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Music: Christian Forshaw and Tenebrae at Cumnock Tryst

29 October 2021

Keith Thomasson hears sacred works and sax during an East Ayrshire festival


Sir James MacMillan

Sir James MacMillan

IN THE approaches to Cumnock, in East Ayrshire, the heritage of coalmining dominates the landscape. In the poem “The Pit Man and Me”, Allan McMillan invites us to see his world as a very young boy of four. His father’s working life is portrayed as one of cold early mornings and hardship. Yet it is one infused with love, emanating from both father and son. “He’d head down the slope of the coal-dark mine And never stop work ’til home-coming time I’d beam him a smile as he came through the door His own little boy, who was only four.”

Another local, Francis Lopez, captures something of Cumnock as a paperboy forty years ago. “I knew everyone in these busy working-class streets. I had my regulars who would greet me at the door on Christmas or New Years and hand me a 50p tip like it was gold. And it was gold to me.”

Sir James MacMillan grew up in this community, making music with local groups. Today, he is, perhaps, the foremost composer living in the UK. His love for the people and for this locality is enshrined in his founding of the Cumnock Tryst, “a meeting place for music”. Through composition workshops in schools and world-class practitioners performing throughout the town, MacMillan hopes that this annual autumn event “will inspire more kids like me in Ayrshire to follow their musical dreams”.

On a cool evening at the beginning of this month, the welcome was warm at the Old Church for the concert “Drop, Drop, Slow Tears”. Performers and audience arrived together. The setting was one of intimacy. A consort of six singers from the choir Tenebrae, including their director, Nigel Short, joined the festival’s composer-in-residence, the saxophonist Christian Forshaw. Short explained that the inspiration underpinning this programming was that of the Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble’s landmark Officium of 1994. Short enhanced the original idea in several ways, with music that extends to the present day, compositions by men and by a woman (it would have been good to have a better balance here), and a consort of men and women.

The programme was a carefully crafted penitential sequence for Passiontide. Plainsong, Hildegard von Bingen, Tallis, Victoria, and Orlando Gibbons (some in arrangements by Forshaw) were placed alongside an original composition by Forshaw. Short contributed as an arranger also. The sequence was framed by “Drop, drop, slow tears”. Tenebrae sang Phineas Fletcher’s text to Gibbons’s Song 46. The blend of the singing was exquisite. The text was clear and communicated with sensitivity and insight. The pianissimo of the third verse, “In your deep floods drown all my faults and fears”, was breathtaking. We entered a “thin place”. Our souls were touched by the penitence communicated by the performers.

This quality continued throughout the programme. Short’s skill was evident in the preparation of the performance and in occasional gestures. I must say that the delivery of Victoria’s Reproaches was superb. There was clearly a level of commitment and affection between the performers within the ensemble. Each singer was given an opportunity to shine and yet remain connected. When the soprano Victoria Meteyard briefly left the space to sing Hildegard’s O Vos imitatores from the foyer, the door would not stay open, and so the wonderful bass David Valsamidis moved to hold it.

Jeremy Budd brought out the beautiful motion within the tenor line at several points, most notably in Tallis’s O nata lux and in the encore “Abide with me”. The mezzo-soprano Hannah King sang with full expression. Her solo voice was beautiful, and she helped to mould the ensemble into a single entity. The end of the programme was heart-stopping. Short’s arrangement of “Drop, drop, slow tears” ended with the ensemble reducing to one voice, that of the soprano Rosanna Wicks singing “but through my tears”.

Throughout the programme, the expertise of Forshaw as performer, composer, and arranger shone through. I would value hearing his Renouncement again. Forshaw’s mellifluous playing enriched music from centuries earlier. His musical line was characterised by the freedoms of contemporary understandings of harmony, in contrast with the meticulous writing of Tallis; and yet one enriched the other. Forshaw performed from the pulpit (except when his saxophone became a “voice” in the vocal ensemble). His sax expounded and decorated the text being sung. His playing was a sonic sermon.

The backdrop was a beautiful mosaic of Jesus walking on the water by James Harrigan. The dedication of all involved with the Cumnock Tryst will lead to new discovery, opportunity, and “miracles”. With performances of this quality and depth, blended with the educational work of the performers alongside MacMillan, the composer and Cumnock Tryst CEO Jennifer Martin, and others in the classroom, lives will be transformed. Macmillan has the gold of making music together in his hands, and he is sharing it.


James MacMillan and Jennifer Martin, Creative Composition for the Classroom (Trinity College London Press, 2021).

Francis Lopez “My Paper Round” and Allan McMillan’s “The Pit Man and Me” were printed in the concert programme.

The Revd Keith Thomasson is the Rector of St Ninian’s, Troon.

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