Programme Notes - Musical Director (Bach and the Blues)

Posted: 10th June 2017

For the concert on 10 June 2017:

It is my pleasure to welcome you this evening to our final concert of the 2016/17 season – ‘Bach and the Blues’. It has been an extremely enjoyable first season with the Society from a personal point of view and the choir have tackled a plethora of different styles benefitting hugely from this variety of choral techniques and differing challenges. As we look ahead to a more conventional 2017/18 season with Baroque favourites such as Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’ and Bach’s ‘St Matthew Passion’ on the cards, I would like to say a big thank you to those of you in the audience who support us throughout the year. It really is appreciated and I hope you have also enjoyed what we have been trying to do with the Society. We are constantly aiming to push boundaries through programmes which are different, original and exciting whilst at the same time honouring the rich history and constitution of the Society through the performance of classic works and educational talks and workshops.

The idea behind this concert stemmed from an excellent talk by music educator Jonathan James earlier in the year where he spoke at great length about the daring harmonies often included within J. S. Bach’s organ improvisations. Unsurprisingly, due to the character that Bach was, musicologists have informed us that he always tried to get away with as much improvisation as he thought the clergy could stomach during his time as Organist in Weimar and later Leipzig. However, the influence of Bach on the Jazz and Blues genres is not widely documented primarily due to the significant gap both historically and geographically between 18th century Germany and 20th century America. This means that a direct empirical link is rather hard to prove. However, surely the bold harmonic progressions that Bach used in some of his more exploratory works cannot be dismissed as irrelevant when discussing the influences that led to Jazz and Blues?

Regardless of this, in the late 20th century, pianist Jacques Loussier (1934 – ) cemented any link there may have been by interpreting Bach’s works in a more crudely obvious jazzy style. However, the fact that Loussier chose Bach as opposed to other famous composers is surely telling and indicates that perhaps Bach’s music was the most suitable to a jazz style.  Would Bach be turning in his grave at these interpretations? Or would he have applauded Loussier’s take on his work as bold and courageous like he himself was in the organ loft all those years ago. I am inclined to think it would be the latter and I am delighted that our jazz trio this evening will pay tribute to Loussier’s great legacy through three of his most well-known interpretations.

An exciting idea is only as good as the performers you get to execute it and I am delighted to welcome a stellar team to provide the foundations on which the choir can flourish. Firstly, it is brilliant to finally secure the services of our regular accompanist, Colin Pettet in one of our concerts. Colin really is the lynchpin of everything that happens tonight and I am so grateful to him for his consummate skill and commitment to the Society.

Any performance of Will Todd’s ‘Mass in Blue’ needs a vivacious, captivating and almost theatrical Soprano. For me there was an obvious choice for such a role – the supremely talented Heloise West who has been involved with the society on several occasions in the past. Finally, it is great to have Mike Thorn with us for the first time on Double Bass and regular Michelle Hiley with us as part of the Jazz Trio. My good friend and colleague at Buckfast Abbey, Jason Bomford completes the line-up with a short cameo in Bach’s ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’ – a piece written for the 27th Sunday after Trinity but deserved to be performed all year round such is it’s lilting, romantic beauty.

Aside from the major works performed tonight which clearly relate to the title of the concert, we are also celebrating the influence of Ella Fitzgerald (1917 – 1996) on the centenary of her birth with a brief tribute to her fondness for the Cole Porter songbook and particularly the song “Miss Otis Regrets” – a staple of her repertoire. ‘The Tale of the Oyster’ is another classic from the same songbook and seemed particularly appropriate for Topsham – a village known for its delightful seafood!  

2017 also sees the celebration of 80 years since the death of George Gershwin (1898 – 1937) at the all too young age of 38 and it seemed fitting to perform one of his most famous works from Porgy and Bess on a lovely summer’s day in this beautiful village (of course – it will inevitably rain now I have published this in the programme!).

Finally, I am delighted to be able to give the Devon premiere of the beautifully simple setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 27 (Weary with Toil) by Ben Parry. Ben is the current Director of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, an ex-Swingle Singer and has been a great mentor to me over the years. I am extremely grateful to him for letting us use a piece which is very personal to him but complemented the programme beautifully. It is always exciting to perform new music and I believe all choirs should have the opportunity at some point during a season to give a premiere.

I am extremely grateful to both the whole committee for their continued support behind the scenes and of course to the choir, who offer great friendship and have worked extremely hard throughout this season to produce three concerts that we can all be proud of. I hope you enjoy this evening and I look forward to meeting you afterwards.

Director of Music

Jonathan Lucas Wood