Programme Notes - Musical Director (An English Christmas)

Posted: 27th November 2018

For the concert on 1 December 2018:

It is a privilege to welcome you to the first concert of our 2018/19 season: ‘An English Christmas’. I believe this may be Exeter Bach Society’s first concert in Sidwell Street Methodist Church and for me it is a perfect place to start the festive season with its friendly community and characterful feel. One of the very first concerts I conducted in Exeter was in this church with the Exeter University Gilbert & Sullivan Society and it therefore holds a special place in my heart.

The music of tonight’s concert is some of the best that we have produced in this country over the last century. Benjamin Britten was a pioneer and it gives me great pleasure to present two of his most popular works. Saint Nicolas is a fabulous depiction of the colourful life and various myths associated with the great saint we now associate with Father Christmas. Legend depicts Saint Nicolas as a very kind man who had a reputation for helping the poor and giving secret gifts to people who most needed it. It is from these stories – brilliantly caricatured by librettist Eric Crozier – that today’s Father Christmas was born, and it is crucial to remember these philanthropic origins amongst the frivolity and indulgence that we enjoy in modern-day celebrations.

2018 celebrates the 70th anniversary of this work and Saint Nicolas is one of those pieces which as a conductor you feel compelled to involve another musical group other than your own choir. The piece was written for the centenary of Lancing College, Sussex but also involved Ardingly, St. Michael’s and Hurstpierpoint school choirs and this tradition of ‘the more the merrier’ continues today. Britten was a champion of amateur music making and believed passionately in encouraging wider participation in classical music. We all must take inspiration from him and continue to enlighten governments about the huge value of music making to society.

I am extremely grateful to Rachel Bennett and Jonathan Probets for preparing and conducting our partner for tonight’s performance – Bramdean School Chapel Choir. Bramdean is a school with a fabulous choral history with many excellent BBC Radio 3 Choral Evensong broadcasts buried away in the BBC archives so it is a great privilege to form a partnership with them. I imagine this is the first Saint Nicolas the choristers have sung in and I hope it will be an experience they will remember with fondness in years to come.

This year is also the centenary of the armistice and whilst we are now out of the official period of remembrance, the whole year is one of commemoration. Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings was written in 1943 during the heart of the Second World War but its themes are universal and not written for any particular season. However, for me, the piece has always been synonymous with remembrance due to the haunting bugle-esque horn solo which opens and closes the piece embracing natural harmonics and eerily reminiscent of the last post. Many people might say, why do such a piece in a programme titled ‘An English Christmas’? I know for many people including myself, Christmas is the time more than any other during the year when we are acutely aware of those people who are no longer with us. Britten’s Serenade can be interpreted in this way and it is therefore, for me, a perfect piece to provide contrast with the well-known carols of Vaughan-Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols or the chilly, evocative Elgar The Snow.

For our concerts we are always blessed with exciting young soloists and today is no exception. It is an absolute pleasure to welcome back Tenor, Andrew Henley to the society and to introduce Baritone, Ben Tomlin and Horn, William Padfield for their first performances with Exeter Bach Society. When I was in conversation with Andrew about this concert, I recall his excitement about being able to sing the Serenade for the first time with orchestra – a real pillar of the English Tenor’s repertoire (although I’m sure Andrew will tell you he’s Welsh). I know Ben from my time in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and it is always a pleasure to hear his lyric baritone. Ben is also a talented photographer and will be taking some photos during the second half for myself and the Society; we are extremely grateful for this. William Padfield is a name from even further back in my past – William was a couple of years below me at school and is an exciting horn player. Since then he has studied at both the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music and is now starting up his own brass group, Quartet Menine. It is great to work with him after all these years and I know our school music teachers would have loved to be here. The orchestra is once again led by the brilliant Anna Cockroft and I am continually grateful for everything that she does in preparation for these concerts.

Finally, I am indebted to Colin Pettet for his continual dedication to the Society. Colin is the society’s regular accompanist and has helped chorus master throughout this term with little fuss and great skill. I would also particularly like to thank the committee for their help in the preparation of this concert. Please remember to stand for the congregational hymns in Saint Nicolas and don’t be afraid to raise the roof with your singing as Britten would have wanted! I look forward to meeting you after the performance.

Musical Director

Jonathan Lucas Wood