The 295th Three Choirs Festival: Gloucester from 22 to 29 July 2023

The Three Choirs Festival 2023: A Preview

When I attended the recent launch event for the 2023 Three Choirs Festival programme, there was, as always, the excitement over the unveiling of what lies in store. However, a couple of additional thoughts came to mind, both of them linked to the current troubling climate for classical music in the UK. Firstly, the launch took place the day after the BBC had announced drastic cuts to its classical music activities, not the least of which is the axing of the BBC Singers, just one year before they were due to celebrate their centenary. Alexis Paterson, the Three Choirs Festival CEO mentioned that it had been hoped that the Singers might take part in the 2024 Festival. Unless there is a rethink by the BBC, their act of cultural vandalism will mean that any such appearance will not be possible. The fact that such a prestigious and important ensemble can be disbanded at short notice after 99 years of singing demonstrates, I think, that we can take nothing for granted in the world of the arts nowadays. Secondly, Ms Paterson also touched on the financial side of things. Putting on the Festival is a very expensive matter – virtually no public money is received. Ticket prices are kept as low as possible but, clearly, the Festival faces budgetary constraints, as do all arts organisations in the UK.

Adrian Partington © Michael Whitefoot

Referencing the threatened demise of the BBC Singers just short of their centenary, Festival Artistic Director, Adrian Partington commented ‘nothing lasts for ever’. He is right, of course; but the Three Choirs Festival is doing its best to prove otherwise. Its origins go back to the early eighteenth century and Three Choirs is widely believed to be the oldest music festival in the world. The 295th Festival will be hosted by the City of Gloucester between 22 and 29 July 2023.

Against a challenging financial background, it seems that Adrian Partington and the Three Choirs team have achieved something of a miracle in assembling an attractive and widely varied programme consisting of some sixty events. All events mentioned in this preview will take place in Gloucester Cathedral at 7.30pm, unless otherwise stated.

It is sometimes lazily suggested that organisations such as the Three Choirs Festival are elitist. Remembering past programmes, I don’t feel that accusation really stands up, but this year the Gloucester Festival has gone all out to widen participation. Most eye-catching of all is the institution of the Three Choirs Festival Voices, which it is intended will become a permanent feature of Three Choirs. Membership of the flagship Festival Chorus, which is by audition, has always entailed a huge commitment on the part of the singers, not just to the concerts in Festival week but also to weeks of demanding rehearsals. The Festival Voices project is designed to cater for good singers who are unable to commit to such a taxing schedule. This non-auditioned choir will make its debut in a concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Samuel Hudson, the Director of Music at Worcester Cathedral. They will be performing a programme which intriguingly pairs music by Vaughan Williams and Graham Fitkin (28 July).

Another way in which the wider community will be drawn into the Festival occurs right at the start. Traditionally, the Three Choirs Festival opens with the pomp and circumstance of a big, formal opening service in the host cathedral. This year, however, there will be an Opening Celebration, during which three musical processions will make their way through the streets of Gloucester, converging on the cathedral where a short service will take place. This, it is hoped, will really bring the Festival to the attention of the people of the city (22 July, 10am).

The Covid-enforced cancellation of the 2020 Festival in Worcester, and the subsequent very fair decision to shift everything back a year so that Worcester didn’t miss out, meant some re-jigging of programmes. Gloucester should have hosted the 2022 Festival and a celebration of the Vaughan Williams 150th anniversary was envisaged. In the event, the 2022 Festival took place in Hereford but Geraint Bowen and his colleagues generously ceded the celebrations of Gloucestershire-born VW to Gloucester. As a result, there will be a generous helping of his music – 15 of his works by my count – during the week. Pride of place must go to the semi-staged performance in the cathedral of VW’s great ‘morality’ piece, Pilgrim’s Progress. This will be a joint enterprise between British Youth Opera and the Festival Youth Choir. The performance will be conducted by the exciting young talent, Charlotte Corderoy, who is an alumna of the Festival Youth Choir (24 July).

