On 20 September the arches of St Peter’s rang with the praise of Dagon, pagan god of the Philistines. As vicar Will Hughes said in his closing comments, this was probably a first for the church. However, there was praise for Jehovah too, as the Israelites and Philistines battled it out through the choruses of Handel’s Samson, in the capable hands and voices of Louisa Denby’s Rosemary Consort. The occasion was the last event in the Consort’s 2014 fundraising concert series in aid of Cecily’s Fund which supports the education of Zambian children orphaned by AIDS, and was established by the family of Cecily Eastwood OB who died tragically in 1997. The Rosemary Consort is a flexible group of singers and professional instrumentalists whose members are drawn from all over the UK, and from all walks of life; Saturday’s chamber choir of nineteen, with organ, brass quartet, and drums showed just what a talented group it is. Even so, it was perhaps risky to open with Gabrieli’s motet Plaudite, psallite, which divided the choir into twelve parts. Intent on their scores, the singers had little chance to express the jubilation of the words, and there were some nervous changes of metre. However, the splendid closing ‘Alleluia’, echoing on after its final chord, showed the power and vibrancy that the choir could command. In the slower phrases of Gabrieli’s eight-part O magnum mysterium the singers captured the hushed awe of the music; trumpets and trombone joined to end the group with a confident and rousing performance of his large-scale Jubilate.
The contrast between these extrovert works and Purcell’s Funeral Music for Queen Mary could have felt like an anti-climax. As it was, the Consort choreographed the solemn anthems and brass interludes to create an even more intense atmosphere. As they sang Purcell’s Hear my Prayer from the back of the church, carefully shaping the expression of every phrase, the empty space at the front might have been waiting for the Queen’s funeral procession to arrive; while the brass intoned the phrases of the March, the choir created that procession. Between the Funeral Sentences and the closing anthems, soloist Catherine White gave a superb performance of Purcell’s theatrical, virtuoso setting of a Latin ode to the Queen – handling its spectacular high notes and elaborate ornamentation with apparently effortless clarity.
The seven choruses from Samson that formed the second half of the concert offered a whistle-stop tour of Handel’s oratorio, from the rowdy Philistines, via the prayers and appeals of the Israelites, to the dramatic dénouement and the final chorus of praise. Vigour and expression abounded in the singing; indeed, so many ‘main courses’ in quick succession were in danger of bringing on musical indigestion, and the brief solos by Chloe Allison (Micah), Alex Ledsham (Samson) and Simon Herbert (Manoah) added welcome contrast – as did the return of Catherine White to sing the celebrated duet between soprano and trumpet, Let the bright seraphim. Throughout the work, trumpeters Brendan Musk, Chris Parsons, and Ellie Lovegrove added brilliance and character to the festive movements, and Helen Smee provided an assured and colourful accompaniment on the organ.
At the end, there were many reasons for enthusiastic applause. The music had been magnificent. A speech by Alison and Basil Eastwood, founders of Cecily’s Fund, had warmed everyone to the great work their charity does. And after four years singing, playing and fundraising under Louisa Denby’s leadership, the Rosemary Consort is taking next year off. Let us hope we shall see and hear it again in 2016.
By Philip Young, former Bedales Director of Studies
Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.