Samuel Hudson introduces the 2021 Three Choirs Festival in conversation with John Quinn

Samuel Hudson discusses his 2021 Three Choirs Festival with John Quinn

Samuel Hudson (c) Michael Whitefoot

When Samuel Hudson took up his post as Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral in autumn 2019, he must have been very excited. Not only was he to be in charge of the music at one of England’s leading cathedrals, but also the post carried with it the artistic directorship of the Three Choirs Festival one year in every three – and it was to be Worcester’s turn to host the festival in the summer of 2020. He moved to Worcester from Blackburn Cathedral, where he had been Director of Music since 2011, and his musical pedigree is strong. He was organ scholar successively at Girton College, Cambridge and Wells Cathedral, after which he held posts at two significant churches, St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, London and All Saints’ Church, Hertford, prior to his move to Blackburn.

Less than six months after Samuel’s arrival in Worcester huge challenges arose. The Covid pandemic occasioned a national lockdown, as part of which all churches were closed. In May 2020, faced with the prospect of insurmountable uncertainties over the coming months, the Three Choirs Festival authorities took a decision which was entirely realistic: the 2020 festival was cancelled. With the exception of the two World Wars, this was the only time in its 300-year history that the festival had been cancelled.

Happily, the Three Choirs Festival is now back in business for 2021. In April, an ambitious programme was announced for a festival that will run from 24 July to 1 August. This programme retains quite a lot of music which should have been heard in 2020. Furthermore, the festival will take place in Worcester. The annual rotation should have seen the festival move to Hereford, but with great goodwill all round the decision has been made to move back each city’s hosting by one year; so, Hereford will now host the 2022 festival and the following year Gloucester will be in the spotlight. This means that in 2021, albeit one year later than expected, Samuel Hudson will for the first time be Artistic Director of the Three Choirs Festival

I had planned to interview him in advance of the 2020 Festival. Obviously, that conversation went by the wayside. Instead, a year later than planned, we got together to talk about the forthcoming Festival, although the demands of social distancing obliged us to conduct our discussion by Zoom.

Before considering the 2021 Festival, though, it seemed appropriate to ask Samuel to reflect on the challenges of his first 18 months at Worcester Cathedral. With all the disruptions to the rhythm of daily musical life at the cathedral, I asked him how he had gone about maintaining both singing standards and also morale. I wasn’t surprised that he described the last 18 months as ‘quite a roller coaster’. Samuel said that at each point, as the situation had changed, he and the Cathedral authorities had tried to do their best within government and Church of England guidelines. The choir held a number of Zoom rehearsals and later had got used to singing services without a congregation. ‘The support, understanding and flexibility shown not only by the choristers, lay clerks, the Cathedral community and also by the chorister families has helped enormously.’ The promise of things gradually returning to normal in stages has kept everyone going. He thinks there are some positives out of all this. The choir’s ‘teamwork and sense of community has been tested and boosted’. The choir members have become accustomed to singing at a distance of 2 metres apart: ‘they’ve done brilliantly with that and it’s become the normal’. But when they’re able to get back to singing in the choir stalls, where they haven’t sung since March last year, he believes that their enhanced listening skills will be beneficial. Getting back to singing in the choir stalls will be ‘a treat’.

The Directors of Music at Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester Cathedrals have the added responsibility that once every three years, by rotation, they host the Three Choirs Festival. I wondered how much of a lure that had been to Samuel in applying for the Worcester post. He says that it’s a privilege to have the responsibility for directing the day-to-day music at the Cathedral. However, in addition, ‘it’s a great thrill to have the responsibility to put together a festival programme on a scale that’s not really replicated anywhere else in the country’. It’s also going to be a great pleasure, he says, to be involved in the intervening years and to work closely with his colleagues at Gloucester and Hereford, Adrian Partington and Geraint Bowen. He says they have been ‘fantastic colleagues, especially over the trials and challenges of the last year’; he is really looking forward to working with them in a supporting role on their festivals in the coming years.

It was intended that the 2020 Festival would explore as a major theme the concept of ‘Voyages’, not least in linking the programme to the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflower to North America. That connection has now been lost but when I got hold of the prospectus for the 2021 Festival, I was surprised to see how much of the 2020 programme had been retained and remains entirely relevant to the revised theme. The 2021 theme will be ‘Bold Adventures’. That seems a hugely symbolic title given that fact that the festival programme contains a number of large-scale choral and orchestral works even though the programme was launched at a time when, choirs were not even allowed to rehearse together indoors, let alone perform.

