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Ensemble

Congress of passions

The Finchley Choral Society Centenary Concert,
reviewed by KEITH BRAMICH

 

We all attend concerts with our own baggage -- memories, thoughts and opinions -- and although, as reviewers, we usually try hard to minimise those random, personal and usually irrelevant thoughts brought into the concert hall, I picked up some rather strong and unexpected vibes on my way to hear Finchley Choral Society's Centenary concert in London on 15 November 2003, so please forgive me if this piece begins in a rather more personal way than perhaps it should. The first memories flooded back when walking past the end of a road where a Japanese girl I got to know used to live. 'They call it the JJ area', she once helpfully explained of Golders Green -- Jewish and Japanese. My walk from Golders Green towards Hampstead Garden Suburb and the gentle hill on which the church of St Jude was built, then took me past Golders Green Crematorium, fixed indelibly in my memory ever since the tragically early death of a close friend, Friedl Landau (sister of the Australian-based tenor and conductor Tyrone Landau). My brain often tries to make bizarre connections between such thoughts: Friedl had some Jewish blood in her family, and I had first got to know Yuri, the Japanese friend, not long after Friedl's death.

The rather tenuous connection between all this and the concert I was walking towards, is that Friedl and I used to sing in another choir with the same conductor as the Finchley Choral Society -- George Vass. This had been in Vass's early choral conducting days, not long after moving into full-time conducting from an earlier career as a timpanist. This Finchley Centenary comes just after another significant event in George Vass's career -- his appointment (following a particular success with the 2003 Presteigne Festival in Wales) as Music Director of the Hampstead and Highgate Festival in London.

Pre-concert talk at the Friends' Meeting House, North Square, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. Left to right: David Matthews, George Vass and Cecilia McDowall. Photo: Keith Bramich
Pre-concert talk at the Friends' Meeting House, North Square, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. Left to right: David Matthews, George Vass and Cecilia McDowall. Photo: Keith Bramich

A pre-concert talk gave some of the audience a chance to meet Vass and the two contemporary British composers featured in the concert -- Cecilia McDowall (born 1951) and David Matthews (born 1943). They soon got into discussion about the difficulties of writing contemporary music for amateur choirs -- and in particular the problems of frequent changes of meter in much contemporary writing. 'Should choral writing ever be too difficult to rule out amateur performance?', David Matthews wondered. A gentleman in the audience brought up the question of tonality, asking both composers if they thought their pieces in the concert could be considered as 'tonal'. The result, a qualified 'no' from Matthews and a 'yes' from McDowall. Interesting though, what we perceive as tonality ... Matthews's A Congress of Passions inhabited a possibly more rarefied academic world than McDowall's Magnificat, but I could never describe either piece as 'atonal'.

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Copyright © 17 November 2003 Keith Bramich, London UK

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