Alive with the sound

High Street, Crickhowell

As many know, Crickhowell in Wales was recently named as the Best Place to Live in Wales by The Sunday Times (as well as being awarded the accolade of UK’s Best High Street).

What better time then for this small market town to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Crickhowell Music Festival, the main events of which took place in St Edmunds Church approached, appropriately, from the High Street down Silver Street.

Under the inspired musical direction of conductor Stephen Marshall since the festival began, its main event in 1995 was a semi-dramatised performance of Purcell’s masque The Fairy Queen; and this was a work the Choral Society chose to repeat in this special year, along with Bach’s magnificent B minor Mass. Bookending these performances were a recital given by the choir’s young choral scholars and other young musicians and, as a finale, a rousing concert by Welsh folk band ALAW, both in the town’s Clarence Hall.

As a marriage of words and music it seems an apt event to note here on this bookish blog written by a classically trained musician…

A particular focus of this year’s event was the extensive participation of young musicians: a fringe event was a recital by the senior string quartet of the local high school, and the festival officially opened with a concert by the choir’s choral scholars and other school musicians. Songs ranged from a folk tune to pieces by 20th-century British composers, taking in works by a range of European composers, sung in Italian, German, Latin, English and, of course, Welsh. It was my privilege to accompany many of the performers on piano, both for the workshop with singers Catherine King and Elin Manahan Thomas and for the Scholars’ Recital.

The choral scholars, along with actors and dancers from the high school, also took part in a performance of The Fairy Queen in the medieval church of St Edmunds. The Fairy Queen of course was Purcell’s 1692 semi-opera based on (or, more accurately, freely adapted and expanded from) Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Performed with a superb Baroque orchestra the production had a stellar cast: soprano Elin Manahan Thomas (who is the choir’s President) is best known to the wider public for singing at the London 2012 Paralympics Opening Ceremony and at the recent royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; as well as international experience as a soloist mezzo soprano Catherine King is part of the well-regarded vocal ensemble Gothic Voices; one of countertenor Mark Chambers‘ claims to fame is as the Voice of the Ood for the tv series Doctor Who; tenor Nicholas Mulroy and baritone Robert Davies also have busy musical schedules, the latter in fact jetting off to perform at La Scala, Milan immediately after the festival.

Some of these singers were also involved with the first Crickhowell production of The Fairy Queen right at the start of their careers, and that included award-winning director and musician Thomas Guthrie who also brilliantly directed this version. “Wow” was the phrase I heard most at the end of the performance from the audience. It was fantastic for us amateurs, both youngsters and adults, to be part of such as magical show: as one of Titania’s fairies in the chorus I hope I did the tenor line justice, especially after having to sing it from memory (occasionally improvising, I have to admit) after one rehearsal…

After this mammoth endeavour there was the festival service (in St Catwg’s church across the Usk river). This featured two lively sacred works by Vivaldi, his Kyrie and the Beatus Vir, set for soloists, chamber choir and baroque ensemble (with yours truly on chamber organ continuo). The soprano solos were very ably taken by two of the choral scholars. Then it was on to a rehearsal and performance of the Bach Mass, intense and virtuosic in places, sublime in others. Again, I hope I didn’t make too bad a contribution to the tenor section after weeks of only playing accompaniments for choir rehearsals and occasionally directing sectionals — and not singing.

After all that it was a relief (but no less joy) to be able to sit back and enjoy the trio of guitar, fiddle and accordion that was ALAW: Dylan Fowler, Oli Wilson-Dickson and Jamie Smith. (The Welsh word alaw — pronounced somewhere between ‘al-ow’ and ‘al-ah-oo’ — translates as ‘air’, ‘tune’ or ‘melody’.) They played two sets taken from their extensive repertoire, including ‘Pan O’wn y Gwanwyn’ from their recent CD Dead Man’s Dance:

I can’t do better than quote Crickhowell Choral Society’s president Elin Manahan Thomas when she subsequently tweeted:

I titled this post with a short phrase from The Sound of Music, but I’ll end with the final couplet from Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Solitary Reaper’:

The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.

20 thoughts on “Alive with the sound

  1. What a wonderful experience, and how praiseworthy to have been so involved from the inside. You certainly helped to bring the hills alive, although the mind boggles a bit to imagine the fairy garb.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was an absolute privilege and pleasure, Leslie, as I think may have come across in my commentary! As for the fairy garb, you can have a little smirk — er, smile — if you look at the photos on the Crickhowell Choral Society page on Facebook… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Laurie, I think we’re all still reeling—but in a nice way! There are more clips of ALAW on YouTube, as you may have spotted: btw, there are probably additional puns on the name ‘alaw’ that I’m afraid my extremely limited knowledge of Welsh hasn’t yet revealed. Anyway, they are a talented bunch, along with other Welsh bands who deserve wider recognition.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Awwww. In awe. How vibrant with culture and beauty this sounds. What a heritage. I am not going to say I live in a non cultured part of the world, but what you share seems to be at a different, higher level.

    However, at home we will go tomorrow to see my daughter’s charter school humble production of Mary Poppins. It doesn’t compare, but it will nurture our need for live performance and singing. (Much better than the Avengers last movie phenomenon who had everyone at the movie theater these past weeks. Everyone but me, hahaha)

    I miss Madrid as a more culturally rich city than Houston subs.

    I will try to look for the names at YouTube and have a tiny taste of what you experienced.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A century ago Oscar Schmitz called England (and presumably he meant the rest of Britain) Das Land Ohne Musik, the land without music, except for what he called ‘street music’ or urban folk music. A libel, of course, but it’s true that classical British music for a while didn’t have the impact that France, Germany and Italy at the time had, for various complex reasons.

      But Wales has always prided itself on being the Land of Song, right from medieval times, and Britain has always produced its world class musicians and composers. And while Houston’s burbs may feel philistine, surely its Opera House is proof that so-caled high culture exists there?

      Anyway, I’d never turn my nose up at musical theatre, and Mary Poppins has some cracking tunes and lyrics, as good as any light opera that I’ve heard!

      I’d love to visit Madrid some day, perhaps catch the high speed trains all the way from London through France and on. Brexit willing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I love how you teach me so much. It’s all relative to what you compare it too. There was that era when France, Germany and Italy were on the lead. I also can see how Wales is well rooted in music. That street music and urban folk is now classic!

        If one looks, one will find. I need to explore our cultural options more. That’s going to be my goal next year.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m so glad you posted about this – it sounds like it was an amazing experience, congratulations. 🙂

    Love the ALAW track … will have to go and hunt down their CD … 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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