By Milan Perera, Second Year English and Community Engagement
Bristol University Madrigal Ensemble (BUME) launched their autumn season with a memorable Remembrance Day themed concert at St.Paul’s church in Clifton. The venue is renowned for not only its acoustics but also the progressive spirituality it has embraced over the years.
After the autumn auditions, the ensemble was restored to its full strength with 16 vocals, with a vast repertoire ranging from Byrd to the Beatles. The ensemble’s mainstay is the Renaissance madrigals: masses and motets of both renowned and relatively unknown composers. The ensemble feels strongly about bringing forth and performing the music of neglected composers who have been otherwise shunned to the dusty shelves of reference libraries. The ensemble consists of students across various degree programmes ranging from economics to engineering; the glue which binds them into one cohesive unit is undoubtedly their unbridled love for polyphonic choral singing.
The lunchtime concert kicked off with ‘For the Fallen’ by Douglas Guest, which evokes the death and destruction associated with war. The next piece, ‘They are at Rest’ was penned by the doyen of all British composers, Sir Edward Elgar, to a text of John Henry Newman. This dignified and sombre piece was originally performed to mark the 10th anniversary of the passing of Queen Victoria. This was followed by ‘There is an Old Belief; by a no less legend, Sir Hubert Parry. Parry’s piece emanates hope through a meditation on death.
The line-up was not confined to composers of bygone eras but also contemporary composers who have made significant contributions to choral music in recent years. Malcolm Archer’s ‘In war, Resolution’ used the inspired settings of Churchill’s epigraph from the Second World War, which was accompanied by a trumpet prelude in keeping with the tradition of ‘The Last Post’.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the afternoon was the technically demanding choir classic, ‘A Child’s Prayer’, by the celebrated Scottish composer, James Macmillan. The composer originally wrote this in tribute to the 16 children who sadly lost their lives in the Dunblane massacre. The piece brings an added poignancy when ‘welcome’ is sung 16 times for each child who fell victim to this tragedy.
But the programme was far from an amalgamation of lugubrious lamentations. ‘Laus Trinitati’ by the American composer Jocelyn Hagen bursts open with a lively anthem, followed by a variation on plainchant, and rounded off with a sweetened finale.
No madrigal concert held in Bristol would be complete without the inclusion of a choral composition by Bristol’s own Robert Pearsall, who was the driving force behind the founding of Bristol Madrigal Society in 1837. The ensemble gave a captivating rendition of Pearsall’s ‘Lay a Garland’ which quickly rolled into Philip Lawson’s arrangement of the popular English folk song, ‘The Turtle Dove’.
The ensemble took their final bow after an alluring rendition of The Beatles’ ‘Black Bird’, met by the raucous applause of the thoroughly enthralled audience.
I had the pleasure of meeting conductor Harrison Robb and president Annie Garry after the concert. When asked of the significance of launching their autumn season on Remembrance Week, Robb commented on ‘the importance of reflecting for a moment on all those who have fallen in conflicts over the years’. Garry added that the programme was not solely focused on armed conflicts but also other tragedies which shook the psyche of the general public. When asked about the absence of staple Remembrance Day classics such as ‘I Vow to Thee my Country’ and ‘Abide with me’, Robb stressed ‘the importance of including contemporary composers, especially female composers who otherwise would have been overlooked’. When asked of the final piece of music of the afternoon, Garry smiled and commented that ‘we wanted to end the concert with a piece of music on hope’.
The Madrigal Ensemble’s upcoming concerts include a Lunchtime Recital at the Bristol Cathedral and carol singing around Bristol and Bath, which will no doubt spread glad Christmas tidings. For further updates on future concerts and other activities of Bristol University Madrigal Ensemble (BUME), you can follow them on Instagram and Facebook.
Featured image: Milan Perera
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