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
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
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
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
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?