R.S.Thomas – a centenary remembered in poetry, scripture and music

Wellington Cathedral of St Paul presents:
Choral Evensong marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Priest-Poet R. S. Thomas

Choir of Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul,
Director of Music: Michael Stewart
Sermon: Rev. Dr. Tim McKenzie

Wellington Cathedral of St.Paul

29th September 2013

R. S. Thomas was a 20th Century Anglican Priest-Poet who died in the year 2000 after 40 years in the priesthood. He was a passionate Welsh nationalist, and a pacifist active in the C20th Nuclear Disarmament movement. Throughout his life he expressed his  spiritual explorations in poetry whose highly abstract language would sound unfamiliar to most young ears today. Over his ministry he moved progressively further and further from urban centres to ever more rural environments which doubtless nurtured his deeply contemplative writing. A revealing snapshot of the man and his life can be found at http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/apr/29/rs-thomas-poetry-religion.

Some of his poetry is, however, fresh and unambiguous, such as The Bright Field which was selected for the Introit at this Evensong service. Exquisitely set to music by former Kings Singer Bob Chilcott, the choral idioms were perfectly suited to the Wellington Cathedral, with the sound floating free and un-muddied by the acoustics. This is a startling feat, given the reverberation times typical of such churches, but then Chilcott was Kings College trained in the long traditions of English church choirs and the huge spaces they often sing in. The Cathedral choir did full justice to the beauty of both music and words:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

The following Evensong service observed the traditional format with the theme being set by the First Lesson read in the King James version from Isaiah 45:1-8 – the godhead is hidden and entirely beyond human reach or comprehension. Traditional Welsh hymns were selected in keeping with the R. S. Thomas theme: God, that madest earth and heaven (Ar hyd y nos), Immortal, invisible, God only wise (St. Denio), and Guide me, O thou great Redeemer (Cwm Rhondda). These were all conveyed to full breadth and effect with the support of the cathedral choir and acoustics, despite an only modest congregation.

Both the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were Leighton settings which were realised by choir and organist very much in the European cathedral tradition –a wide dynamic range was used to full dramatic effect, from the blast of triple forte to breathless hushed pianissimo, expressing the whole gamut from divine majesty to mystery in the godhead imagery. The acoustics of the cathedral ruled out any possibility of clear diction, but this too is very much in the European tradition of creating an atmosphere of awe and devotion through the powerful medium of the music.

The second lesson from John 6: 63-69 was read in a modern translation which seemed a less appropriate choice than the King James within the context of this particular Evensong; but the Anthem, composed by Director of Music Michael Stewart, was a very effective setting of R. S. Thomas’s haunting poem “The Other”, which was beautifully rendered by the musicians:

There are nights that are so still
that I can hear the small owl
far off and a fox barking
miles away. It is then that I lie
in the lean hours awake listening
to the swell born somewhere in
the Atlantic
rising and falling, rising and
wave on wave on the long shore
by the village that is without
and companionless. And the
thought comes
of that other being who is
awake, too,
letting our prayers break on him,
not like this for a few hours,
but for days, years, for eternity.

 The service closed with Vaughan Williams’ organ voluntary on the Welsh hymn tune Hyfrydol.  This concluded an Evensong which offered a very interesting and rounded insight into R. S. Thomas, not only through an apposite selection of music and verse, but also through the obvious commitment from both musicians and preacher to conveying a meaningful understanding of the man and his works.



Wellington Chamber Orchestra – after the First Cuckoo……

Wellington Chamber Orchestra presents:

DELIUS – On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring / La Calinda (from “Koanga”)
BOTTESINI – Concerto No.2 in B Minor for Double-Bass
BEETHOVEN – Symphony No.7 in A Op.92

Hiroshi Ikematsu (double-bass)
Vincent Hardaker (conductor)
Wellington Chamber Orchestra

St.Andrew’s on-the-Terrace, Wellington

Sunday 29th September 2013

A comment from a friend at the interval helped answer my unspoken query “Why isn’t this
gorgeous music more often played?” which I’d been posing to myself while listening
to the two Delius items at the concert, before voicing it out loud to her – “Oh, it’s such
dreary, shapeless, formless stuff! – I can’t bear it!” was her response. It reminded
me that music-lovers world-wide can be readily divided into two groups – those who
like Delius’s music and those who don’t.

For the admirers there was plenty to like about these two performances, once the players
had roused their  instruments’ true “voices” from sleep at the start of each piece. After the
lovely “awakening” chords beginning the “First Cuckoo” piece, the upper strings had some
initial difficulties accurately pitching the rocking notes sounded thoughout their opening
sequence, though they settled down subsequently to give us some lovely playing. The winds
made some delightful contributions, the flute a bit too eager to begin, but still managing a
lovely solo – the strings’ increased confidence showed with a beautifully silvery entry,
answered by secure horns and winds. Of special distinction was the cuckoo itself,
beautifully and hauntingly given voice, the clarinet notes having a properly “recessed”
quality. It’s music that needs the utmost delicacy – and in places such as that lovely
moment of “frisson”between strings and winds just before the reprise of the main
theme, conductor and orchestra achieved that, to our delight (well, to the delight of
half of us, that is…)….

