Now in its fortieth year, the Presteigne Festival once again brought an eclectic mix of cultural events (music, film, art and poetry) to this unassuming Welsh border town. Under the artistic direction of George Vass, contemporary composition held a special place with premieres, amongst others, by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Tarik O’Regan and Huw Watkins. A shared focus on the music of Julian Phillips (this year’s composer in residence) and Vaughan Williams (marking his 150th birthday) prompted a dozen or so performances of their works, though curiously neither composer featured in Bath Camerata’s choral concert in Leominster Priory, one of several additional venues linked to this six-day celebration of mainly British music.
Under the choir’s principal guest conductor, Benjamin Goodson, Bath Camerata presented an hour-long programme of sacred and secular a cappella music that showcased recent and new contributions to the choral library from British composers. Australian saxophonist Amy Dickson added her own talent for several items including two contrasting solo works – Matthew Hindson’s atmospheric Heroes (written in 2020 to mark the work of medical professionals during the pandemic)and Toby Young’s playful Ralph (inspired by a day in the life of a ten-month-old puppy). Both works drew attention to Dickson’s intelligent musicianship and sense of communication, allied to flawless tuning and silky tone.
Dickson’s saxophone was also an invigorating presence in several of the afternoon’s choral works, notably in the arabesque figures and ecstatic lines of Gabriel Jackson’s Ave maris stella. Bath Camerata responded to its multi-voice layering and rich harmonic palette with a well-balanced account, blend and ensemble finely controlled even when choral divisions made significant demands on the group’s 24 voices. The singers were no less dependable in the world premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Presteigne Festival commission, The Wrath of Troilus, written for choir and saxophone. Her new work, like much of her composition, is wonderfully communicative both in its drama and lyrical impulse, qualities vividly expressed by Bath Camerata and Amy Dickson in this setting of Nevill Coghill’s modern English version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s text. Whether in explosive unisons, imaginative harmonies or free-wheeling saxophone, Frances-Hoad’s new work was given a magnificent launch – the perfect cue for other choirs to take up this striking score.
Earlier, there had been Frances-Hoad’s Beyond the Night Sky, a setting of a children’s poem by the American Steven Schnur and composed as a 75th birthday tribute to the cosmologist Stephen Hawking. Floating harmonies and luminous sonorities evoking the mystery of the universe were delivered with cool precision, the composer’s craftsmanship faithfully translated into a beguiling seven-minute soundscape. Amongst the other purely unaccompanied works, Tarik O’Regan’s 2006 blues-inflected Threshold of Night, setting verses by Kathleen Raine, was given a highly charged and shapely performance, its anguish and consolation fully realised. Thomas Hyde’s compact Magnificat (teasingly entitled Magnificent andcommissioned in 2017 by The Sixteen) was given a straightforward rendition befitting its somewhat emotionally neutral expression of the Virgin Mary’s news. Exuberant fanfare figures built on terse rhythmic gestures characterised much of Owain Park’s Caelos ascendit hodie and brought a measure of relief from the recital’s prevailing slow to moderate tempi – something that suited this accomplished and versatile chamber choir whose singers clearly revel in rich textured works of some complexity.
This quality was amply demonstrated in their commitment to Nicholas Maw’s One foot in Eden still, I stand, an anthem conceived for solo quartet and mixed chorus in 1990, making this work the oldest work in the entire programme. Under Goodson’s fluid yet precise direction, Bath Camerata were impressive advocates of this mini masterpiece, its subtle harmonies, soaring lines and solo passages sung with commendable polish and a warmth of tone that consistently held the ear. Recognisable within Maw’s musical language is a freshness of lyrical invention combined with a seamless connection to the past, one often at odds with his contemporaries in its predominantly tonal idiom. If there is an overriding romantic strain in this work, Bath Camerata gave it affectionate acknowledgement in a heartfelt and beautifully moulded account.
Such an enterprising programme is admirable, but an hour of almost entirely recently composed and new music can make for demanding listening. Something familiar – Vaughan Williams an obvious choice – would have been welcome. That said, Bath Camerata was on terrific form and goes from strength to strength.
Bath Camerata, Amy Dickson (saxophone), Benjamin Goodson (conductor)
Cheryl Frances-Hoad – Beyond the Night Sky, The Wrath of Troilus; Matthew Hindson –Heroes; Tarik O’Regan – Threshold of Night; Thomas Hyde – Magnificat; Gabriel Jackson –Ave maris stella; Owain Park – Caelos ascendit hodie; Nicholas Maw – One foot in Eden still, I stand
Leominster Priory, Herefordshire; Monday 29th August 2022.