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Bess of Hardwick

Derbyshire celebrates
an important sixteenth century figure,


Here in Derbyshire, UK, we've been celebrating the life of Bess of Hardwick, one of the most extraordinary figures of the sixteenth century, who died four hundred years ago this year. Widowed four times, with each husband leaving her richer than the one before, she is said to have been the second most powerful woman in the country, after Queen Elizabeth 1st.

Among her many achievements is Hardwick Hall, in north Derbyshire, an architectural marvel whose predominance of windows led to it being described as 'more glass than wall'. That's also the title of the piece created for the anniversary, telling the story of her life from childhood through each of her four marriages (Assembly Rooms, Derby, UK, 11 June 2008).

With a libretto by Cathy Grindrod, Derbyshire Poet Laureate for 2005-7, and music by James Redwood, it is scored for soloists, childrens' choirs and instrumental groups, and orchestra -- Sinfonia Viva, four of whose musicians were involved in the schools' workshops that were an important part of the composition process.

Redwood's highly inventive score draws on a wide range of styles from John Adams-style minimalism to Kurt Weill in his Broadway phase. The moving finale scene of Bess' death makes telling use of Tallis' anthem O Lord, in thee is all my trust (engraved on a table at Hardwick that was given to Bess as a wedding present), played by four solo strings. The trio of clarinet, viola and guitar used for the more intimate, reflective moments made an effective contrast to the massed forces in the bigger numbers.

That it all held together so convincingly is a tribute to the commitment of everyone concerned, to the immediacy of Cathy Grindrod's text, the expressive force of James Redwood's score, and conductor David Lawrence's overall direction. The narrative was easy to follow, although it would have been good to have more of the words projected.

Of the two very fine young soloists, soprano Sophie Grimmer sang Bess herself, with Robert Davies taking the more complex baritone role, as both narrator and, in the composer's words, 'Bess' conscience and critic'.

The children, from schools in both Derby and the north of the county, sang Redwood's by no means always obvious melodic lines confidently and from memory. The composer himself directed the school choirs and bands with considerable flair.

It is a pity that the piece would seem to have such limited appeal beyond Bess' centenary year and the borders of Derbyshire. I hope I'm wrong, because it deserves to be heard more widely.

Copyright © 23 June 2008 Mike Wheeler, Derby UK


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