Saturday, 16 May 2020

Weighed in the balance

The other night I caught, on Radio 3, the last 15-20 minutes (enough to send me back to BBC Sounds to hear the rest) of Belshazzar's Feast.  And it was extraordinary how familiar the music was, given that I had sung it over 30 years ago – in December 1987 to be precise.
Two years before that I had my audition for Wokingham Choral Society with their new MD Paul Daniel. I persuaded him to take me on, despite my limitations when it came to reading music (and at the time I didn't even have a keyboard of any kind at home to help with note-bashing) on the strength of my having "recently" sung Beethoven's Mass in C (WCS's concert piece that term) with MagSoc's choir. That recently was something of an exaggeration, but it sounded more persuasive than the more accurate 'about 12 years ago when I was looking for an unauditioned choir having been kicked out of the chapel choir').
After three years with that choir (three years that coincided with Paul Daniel's tenure, before he went on to greater things) I left WCS, to return in the early noughties, under Aidan Oliver. On the strength of being a returning member I escaped without audition. (This may have had something to with the maestro's attitude to red tape.)
The rehearsals went well until three or four weeks before the concert, when Paul Daniel began to feel a pain in his shoulder. A physiotherapist and member of the choir kept telling him to get it seen to, but he tried to work though the pain.  Finally, on the Friday before the concert he saw a specialist and was told that if he conducted at the concert it might be the last concert he conducted.
(well anyway, that's what the chairman said  when he told us on the Saturday morning, and it's at least plausible)
So at incredibly short notice they found a new conductor, Brian Wright whose biography mentions the piece.
 (although that was with the RPO; he cut his teeth with WCS.)
Four things struck me about the concert :
  • The venue: it was a sports hall, converted pro tem – not a great success acoustically
  • The conductor, a northerner, didn't like the way we said brass. He didn't try to change it, but said he felt more comfortable with choirs who said /bræs/. I think Walton, a Lancastrian, would probably have agreed.
  • From the horse's mouth (that is, Walton's) he corrected the printed score with respect to the triplet when the choir sings 'weighed in the balance'. (I'm afraid the details escape me.)
  • Also on the programme was Paco Peña, whose performances I had enjoyed twice in the late '60s.
    One of these was at the Guildford Festival. My oldest sister was a student at the University of Surrey, which was linked in some way with Battersea Technical College. Linking the two sites was a shuttle minibus, on which I stowed away disguised as a student (I was in the fifth year – or "Year 11" in new money).
    The concert was called something like "Three aspects of the guitar", and was divided between John Williams (classical),  Paco Peña, (flamenco) , and Chris Spedding (a late replacement for a jazz guitarist, though "jazz" is not a very apt description of his one hit, "Motor bikin'"). 
    At the end, John Williams announced that, having met for the first time that afternoon, they were going to play together. With his three-finger (classical) tremolo his Repertoire included Tárrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra (that clip demonstrates both the technique and the piece). Paco Peña, with his four-finger (flamenco) tremolo (how VERY DARE they use the little finger?) knew the tune well enough to improvise an accompaniment. And Chris Spedding would do his thing. Hmm? (His solo contribution to the concert proper didn't inspire confidence.) 
    The two acoustic guitars started, confirming Fernando Sor's opinion:...
    Sorry, can't place it. I believe I saw it on the sleeve notes to John Williams and Julian Bream's first Together album.
    ,...(something about the only sound more beautiful than a guitar being the sound of two). So we eyed Chris Spedding's VOX AC30 with dread. 
    In the event his contribution was far from intrusive; and when the music finished – after a moment when we hoped (vainly) for more – there was the sort of ovation that I had never been part of before (and have never been part of since). It was not a matter of a few people standing up and others joining them. It was unanimous (in a way that does justice to the roots of the word: one mind). 
    To describe my other late ‘60s Paco Peña concert would be even more self-indulgent than usual
    You've got to draw a line somewhere... Life's just one AOB after another.


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