‘Blue Moon’ Shines on the Blackdowns Early Music Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ego sum qui sum, European Sacred Music c. 1460 – 1596: Blackdowns Early Music Projects Vocal Ensemble, JanJoost van Elburg (Director) All Saints’ Church, Culmstock, East Devon, 2.9.2012. (BK)

Sopranos: Catherine Bass, Fabienne Brooksbank, Zoë Fitzsimmons, Juliet Grayson
Counter Tenors : Simon Clulow, David Cohen
Tenors: Rupert Candy, Geert Koskamp, Trevor Mansfield, Alister Whitford
Basses : Robert Asher, David Till

Dominique Phinot
(c1510-1556) Lamentations

Philippe Rogier (c. 1561 -1596) Missa Ego sum qui sum – Kyrie,
Laboravi in gemitu meo,
Missa Ego sum qui sum – Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei

Josquin des Prez (c.1450 -1521), Jacobus Vaet (c.1529 – 1567) , Mabrianus de Orto (c.1460 -1529) , Orlando de Lassus (c1532 -1594) Settings of Dulces Exuviae.

Dominique Phinot (as above) Vivons m’amye

Despite its many physical attractions; a long Atlantic coastline, a mild climate, wonderful beaches, and high moorland, Devon’s cultural life is not exactly over-populated with high-quality music making. Imagine my surprise then to hear an interview yesterday on the BBC’s Radio 3 morning magazine programme publicising a well-established Early Music Festival based less than 50 miles from my home, of which I had heard absolutely nothing during the last eight years.

And if that isn’t sufficient reason to marvel at one of Devon’s best kept secrets, then imagine too my total astonishment at discovering that one of the Blackdowns Early Music Project’s Musical Directors is none other than Robert Hollingworth, the innovative force behind I Fagiolini. His latest blockbuster recording 1612 Italian Vespers has attracted huge critical acclaim including a listing as Download of the Month by MusicWeb International’s Brian Wilson (see review.)

Further investigation of BEMP – as the organisation is affectionately known – reveals even greater riches. The current Musical Director is JanJoost van Elburg who also leads the Bartholomew Consort performing in the UK, Holland and France, the Lelikoor in Amsterdam and Le Pavillon at Stichting. To complete the directorial team, BEMP also lists Peter Leech another distinguished early music specialist.

It turns out that the driving forces behind BEMP are Catherine and Geoffrey Bass who moved to the area almost twenty years ago rather as I did myself. Keen and talented singers themselves they began BEMP to fill a yawning gap in local music making. ‘Early’ music in this area tends to mean Vivaldi and little else and since the Blackdown Hills area has many excellent venues in the form of local churches, suitable basic facilities were easy to find. The BEMP philosophy is to stick exclusively to repertoire written before 1720 and performers are recruited from a  group of contacts built up over the years. The contact list is now so extensive that singers can essentially be hand-picked for each programme to do best justice to the blends required for particular compositions from a pool of proficient amateur and semi-professional vocalists. Where professional instrumentalists are needed, they are hired from contacts belonging to groups such as the English Cornetts & Sackbuts, Florilegium, the Academy of Ancient Music, the Gabrieli Consort and so on.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about BEMP though is the fact that projects are funded by the participant singers themselves who subscribe to provide for the professional director, music scores, rehearsal spaces and meals. Rehearsals take place over a long weekend and culminate in the performances, two this time, and the sale of concert tickets cover costs for those. BEMP manages to survive essentially on participant enthusiasm, aided one suspects by some quiet and unobtrusive hospitality added by Catherine and Geoffrey Bass themselves.

The performances were uniformly excellent with singing of the highest quality that would easily survive comparison with the finest fully professional groups. Every single voice was quite evidently matched very carefully to the others both in timbre and emotional intensity. Nothing felt forced even in the loudest passages and tuning was essentially impeccable throughout. Ensemble was naturally enough completely seamless too but perhaps best of all, the group exuded nothing less than sheer delight at the opportunity to perform this music. In part this was due to JanJoost van Elburg’s intelligent programming of an (almost) chronological progression of the four settings of Dulces Exuviae to reveal increasing harmonic complexity. This was a master-stroke, but there were other equally important elements to his musical direction which revealed a profound understanding of this remarkable music. For myself I was particular pleased to hear a conductor talking about actively calculating the sound of particular sorts of text – Latin with a French accent for example – as well as matters of underlay when choosing settings to perform and I have no doubt at all that this concert was led by a master-craftsman.

Last Friday brought a genuine ‘blue moon’ to the UK – that’s the second of two full moons in the same month. According to some astrologers, apparently blue moons and the days that follow them generate some kind of special ‘magic’. BEMP and JanJoost van Elburg certainly did that for me.

Bill Kenny