Celebrating a Trombone, a School and a Friendship

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Holst, Vaughan Williams, Britten, Quilter, Grandjany, Ravel, Bridge: Sue Addison (trombone), Frances Kelly (harp), James Gilchrist (tenor), John Wright (organ and piano), Choir and Chamber Orchestra of St Paul’s School London / Heidi Pegler and Leigh O’Hara (conductors), All Saints’ Church, Cheltenham, 22.9.2012.

Holst: Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda, Weep you no more, Settings of Humbert Wolfe poems
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves, Five Studies in British Folk Songs, Prelude on Rhosmedyre, Settings of poems by Rossetti, Barnes and Blake
Britten: Three song settings
Quilter: Weep you no more
Grandjany: Aria in Classic Style for harp and organ
Ravel: Cinq chansons populaires grecques
Bridge: Berceuse for trombone and piano

Every year the Holst Birthplace Trust marks Gustav Holst’s birthday with a concert in the church where he was christened and where his father Adolphus was organist. This year’s event was especially notable for bringing together three strands of the composer’s life.

One was his trombone. Holst was a professional trombonist who played the trombone in the Carl Rosa Opera Orchestra, the Scottish Orchestra and various seaside bands. The audience was given the opportunity to see and hear Holst’s own instrument in action thanks to Sue Addison of English Baroque Soloists. She explained how the trombone had been manufactured by the firm of Boosey in 1875 the year after Holst’s birth and had been donated to the Royal College of Music by his daughter Imogen after his death in 1934. Since then it has remained unplayed …….. until now, that is. Unlike violins, brass instruments do not improve with age, but this particular instrument has recently been restored and to the untutored ear it sounded in good shape.

Sue Addison put it through its paces in Vaughan Williams’ Studies on English Folksong originally written for cello and harp, which were interspersed by three song arrangements by Benjamin Britten sung by James Gilchrist. It cropped up again in Vaughan Williams’ setting of The Lamb from Blake’s Songs of Innocence as a very effective oboe substitute. She also performed part of the Duet for Trombone and Organ composed by the young Holst in 1894, even though he did not give the first performance himself. Frank Bridge’s Berceuse for trombone and piano demonstrated how graceful and gentle this instrument can sound.

Now for the education strand. After some years as an orchestral player Holst moved into teaching, and was head of the music department of St Paul’s Girls’ School in Hammersmith, West London for 29 years. (He also taught at Morley College and James Allen’s School in Dulwich.) So it was a particular pleasure to welcome the chamber orchestra and choir from St Paul’s to perform on this occasion. The orchestra gave a glowing account of Vaughan Williams’ Greensleeves, while the choir’s performance of Holst’s Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda was utterly riveting. The Hymn to the Dawn had a timeless, spiritual quality while the subsequent Hymn to the Waters with its unusual time signature had a vibrant, refreshing quality above the sparkling harp accompaniment by Frances Kelly. There was more controlled, yet expressive, singing in the wonderful Hymn to Vena whilethe Hymn of the Travellers created a sense of motion and direction; the ending where the singing fades away in the distance was particularly effective. It was hard to believe that we were hearing a school choir, such was the quality and depth of the singing, thanks to the commitment .of the singers and their conductor Heidi Pegler. Holst would doubtless be delighted to know that standards at St Paul’s have not slipped since the days he was in charge.

The third strand to the concert was Holst’s friendship with Vaughan Williams, who was represented, as already noted, by his Fantasia on Greensleeves and the lovely Prelude on the Welsh hymn tune Rhosymedre played by organist John Wright. It was splendid to hear a selection of songs by both composers sung with impeccable flair and sensitivity by James Gilchrist. These included Vaughan Williams’ settings of two Dante Gabriel Rossetti poems, Heart’s Haven and Silent Noon, as well as some of Holst’s settings of poems by Hubert Wolfe. Betelgeuse in which Wolfe evokes the strangeness and stillness of the brightest star of the Orion constellation was apparently a favourite of Holst’s, and his arrangement combined with James Gilchrist’s voice sent a slight shiver down the spine.

I greatly enjoyed the Chansons populaires greques by Ravel which brought together the talents of James Gilchrist and harpist Frances Kelly – who also performed Marcel Grandjany’s sumptuous Aria in Classic Style for harp and organ. But by now it was getting late and I felt these two works were somehow superfluous to requirements. English music, particularly when well performed, as it was this evening, is more than capable of holding its own – and the large, enthusiastic audience bore this out. My only regret is that we did not have a more substantial contribution from the pupils of St Paul’s, for in my estimation (for what it’s worth) they were the stars of the concert.

Roger Jones