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Winchester royal tribute

21 December 2012

Roderic Dunnett hears a new composition for 'the sweetest Queen'


LOYAL to the Saxon crown two centuries before King Alfred, and in thrall to Celts and Romans from 150 BC, Winchester and its cathedral bade farewell to Queen's Elizabeth II's Diamond Jubilee with a gargantuan choral jamboree, gathering in young and old. By way of a preface, the opening stages included a series of engaging items, including the portentous, Copland-inspired (marginally tongue-in-cheek) brass Fanfare for an Uncommon Woman by an American composer, Joan Tower (b. 1938), and a very simple, lucid Beatitudes, set by Peter Amidon and warmly sung by Winchester Community Choir. This followed a striking 1960s setting, Psalm 150, by Diana Owen, cheered by almost Monteverdian trumpets, and some vibrant vocal runs that drew notably good singing from the girls. This attractive work is worth the attention of today's cathedral and abbey choirs.

Next, a beautifully shaded, flowing performance of the Concert Étude Automne by Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944), a superior salon piece in which Diana Owen, now at the keyboard, displayed an accomplishment akin to Rachmaninov: it was the first half's certain highlight.

But the event of almost Hanoverian splendour was the second-half première of Jubilee Wisdom, a new choral work by June Boyce-Tillman, celebrating the Queen, and dedicated to the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire and Chancellor of Winchester University, Dame Mary Fagan.

From its haunting opening with solo trumpet and horn (I recall Howard Blake's use of viola in similar circumstances; a yearning viola would likewise emerge here, midway), this proved a work of joyous, vigorous impact: energetic, forceful, and varied.

It falls harmonically into a genre spanning, say, John Ireland and Vaughan Williams, but reaching beyond these. The solo work - a soprano early on, prominent flute, refined offerings from the Southern Sinfonia's leader, many brilliantly judged, sly, subliminal, and subtle touches, utilising numerous pieces of percussion - as well as the orchestra's ensemble playing - lifted the work on to a high level.

Of course, the choir mattered most. The text, often a drawback in such events, seemed buoyant and alive, not too cloying. The children are required to sing almost microtonally to produce a soughing, grieving effect ("Hold the green"; latterly "Walk the way"). The text, indeed, engages with a "green" theme, being a chant deep-rooted in the medieval, but with ozone getting a peep-in.

The ensuing adult procession was haunting, and the sonorities picked up by the cathedral really worked: shades of Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia, or Old Hundredth. Percussive bursts - side drum, gongs, shakers - enlivened the young children's column, striding the endless way from West End to the crossing. The folk violin that followed in the section infused by morris dance was inspired. Cecil Sharp would have been pleased.

The gleeful finale, orchestrated with outrageous bombast, was a musical treat, but the more so for what built up to it: a setting of the Dickie Valentine song In a Golden Coach which gave this cheerful event its title ("In a golden coach, there's a heart of gold Driving through old London town . . ."). Originally recorded by Billy Cotton and his orchestra, it came third in the hit parade in Coronation year, 1953. Boyce-Tillman's resplendent adaptation, bells and all, swept over us like a Dam Busters' fly-past.

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