Magnificent Music in King's - Cambridge Summer Music Festival's grand opening

Magnificent Music in King's - Cambridge Summer Music Festival's grand opening

What more spectacular place to begin the Cambridge Summer Music Festival than King’s College? On Saturday 21 July it opened with a dazzling display of musicians, singers and instrumental performers under the expert baton of international maestro and local music hero, Stephen Cleobury.

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Crowded against the dark wooden Tudor rood screen, ranged in ranks of alto, soprano, tenor and baritone, the singers waited above the full orchestral complement on the chapel floor. And packed into rows, the audience squeezed into every last inch of the ancient church. Under the baking stage lights, the concert feel of the evening was paramount.

This was a Gala evening, the choir composed of singers from Cambridge and beyond, the instrumentalists the finest in our region. It promised something grand. As soon as the music began, the audience also began a journey of immense depth and spiritual significance. 

As an opening for the festival, the choices of music were inspired. It began with the lovely lyricism of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. Written for his wife on the birth of their first child, the romantic music simply soared around the vaulted space in a warm swell of delight. Deceptively simple, the serenade is still an achievement, its warmth and directness needs a strong unity of playing and here the strings, particularly leader Helen Medlock and supporting first violins Sarah Williams and Gabrielle Sutcliffe, brought strength and unity to the melodic themes. The effect was dreamily moving.

Quite a shock then to begin the challenge of the great choral work that followed – Brahms’ ‘A German Requiem’. The Festival Chorus, built from the cream of no less than 20 excellent local choirs from Bury St. Edmunds to the Trinity Singers, were at last unleashed. And what a sound. Now blended with the equally élite cadre that is the East Anglian Chamber Orchestra, the tone was hauntingly full and musically honed to a much-needed synchronicity.

Brahms was a serious and intense man. His great friend Robert Schuman had died, desperately young but driven to illness and madness, leaving his devoted wife Clara and eight children. In a passion of grief, Brahms, who always had a tender devotion to Clara, wanted to break away from the classical Requiem Latin Mass and in the work we heard on Saturday, he succeeded in creating a new way of musical mourning.

Texts from the Bible replace the usual Gloria Kyrie and Sanctus and the result is a thoughtful and often equally uplifting piece, a meditation on loss and more importantly, of solace . During the eight movements, the choir opened into thrilling passionate sound. The experience of so many skillful and talented singers with so much confidence, surging into the loud exciting polyphony of the work, was truly a wondrous aural thrill. 

Here were human voices, capable of amazing but controlled drama. Together with their dashing champion, the conductor, who sometimes appeared to punch the air in his determination to will them on to give more and more, they swept the audience into the realm of awe.

The seemingly sudden shift to the tender strong solo voice of Michael R. Bundy brought the sheer humanity of the work another,  individual, perspective. He sang beautifully. And he was equalled by the effortless loveliness of the soprano soloist Helen-Jane Howells who sang of comfort, of reassurance and of love. The finale of this epic intense work honours the dead, asks us to remember them and brought the music to a tender prayerful and deeply spiritual close.

Cambridge Summer Music began with drama. The entire evening was a triumph. You only have to glimpse the arduous work in Gareth Malone’s television show The Choir to get an idea of what’s involved in a production like this, and to begin with quite such an immense project is nothing short of heroic.

The Summer Festival promises to give a wide range of music to a city keen to hear it. The splendour of this opening concert is only the beginning. But what an ambitious and creditable one it was.

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