a professional voice coach and conductor, Dorking do not audition their members and exist to make music and to demonstrate the vitality of the community in which they live. Such is the level of interest in Romania that this will be the biggest choir that Dorking has ever taken on international tour, with roughly 60 voices. They hope to sing a programme of English music in Bucharest, Brașov, Sighișoara, and one or more fortified churches in Transylvania. They will feature a number of English coronation anthems in their programme, a crowning moment for this rich choral interlude.

Ambassador Andrew Noble is himself a choral singer who made his “debut” in the Anglican Church in Bucharest in 1983. “On my first day ever in the Diplomatic Service overseas, my boss in Bucharest made it clear that she expected to see me that evening in the church choir. Though a bit shocked at first, I was grateful that the world of choral singing was opened up to me. I have sung since then during every overseas posting. In Algeria, where there was no choir open to foreigners, my wife and I founded a small choir that went on to give public performances. It was important for us to have music, but the community it created was even more important.”

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