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Valley’s time to shout and sing

08 November 2013

Roderic Dunnett on a priest at the heart of a Welsh village's music-making


IN THE Rhondda, they entitled this concert "From Bach to Bigmore". Most of us know about J. S. Bach. But who is Bigmore?

Fifteen years ago, the Port Talbot-born Paul Bigmore, a priest with a decided entrepreneurial streak, moved from Cardiff to the small Rhondda Valley community of Ynyshir. It means "Long Island"; and the village lies, indeed, amid three rivers: its own "little" Rhondda Fach; Rhondda Fawr ("great" Rhondda); and, not far away, the Taff. The branch line that served Ynyshir fell prey to Dr Beeching's cuts in 1964.

Believing that a lack of music is a sadness in a parish's life, and, conversely, that music and the arts can bring people together, Fr Bigmore founded a concert series to rekindle local interest. Based in St Anne's Church, Music in the Community - Cerddoriaeth yn y Gymuned - has gone from strength to strength.

The 15th anniversary called for a celebration - especially as it also coincided with the parish's 125th anniversary - and got one. Fr Bigmore is a very good hymn-writer, who imports into his music and distils in the words the spirit of the region he serves, where hymn-singing is arguably the best in the world - a rival to Afro-American Gospel song - fusing the fervour of rugby chant with an uplifting hymnic Welsh folk base.

No surprise that for this celebratory cyngerdd (concert), hymns, including a new one by Fr Bigmore, dedicated to the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan (who was present), and his wife, Hilary, played a key part. "God of Love, our hearts are open" was sung by a silken-toned tenor, Joshua Owen Mills, who hails from Neath, in a voice so attractively youthful and musically refined that it put even the great Welsh tenors Harry Secombe and Stuart Burrows (though not Dennis O'Neill) in the shade.

The words were in Welsh, but were read out in translation beforehand by the octogenarian Eurfron Griffiths with an exemplary ringing clarity.

I don't often enjoy mixed programmes, but this was an exception. There were very young singers, of course, from Ynyshir Community Primary School: and they excelled. For "Everybody Care", pupils and staff had written the words, which were set to Fr Bigmore's tune. It was gorgeous.

The plums of this - by any standards - sensationally good concert (Ynyshir doesn't do things by halves: the choir of Canterbury Cathedral sang there as part of Music in the Community a few months ago) were two young groups from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (Coleg Brenhinol Cerdd a Drama Cymru), where Fr Bigmore has studied.

All were impressed by a polished brass quintet - brass is another local speciality - who focused on popular Puccini, the American film-music composer and arranger Michael Kamen (1948-2003), and a brilliant, jazzy, spoof sonata (St Barbara) by the Salvation Army-connected, Essex-born composer Bramwell Tovey (b. 1953).

The playing, precision, punch, and deftness of ensemble were thrilling. Dafydd Thomas's trombone worked additional magic.

But the brass had rivals. Even more astounding, to my ears, was RWCMD's group New British Winds. Sporting the traditional wind quintet (actually a horn plus quartet of winds), they worked wonders on Poulenc, then Haydn (a whole Divertimento), then Mozart (the Magic Flute Overture).

Just as one was in awe of the magisterial Christopher Hart, the brass's lead trumpeter, so here it was the bassoonist Matthew Petrie who caught the eye and ear: beautiful tone, fabulous articulation, and, with his young colleagues, showing gorgeous fluency in classical and 20th-century repertoire. Alice McArthur served up delicious touches on the oboe; Tom Taffinder's horn-playing shone; and their five-part ensemble was at every point a match for not just London's music students, but the capital's professional ensembles, too. It would be good to hear them play the Nielsen Quintet.

Honouring Ynyshir Parish Church's patron saint, the organist John Cheer thundered out Bach's "St Anne" Fugue, and The Queen of Sheba, though she wasn't anyone's patron. In a further double commemoration, two song settings by Fr Bigmore, "In Expectation" and "Departed" (both sung by a characterful Neath soprano, Shoshana Pavett), were of Welsh writers (the poet Dr Christine James, from Tonypandy, on Rhondda Fawr, is Wales's first female Archdruid of the National Eisteddfod), and memorialised the twin disasters of Aberfan, in 1966, when 28 adults and 116 junior-school children were killed, and the universal grief at the worst-ever Welsh (and, indeed, British) underground collapse, at Senghenydd near Caerphilly 100 years ago, in 1913, which killed 440 Welsh miners, and where Dr Morgan has just unveiled a striking new sculpted national memorial.

Both anniversaries fell almost in the same week on 14 and 21 October. As the crow flies, Aberfan is a mere seven miles from Ynyshir.

The icing on the cake was the keyboardist and inspired RWCMD professor Andrew Wilson-Dickson's conducting of the vividly beguiling Cor y Cwm (Valley Choir, drawn from schools in the Rhondda); and his management, as Artistic Director, of the whole event. When conducting or promoting, I could never remember where singers or players sat. Mr Wilson-Dickson's dexterity with the music stands, pulpit permitting, was a cause for wonder.

All forces united for the massed finale, the congregational hymn "God of Love, our hearts are open", words and music by Fr Bigmore. The imagery resounded:

Through the silent hours of darkness`
Christ alone remains the same.

Mellifluous voices swelled to fever pitch; the eglws resounded like an ancient ecclesia. Those Welsh valleys: is there nowhere like them?

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