The opening orchestral concert offers an opportunity to hear another rarely performed Vaughan Williams masterpiece: Sancta Civitas. That concert, to be conducted by Adrian Partington, will open with a premiere: Rise up, O Sun! has been commissioned from Eleanor Alberga, the Jamaican-born composer who now lives in Herefordshire. The programme also includes Elgar’s great Violin Concerto in which the soloist will be Zsolt-Tihamér Vistonay, who has a longstanding connection with Three Choirs as co-leader of the Philharmonia Orchestra (22 July). Roderick Williams will be the baritone soloist in Sancta Civitas and he will be in action again on the following night in a concert conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Williams will give the first performance of Hail and Farewell, a song cycle written for him by Ronald Corp. He will also appear in The Faerie Bride, a very recent work by Gloucestershire-born composer, Gavin Higgins. The piece was written for Williams and the soprano Maria Fontanals-Simmonds, both of whom will sing in this performance. In between those two contemporary pieces you can hear Vaughan Williams’s ravishing Flos Campi (23 July).

Adrian Partington will conduct a tantalising programme which includes the UK premiere of a short, exciting orchestral work, Quantum Flight by the American composer, Randall Svane. Bax’s Tintagel and Holst’s Ode to Death will also be on the bill and the programme culminates in A Song on the End of the World by Francis Pott. Commissioned for and first performed at the 1999 Festival (in Worcester), this will be, I believe, only the second performance of the work. I missed it first time round, but in recent years I have heard and greatly admired a good deal of Pott’s music so this is a must-hear event for me (25 July). So, too, is the performance of Elgar’s The Apostles, with which Adrian Partington will bring the Festival to an end (29 July).

On a much smaller scale, but no less appealing, will be two concerts presenting eighteenth-century Passion works. The annual concert by the Three Cathedral Choirs will be conducted by Geraint Bowen, Hereford Cathedral’s Director of Music; they will participate in a performance of Bach’s wonderful St John Passion. A strong team of soloists will be led by James Gilchrist, one of the finest exponents of the role of the Evangelist currently before the public. (27 July) The orchestra will be the period-instrument ensemble, the Corelli Orchestra. The following day that orchestra will be on duty again, this time in Cirencester Parish Church. Under their director, Warwick Cole, they and the Selene Consort will perform a little-known Passion work, Die leidende und am Creutz sterbende Liebe Jesu (The Love of Jesus Suffering and Dying on the Cross) by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel (1690-1749). This work, written in 1720, was long-neglected, even in Germany, until it was revived in 2016. Warwick Cole led the UK premiere of the work as recently as 2018 and it will be performed in a new edition by Cole himself. It is a fascinating prospect. You can find out much more about the work on the Corelli Orchestra website. (Cirencester Parish Church 28 July, 2.45pm)

There is one more major concert that demands a mention. The ORA Singers and their director Suzi Digby will give a mouth-watering programme of a cappella music in Gloucester Cathedral. As is their wont, they will blend contemporary music, including pieces by James MacMillan, Roxanna Panufnik and Roderick Williams, with pieces of sixteenth-century polyphony, including Tallis’s Spem in Alium (for which they will be joined by a crack local chamber choir, the Oriel Singers). The programme also includes the first performance of a choral version of Vaughan Williams’s ‘Tallis’ Fantasia by Greg Murray. I have heard and admired the ORA Singers many times on disc and I am looking forward to experiencing them live for the first time (26 July). Earlier in the week, the ORA Singers will present new works by young composers as the culmination of their 2023 Young Composers Showcase (Cathedral Chapter House, 23 July, 3pm).

Throughout the week Choral Evensong will be sung on most days and there will be a host of recitals, talks and other events. In this preview I have merely scratched the surface of a wide-ranging, varied and exciting programme.

The full programme is now available to view online here.

Booking opens to the general public on 26 April when bookings can be made by phone on 01452 768928 or through the Festival website

John Quinn

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