By a fortunate coincidence, your far-flung reporter happed to be in Grantebrycge – known these days as Cambridge, England — on the opening night of the Cambridge Summer Music Festival, now in its 40th year. This year’s Festival runs from July 5 – 21, with one or two concerts per day at various locations throughout Cambridge; a few additional concerts precede or follow the official festival dates. Some concerts are straightforward classical fare: solo piano recitals, voice and piano, piano trio, string trio, string quartet, while others are a bit less usual: organ improvisation accompanying a showing of Buster Keaton’s The General, Daniel Cainer’s one-man show “Gefilte Fish and Chips”, Scottish Highlands music from Blazin’ Fiddles, a post-Festival Shostakovich 9th played from memory by the Aurora Orchestra.
Opening night featured one of the orchestral programs bookending the Festival. At King’s College Chapel, London’s Orpheus Sinfonia gave Mozart’s g minor 40th Symphony, and with the Bach Choir, Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, and the Fauré Requiem, all led by Festival Director and Bach Choir Musical Director David Hill. The famous antechapel, completed by Henry VIII and adorned with great displays of worldly pomp and Tudor emblems, is shaped in the traditional long and narrow volume with high arches growing nearly out of sight above, a large wooden rood screen halfway down the length of the space forming a rear wall behind the performers. Acoustically the effect is to produce a voluminous sound that reaches the listener directly and also from above plus a bit from the sides, with enough ambiguity in arrival times to make the music shimmer.
The ensemble proved highly adaptable to three very different styles. In the Mozart they seemed determined to remind us that Beethoven drastically changed the character of the symphony, and this was most definitely a pre-Beethoven sound — intimate, emotional but without crushing loudness. Phrases, especially in the outer movements, would begin almost inaudibly and were nearly swallowed at the end; the effect was one of nervous energy. They took three of the movements at a brisk pace, with only the second movement Andante very effectively and affectingly proceeding slowly. A stirring and thrilling rendition.
After the loud and jarring crash opened Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms , we heard about as fine a reading of this masterpiece as you could imagine. The combined orchestral and choral forces showed great subtlety in handling Bernstein’s word painting, subtle and unusual harmonies and rhythms, and the touches of Gershwin and the hints of West Side Story. They made the case for arguing that this is Bernstein’s finest composition.
A few moments of confusion ensued as the audience decided to take an intermission even though none was scheduled. An impromptu horn call brought us back to our seats for the Fauré. Again the instrumental and choral forces brought out the subtlety, complexity and emotionality of this Requiem, evident from the Kyrie with dark viscous brooding from the organ and bass strings roiling under the upper voices to the affecting and grave Libera me, followed by the final Lethe-like In Paradisum.
Details about the Festival can be found HERE.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.