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Classical stars shine for Tavener

by
20 June 2014

By Roderick Dunnett

WESTMINSTER ABBEY

Simon Russell Beale reads from Isaiah 35

Simon Russell Beale reads from Isaiah 35

AN EXTENDED service of thanksgiving was held in Westminster Abbey, in the presence of the Prince of Wales, on Wednesday of last week, to celebrate the life and work of the composer Sir John Tavener, who died on 12 November last year, two months short of his 70th birthday.

Nine works by the composer, spanning several decades, were sung by soloists and the choir of Westminster Abbey, under the Organist and Master of the Choristers, James O'Donnell. These included the celebrated setting of William Blake "The Lamb" (1982), the plaintive Funeral Ikos, and a setting of the Lord's Prayer.

The actor Simon Russell Beale read from Isaiah 35 ("and sorrow and sighing shall flee away"). The composer's elder daughter, Theodora, read a text, "Ninety-Nine Words", in which Tavener encouraged his three children to "remember God every day", and "aspire to the state of bliss which inhabits all things".

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall, presided, and Archbishop Gregorios of Thyateira & Great Britain led the middle section of the service, which was spoken in Greek and centred on prayers "for the repose of John, God's servant, who has fallen asleep".

Sir Nicholas Kenyon, in his address, praised Tavener's challenging early works, as well as his questing later ones, recalling that the composer - "vigorous, opinionated, accessible, by no means monkish, a hugely attractive late-20th-century person" - made an unusual spiritual journey, from Presbyterianism (as a young church organist in London) via Catholic mysticism and Anglicanism to Greek Orthodoxy, which he embraced in his later years. This, with Sufi, Jewish, and latterly Hindu texts, greatly influenced his music, and gaveit its "unique" and "hypnotic" quality.

Sir Nicholas also recalled Tavener's other passions, notably for "upmarket cars", and his unceasing and infectious laughter.

The countertenor Andrew Watts, with the oboist Nicholas Daniel, and the Britten Sinfonia under Stephen Layton, performed The Hidden Face, a work of sublime serenity, then explosive force, dating from 1996. Other performers who made an eloquent contribution were the soprano Patricia Rozario, the cellist Steven Isserlis, and the violinist Thomas Gould, associate leader of the Britten Sinfonia.

Among the congregation were the composers John Rutter, David Matthews, and Gabriel Jackson; the singers James Bowman, Michael Chance, and Ian Partridge; the conductor Harry Christophers; the BBC Radio 3 presenter Donald Macleod; and Tavener's publisher, James Rushton, of Chester Music, who had written a biographical note for the order of service.

A retiring collection was taken for the John Tavener Memorial Fund, which seeks to preserve the composer's manuscripts and to promote religious education and tolerance through music, and to support research into Marfan's disease, the genetic disorder from which Tavener long suffered.

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