Since the launch of the programme, uncertainties have persisted. Since Easter, it has been possible to rehearse the Three Choirs Festival Chorus; such rehearsals are allowed to take place because they relate to professional concerts. However, even then restrictions on the number of people who can gather together to sing have imposed logistical challenges. The greatest threat, however, concerns the hoped-for lifting of Covid restrictions in England on 19 July, just six days before the Festival opens. If that happens on schedule all should be well, but if social distancing restrictions remain in force, it will not be possible to assemble the Festival Chorus on stage. Consequently, the Festival authorities have been left with no option but to publish alternative programmes for the four concerts involving the Festival Chorus in case the choir cannot take part. I asked Samuel to give me some insights into the huge amount of behind-the-scenes work and re-planning that has been going on.

He admits it has been a big challenge – and frustrating at times – to re-plan and re-design the Festival programme. This will not be a full festival programme in terms of the number of choral concerts; that is down to the constraints of rehearsal time and also to uncertainty over what they would be allowed to put on. Samuel says that every programme re-design has required a ‘herculean effort from a number of Three Choirs colleagues who have been so supportive and wonderful at every step’. He quickly realised that any proposed artistic change, however small, has financial and logistical implications as well.  It has been ‘a group effort, which I’ve found very valuable’. I suggested to Samuel that in these unprecedented times it must have been beneficial to be part of a seasoned team – his two fellow Directors of Music, the Chief Executive and the Chairman all have extensive Three Choirs experience. He completely agreed.

Two of the programmes which Samuel had been due to conduct included a great English choral work:  Elgar’s The Music Makers on the opening night and Walton’s sizzling Belshazzar’s Feast, during the Festival’s last weekend. Unfortunately, Belshazzar’s Feast cannot now be performed; it has become a casualty of the contingency planning. However, if The Music Makers goes ahead that will enable to Samuel to plunge into the Festival with an Elgar work which is a firm part of Three Choirs heritage. That must give him a sense of keen anticipation, I suggested. In fact, Samuel told me that as long ago as November 2018 when he had one of his first planning discussions with Festival Chief Executive, Alexis Paterson, for what was then intended to be the 2020 Festival, Music Makers was nailed on as the main work for the opening night concert. He views it as ‘the perfect piece, not just for my first Festival but for this particular Festival’. So, the planned performance on 24 July 2021 will have been a long time coming, he says. Just recently, he led the Festival Chorus in their first massed – but socially distanced – rehearsal of Music Makers in Worcester Cathedral and it was a seminal moment for him. He found it moving to have the choir all together and to hear them sing Elgar’s music with all its self-quotations. It was a rather special experience for the singers also, he believes, returning to sing that music together in such numbers after so many months. ‘Those big Elgar choral works have such a connection with the building, with that space; it’s quite extraordinary.’

The Festival programme contains some familiar Three Choirs fare but, as usual these days, there will be some rarely heard music and also some significant contemporary scores. A large work that will be new to many listeners is the choral symphony, Odysseus (1938) by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960). A recording of Odysseus was made a few years ago but otherwise it is little known nowadays. Has it ever been heard at Three Choirs, I wondered? Samuel believes that this will be the first Three Choirs outing for the piece. For him, this is the sort of occasion when the Three Choirs Festival ‘comes into its own. We do have that remit and the resources to find these works that, for whatever reason, have not enjoyed many performances; and if we feel that they should have one, to put one on’. He says that the chorus is really enjoying the rehearsals and he describes Gibbs’s work as ‘characterful, interesting, melodious, striking’. He thinks the Three Choirs audience will enjoy hearing it; the work is ‘an enchanting piece [and] definitely worth hearing’.

Odysseus was in the 2020 programme; it fitted the ‘Voyages’ theme but it also counts as a ‘Bold Adventure’. An even greater rarity is an orchestral piece by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, newly added to this year’s programme. His Solemn Prelude received its first performance in Worcester in 1899 but, so far as is known, it has not been performed anywhere since. I asked Samuel how its revival in 2021 has come about. He explained that this is all to do with the fact that in 2021 the City of Worcester will be marking 400 years since it was granted a Royal Charter; the Festival is celebrating that anniversary in several ways. Coleridge Taylor’s piece was first performed at the 1899 Three Choirs Festival at Worcester; that same Festival saw the first Three Choirs performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Fittingly, the two works will be heard together in 2021 as part of the same concert on 27 July. Samuel describes it as ‘a perfect pairing’. Faber are now publishing Coleridge Taylor’s score.

