Magical night of classical music reinvented for modern instrument

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It was like stepping into A
Dream of a summer night
in February, the dark interior of St Mary’s lit by soft shades of shimmering purple and green, like a mottled canopy of trees.

A silent bird song completed the framework of the concert In Windsor Foresta point of calm in the midst of a terrible week of news.

Chiltern Arts’ reception reflected the mood – their program at Dorchester Abbey the evening before had been changed to include a harp recital by a Ukrainian musician.

I was intrigued to hear Vaughan Williams’ compositions arranged for saxophone and early Baroque and Renaissance choral music on the instrument (surely one of the most unusual things to come out of lockdown ). I couldn’t have imagined the level of musicians or innovation I was going to hear.

The concert featured the Corvus Consort, a vocal ensemble of young professionals at the start of their singing career, led by Freddie Crowley, and the new generation of artists, the Ferio Saxophone Quartet, made up of four saxophonists, including Huw Wiggin of Henley. It was invigorating that all the musicians were young (under 40 or so).

The first half included works by Bach (JS, JC and JM), Handel, Purcell and Schutz, some pieces performed by the ensembles together and others separately. Conductor Crowley described how Schutz imagined his composition for voice performed with instruments, but could not have imagined the
saxophone, which was not invented for 200 years.

Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto performed on the saxophone sounded so airy that it was a joy to hear and see the musicians enjoying it as well.

I liked the poetry readings by Ellie McMurray (alto sax) from Wordworth’s Compound on Westminster Bridge and With the ships the sea was watered
followed by Wordsworth’s poemsset to music by the Ferio Saxophone Quartet in 2017.

This composition by Dutch saxophonist Guillermo Lago was, for me, the most exciting piece. It was very contemporary, with unusual rhythms and vibe that reminded me of contemporary dance.

It sounded hard to play but the saxophonists seemed to have a lot of fun playing it.

In complete juxtaposition, we were then treated to the introspective and lyrical phrases of Vaughan Williams Three Songs of Shakespearewith the voices of the Corvus Consort and an exceptional solo by Fiona Fraser sounding both divine and magical.

This led us to the title track, In Windsor Forest, a cantata adapted by Vaughan Williams using music from his opera Sir John in love and arranged by Freddie Crowley.

Comprised of five songs, we were swept away in a playful Shakespearian romp; a denunciation of men for women’s voices; a catchy drinking song for male voices; a sparkling depiction of fairies; happy and powerful wedding chorus celebratory epilogue.

This arrangement for choir and saxophone was specially commissioned by Chiltern Arts for the occasion on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vaughan Williams this year.

He was enthusiastically received by a grateful audience.

It reminded me how lucky we are to have the freedom and peace to be united through the arts and how music and poetry connect us in community, across time, place and across generations.

I thought of my grandmother introducing me to her love for Vaughan Williams and my mother learning On Westminster Bridge on Westminster Bridge on the way to school. I’m sure we all said a prayer for our loved ones. Thanks to Chiltern Arts, Founder and Creative Director Naomi Taylor and Producer Fi Harding, for bringing such excellence in the arts and making it local and accessible to everyone.

Also to the Corvus Consort and the Ferio Saxophone Quartet for transporting us to a magical place, if only for a short time, and to Steve Woolmer for the sound and lighting.

It seemed to me that faith or hope – whichever you choose – was experienced at St Mary’s tonight.

We have many festivals in Henley and this one needs to be placed firmly on our festival map. To discover the magic, mark the Chiltern Arts Festival from May 14 to 21 in your diary (chiltern
arts.com)

Sue James

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