The programme note named Delius’s amanuensis Eric Fenby as the arranger of “La Calinda”
the lovely dance from the opera “Koanga” – however, this was one which was new to me,
beginning with some introductory string chords, presumably lifted from the opera. All I can
say is that there must be as many “arranged Fenbys” as there are recordings of the piece,
because they all seem to be different (some adaptation may have been done by
the conductor or whomever to fit the orchestra’s available players on this occasion)
– still, the essentials of the music were here,  the lovely oboe solo, the beautiful and mellow
flute-sound, and the ever-growing confidence of the strings as the piece unfolded,
despite some occasional spills. I did register a strange counter-melody from the lower
strings towards the end, which wasn’t on any of the recordings I owned – but it was all
part of the “not knowing what to expect next” scenario…..

I did so enjoy the Bottesini Double-bass Concerto, as much for the playing of the star
soloist, Hiroshi Ikematsu, as for the music, which was new to me. How wonderful for
the Chamber Orchestra to be able to draw upon soloists of this calibre for concerto
performances! – one thinks of some splendid instances at various past concerts, and
this one had a similar kind of distinction. HIroshi is, of course the current leader of the
NZSO’s double-bass section – and during his tenure he has noticeably galvanised those
players, whose unanimity of tones and deportment give great pleasure at any orchestra
concert. It was therefore distressing to read that he intends to return to Japan next year –
in a number of ways, our great loss.

Though I was sitting too far to the side to be able to fully enjoy the soloist’s range of
tones, I was assured by people in closer proximity that the experience of listening to
such playing was a kind of feast for the senses. I could register his more vigorous work,
but was able only to guess at the quality of some of the softer passages, all of which he
seemed to play with the agility of a ‘cellist, despite having to stand and hold up what
looked like an extemely cumbersome instrument to manage. We were able to fully enjoy
his technical capabilities in the first movement’s cadenza, which featured plenty of double-
stopping, rapid runs and virtuoso leaps, the orchestra coming in “on the hoof” as it were,
to deliver an excting conclusion to the movement.

Having in mind some of those interminably vapid virtuoso violin concerti which sprang
up like weeds through out the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, I rather thought
this music might turn out to be a “contrabass” version of the same kind of thing – but in
fact I found the work a stimulating listening experience with its composer tossing us
some unexpected twists and turns. The slow movement began with some raw tuning from
the wind and brass but soon settled down, the soloist firstly  counterpointing a warmly
romantic string tune, then “swapping roles” with the orchestra later in the piece, and
finishing with a graceful and winsome ascending line.

It all contrasted excitingly with the finale’s opening, the orchestra bursting in with heroic
gesturings, and the soloist setting off on his journeyings with a spirited kind of “road
music” theme. The players found it hard to keep together with some of their interjections,
and some of the exchanges were raucous, but the enthusiasm was evident, and the
soloist’s playing astonishing in its technical and expressive range. At the end of the piece
he got a warm and properly appreciative reception from all of us present.

After the interval it was time for Vince Hardaker and the players to confront Beethoven!
I remember reading, years and years ago, a review in “Gramophone” of a recording of the
Seventh Symphony made by a fairly prestigious orchestra and a well-known conductor.
The reviewer, who had himself conducted the work with amateur groups, commented on
what he called the “orchestra difficulty” posed by the incessant dotted rhythms of the first
movement, noting some lapses in ensemble on the recording.  Although Sir Thomas Beecham’s
well-known rehearsal comment on the music – “What can you do with it? – it’s like a lot of yaks
jumping about!” referred particularly to the work’s scherzo, a similar kind of boisterous spirit
informs much of the other quick music in the work.

True to expectation, it was the first movement which here caused the players the most
difficulty, the strings in particular having to bear the brunt of those obsessive rhythms. As
well, the ascending scale passsages after the opening chords caused some momentary grief
among the strings before the trajectories “found” one another and started to jell between
the players. Set against these purple patches were some splendid sequences, the lyrical lines
nicely handled by the winds and the brass chiming in at climactic points with great gusto,
contributing both thrills and spills.

The lower strings got the second movement processional off to a great start, with the violas’
counter-melody and the violins’ shaping of the main theme brought out nicely by players and
conductor. I liked the warm, reassuring tones of the major-key section – lovely clarinet and
horn solos – and the ensuing string fugato, though a bit seedy at the outset, developed into
something determined and powerful.  As for the Scherzo I thought Vince Hardaker’s tempo
just right for these players, giving them sufficient spaces in which to fill out the rhythms.
The Trio was a highlight, with the strings sustaining the oscillating theme while the winds
and brass notes rang out splendidly.

To my surprise the calls to action at the finale’s beginning were articulated crisply and
excitingly at the outset, with the momentums strongly kept up – a bit later, I liked the
leaping-figure exchanges between upper and lower strings (even if I thought the lower
strings could have “held onto” their final note a bit longer each time), and enjoyed the
wholehearted plunges back into the mainstream of the music’s flow after each divergence.
If the fearsome vortex-like passage towards the movement’s conclusion had an extra hint
of desperation about the playing, then conductor and orchestra’s achievement in pulling
themselves out of it all made the mighty brass-led homecoming all the more exciting,
the horns at the end sounding the triumph with gusto.