Some other pieces with direct Worcester connections will be heard. The Opening Service on 24 July will include a very recent anthem, God be merciful, by Worcester-based composer Ian Venables.  This year the BBC will broadcast not one but two services of Choral Evensong from the Festival. There will be the usual live broadcast of the Wednesday Evensong sung by the choirs of the three cathedrals. That service will include the first performances of commissioned works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad and John Rutter. In addition, the previous day’s Choral Evensong will be recorded by the BBC for transmission in September and again in October. This service will be sung by the Worcester Cathedral Choir and, as befits a service to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the Worcester Royal Charter in 1621, the musical programme will have strong links with the city.

The re-design of the programme in the face of the pandemic has also given Samuel what I believe is an unprecedented opportunity to showcase the Worcester Cathedral choir. They will be giving one of the main evening concerts, joining with the Philharmonia Orchestra and tenor Joshua Ellicott to perform an enticing programme that includes Britten’s Saint Nicolas. Samuel confirmed my suspicion that this will be the first time that the choir of the host cathedral has ever had the chance to give one of the major evening concerts. It will be a great opportunity for Samuel and his singers to show the fruits of their work together despite the stressful months of pandemic restrictions. It means, he says, that the cathedral choir has quite a lot of work to do but he is ‘really impressed and proud’ of his choristers. Since they got back to in-person rehearsals just at the beginning of March they’ve done ‘a tremendous amount of repertoire and they’ve just soaked it up, absorbed it all quite quickly and efficiently, which is wonderful’.

Coming bang up to date, the Festival programme will include a fascinating work by Colin Mathews, The Great Journey, which I have only ever heard on CD, and also two major works by a contemporary composer whose work I greatly admire. The Marian Consort will bring Gabriel Jackson’s compelling Stabat Mater, a work written for them and which they have recorded (review). The Festival will also stage the world premiere of The World Imagined, a major work for chorus and orchestra by Gabriel Jackson, co-commissioned by the Festival.  Guest conductor David Hill will be on the rostrum for that concert. I asked Samuel for his thoughts on these enticing contemporary scores. He is adamant that the inclusion of contemporary music is hugely important for the Festival and ‘it’s so exciting for me as a performer and as a Director to feel part of a living, on-going tradition that links back to all those wonderful composers that we all know and love, but is also looking to the future’. He anticipates that the premiere of The World Imagined will be a highlight of the week for many people. The Festival Chorus are really enjoying preparing it, he says, and ‘it’s just got all those hallmarks of a work that should be popular and greatly loved: the general sound world, the orchestration, the way he [Gabriel Jackson] treats the text, the intensely melodic quality as well as wonderful power and drama in some corners of the piece. It’s really great stuff.’ He also references the Jackson Stabat Mater and new works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Ian Venables and John Rutter as further evidence of the commitment to new music.

During our discussion we had touched on a few of the highlights in the Festival programme but I asked Samuel to pick out a composer or work which we hadn’t so far discussed that he is particularly excited about. Without hesitation he identified the Cello Concerto by Herbert Howells (completed by Jonathan Clinch) which he is really looking forward to be conducting on July 31. He told me that he loves Howells’s music, but, from a cathedral organist’s perspective, though much of the composer’s choral and organ music is well-known to him, it is easy to overlook other aspects of his output.  He describes the concerto as ‘wonderful music, so brilliantly moving’. He is especially pleased that the soloist will be Guy Johnston, who has made a very fine recording of the work (review). I recall being present when Johnston gave the first public performance of the work in Gloucester Cathedral a few years ago. I was very impressed by it then (review) and I am looking forward keenly to hearing it again.

At the time of our conversation, Samuel and his colleagues are hopeful but not certain that all the Covid restrictions will be lifted in time for the Festival to proceed as planned with its full complement of choral concerts. I asked Samuel how ticket sales have been going and was pleased to learn that bookings have been good: he senses that people are very keen to get out to concerts and to get back to normal. However, tickets are still available for many events.

If all goes well this Festival, with choral singing at its heart, will represent a major step in the UK’s musical recovery from the effects of the pandemic. As Samuel put it in his introduction to the festival prospectus: ‘In 2021, after the first year without a Three Choirs Festival since the Second World War, we hope to be able to respond, to give expression to the prevailing national and global sentiment, and with the healing power of music, to start to rebuild.’ That’s a powerful message, full of hope.

A couple of days after my conversation with Samuel took place the Culture Secretary stated publicly that at Stage 4 of the UK Government’s Roadmap, due to take effect on 19 July, ‘we will remove all remaining restrictions on choirs’. That means that the outlook for choral participation in the Three Choirs Festival 2021 looks positive.

You can view the full programme of the Three Choirs Festival and information about booking at the Festival website.

John Quinn

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