An audience of some 500 wallowed unashamedly (if not exactly warmly!) in this concert of classical pot-boilers to launch the appeal for a new Chapel organ. That the concert was held in Tewkesbury Abbey, magnificent as it and its organs are, says it all really – it is no longer possible to stage a concert involving an organ in Chapel because the incumbent instrument is beyond repair. And Dean Close should have an organ of distinction, to support worship, choral music and congregational singing in Chapel and to provide a suitable instrument for teaching, learning and recitals. Dean Close pupils deserve the best facilities, and it is time that the School had an organ of which Dean Close can be proud - along with the Theatre, classrooms, and astro-turf pitches for example – and which enables pupils to fulfil their potential.
Two former pupils of musical distinction, Matthew Martin and Ashok Gupta, gave their time freely in this concert, as did the Carducci Quartet and the Abbey Organist, Carleton Etherington. Matthew, now a composer and Organist of Brompton Oratory, was organ scholar of Magdalen College, Oxford before holding positions at New College, Oxford and at Canterbury and Westminster Cathedrals. Ashok was Organ Scholar of Clare College, Cambridge and is now making a name for himself as one of the most versatile musicians of his generation. Benjamin Nicholas directed the Chapel Choir (only the first week of term, no pressure!) and brought the whole performance together. A reception in the Abbey afterwards enabled the audience to share its joy at a superb concert.
The programme began with Sir CHH Parry’s anthem written for the coronation of King Edward Vll in 1902, I Was Glad. With the Abbey organ underpinning it, the Chapel Choir was able to ‘open up’; and, as those famous final bars rang around the Abbey, to give a tantalising glimpse of that heavenly ‘plenteousness within thy palaces’.
Carleton Etherington played the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, demonstrating both the Abbey’s famous Milton Organ and his reputation as one of the foremost players of JS Bach. The sound of Carducci Quartet, resident at Dean Close and responsible for string teaching across the Schools, rang around the Abbey. We had brio in the Allegro from Haydn’s String Quartet, op 74 (The Rider); and the variations in the 2nd movement of EJ Moeran’s E major String Quartet were most exciting.
Percy Whitlock’s Elegy from his Symphony for Organ and Strings in an arrangement for organ, was the first of two pieces played by Matthew Martin. Elegy is the Romantic, inter-war ‘classic’ for which this composer for organ is perhaps best known and Matthew’s sensitive interpretation contrasted with his second piece, a stunning performance (I never realised you were so fast on your feet, Matthew!) of Francis Pott’s much-broadcast Toccata, which is just about in B minor and ends on a massive F# major chord – there is no doubting when this number has finished!
The first half was rounded off by Carleton Etherington playing Widor’s Toccata (lot of toccata around in this concert) with the Chapel Choir singing the choral overlay by David Willcocks – fun!
Ashok Gupta thrilled us all, not least his former piano teacher, with his consummate playing of a Chopin Nocturne followed by a virtuoso performance of Debussy’s L'Isle Joyeuse. Some pianist! It is quite moving for those who taught and cajoled Matthew and Ashok at school to hear them play in a live concert – young men with huge talent and wonderful achievements to their names already, yet humble, self-deprecating, grounded. Thank you, both.
As if we hadn’t scaled the heights already, Laurence Kilsby of the Schola Cantorum, then showed exactly why he is one of the outstanding trebles of any generation: his control in the Alleluia (from Exsultate Jubilate) by Mozart was simply phenomenal; and Constanze herself would have been proud of the top note at the end. The choristers then sang Lift Thine Eyes from Elijah by Mendelssohn and How Can I Keep From Singing by John Scott. Carleton Etherington then played that recitalist’s showpiece, Carillon de Westminster by Louis Vierne, first played by the composer in the Cathédrale Nôtre Dame de Paris, where not so long ago the Chapel Choir, having sung the main Sunday Mass, processed out along the whole length of the nave and through the great West Doors to the massive sound of that very same organ. Dean Close really should have one!
This brings us back to the Chapel Choir and the final number in the concert, Blest Pair of Sirens. This noble setting of Milton, At a Solemn Musick established Parry’s reputation in 1887 as the leading British choral composer of his day. It was sung at the Royal Wedding in 2011 and on so many great occasions when hearts and voices are to be raised, the roof lifted, our eyes turned heavenward and ‘mixt power employ’.
It is probably not without significance that the Choral Director of Dean Close, Benjamin Nicholas, who is responsible for the exceptional standard of choral music at the School, for the direction of the Schola Cantorum, and for the new Organ project, chose to end this programme with his choir accompanied on the Milton Organ of Tewkesbury Abbey, the very organ that the blind Milton himself is said to have played, with Parry and Milton. For some of us, to sing Parry in Tewkesbury Abbey is to catch a glimpse of heaven. Perhaps Milton could have the last word on a fabulous concert:
‘O may we soon again renew that Song,
And keep in tune with Heav’n, till God ‘ere long
To His celestial concert us unite,
To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light.’