Greenwich Gossip

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Angel Voices

Just as the Christ Church girls' choirs took over the sung services at Exeter Cathedral for a week this past summer and took the city by storm, so too the choir of St. Paul's Girls' School, London, has now taken Greenwich by storm.

But the choir of SPGS is much more than just a vocal ensemble. Each girl seems also to be able to play two or more different instruments as well as sing. Thus we were treated to everything from a chamber trio to a full-fledged finale of a Haydn symphony (the "London", of course) to an a cappella octet to a performance of Franck's Panis Angelicus with orchestra and organ. The elite singing groups of Greenwich Academy, the Madrigals and the Pro Arte singers, joined with the St. Cecelia's girls' choir of Christ Church and our SPGS guests on the latter piece, and the result was truly emblematic of the concert's title: "Angel Voices".

SPGS brought over some 40 girls, along with four conductors and a music administrator (of whom more later). The programme [all spellings in this post will be Anglicised in tribute to our guests] opened with six short Roumanian Dances by Bartok, arranged by SPGS faculty member Angus Meryon. Composed originally for the piano, Angus transcribed them for the School's wind and brass ensemble. The quirky and striking tonalities gave new life to Bartok's music, thanks in particular to some brilliant scoring for the flute and piccolo. Young Emily Harper played the latter instruments superbly, and Angus Meryon himself conducted. Some in the audience were so impressed that they interrupted the set with applause after each piece, but the very professional young ladies did not allow this aberration to break their concentration.

There followed A Shakespearean Sequence of seven songs by Gardner, performed by the full chorus and accompanied by piano prodigies Chloe Lim and Gloria Lin. One again some in the audience insisted on interrupting the set with applause between the pieces, which was somewhat annoying; however, the spirited renditions were certainly worthy of the much louder and longer applause at the end. In particular, "It was a lover and his lass" was memorably performed. The group was conducted by Mark Wilderspin, SPGS assistant director of music and composer in residence. Great stuff!

The Trio pathetique by Glinka gave us a slice of Russian romanticism at its best. The piano, clarinet, and bassoon harmonised in a quite lovely manner, in a combination of rich sonorities rarely heard.

Torelli's popular Concerto in D for trumpet and strings was brilliantly performed by Charlotte Meakin on the trumpet and Emily Harper--yes, that same Emily Harper who played the flute and piccolo in the Bartok--as concertmistress. SPGS head of strings Hilary Sturt conducted.

Then the Close Harmony Group gave us their a cappella rendition of More than a feeling, arranged by Mark Wilderspin. The girls came right down to the front row of pews to add to the intimate feeling, and even managed a very passable American accent in their superb singing.

Moving straight from the small group to the large ensemble, the SPGS Symphony orchestra played the final movement of Haydn's "London" symphony, the last work he finished before his death. To see a full orchestra comprised of exclusively female players is an unusual sight, and to realise that they are all teenagers makes the sight even more unusual yet. SPGS director of music Yeo Yat-Soon conducted with the same spirit and energy that the girls evinced in their playing. "Papa" Haydn would surely have been pleased, had he been able to be present. Bravo!

Then it was time for Franck's Panis Angelicus, as mentioned above. The three different sets of singers from different sides of the ocean had less than half an hour to rehearse together. It was a tribute to these young ladies' professionalism that they melded their voices so beautifully together. Mark Wilderspin conducted his own arrangement of the piece, which was both shorter and peppier than Franck's 1872 original. One felt as though great waves of purest sound were washing from the chancel over the whole church. The deep notes of the Christ Church organ gave a firm musical foundation for the ethereal treble voices of the girls, such that one indeed felt that the bread of angels was being brought down to humankind.

The evening's finale was Gustav Holst's great hymn, I Vow to Thee, My Country. Holst was the first music master at SPGS, serving from 1905 until his death in 1934. To hear the girls talk about him, he is still a very real presence at the School. His hymn was sung at both the wedding and the funeral service of Princess Diana, as it was one of her favourites. The text was written by Ambassador Cecil Spring-Rice, His Majesty's envoy to the United States from 1912 to 1918. He was instrumental in persuading Woodrow Wilson to abandon his position of neutrality and to support Britain and France in World War I. You can find the full text and music in this link, as performed by the Westminster Abbey choir at Diana's funeral:

The Holst was performed by the SPGS Choir and Chamber orchestra, again joined by the singers of Christ Church and Greenwich Academy. It seemed as though these British and American teenagers were pledging allegiance to a common country here on earth, as well as the heavenly country of the second verse. Well, we all know that the Anglo-American alliance is alive and well here at Christ Church, Greenwich; this was merely one more glorious proof of that fact.

The audience rose to its feet in a well-deserved standing ovation. Mr. Yeo then conducted a reprise of the Holst as an encore, asking us all to join in. And, like our local St. Cecelia's girls, who had only first heard the hymn just a few moments before the concert, we in the audience were equally quick to pick it up. Does that now make us all honourary Britons? If so, so be it.

One of the most remarkable performances of the evening was non-musical, carried out by a young Oxford graduate named Alexandra Godfree, who seems to be something of a cross between a Christmas tree angel, a chess grandmaster, and a Royal Marines drill sergeant. Alexandra was the factotum, the stage-director genius, who organised the myriad details of a very complex concert and brought order out of chaos with the kind of effortless ease that the Italians define as sprezzatura. Each and every musical selection had to be separately choreographed, with additional music stands here, moving the piano there, and organising the different vocal sub-groups so that the programme flowed seamlessly from one number to the next. Hers was a truly mind-boggling job, and she performed it flawlessly. SPGS is lucky to have her.

Mr. Yeo concluded by thanking the host families of Greenwich Academy, and inviting us all to come and visit SPGS when we may next be in London. Let's see, how does next May sound...?

Lucia Jansen, WonderWoman

After weeks fraught with discussion, some of it heated, and a concerted campaign by the members of RTM District 7 and the Budget Overview Committee, the Sense of the Meeting resolution co-sponsored by them and based on a brilliant report developed by District 7 member Lucia Jansen passed by a resounding margin last night: 135 for, 41 against, 12 abstaining. The resolution, as almost everyone in Town is aware, calls for greater restraint in municipal spending, and for more participation by all concerned in the budgetary process.

This is not the first time Lucia's heroic efforts have benefited the Town. Anyone who has used the newly-refurbished playground at Bruce Park can attest to how popular it is with children and adults alike. There should be a plaque somewhere in the complex giving credit to Lucia for the countless hours she spent getting first the Junior League, and then the Department of Parks and Recreation, to bring this project to fruition. It wasn't easy, but one look at the result will tell you, dear reader, how worthwhile those hours were.

Where would Greenwich be without the tireless efforts of people like Lucia Jansen? It would be a duller, dingier, less energized place, for sure. It's amazing to think how much one person with determination and drive can accomplish.

Greenwich does not yet have a Woman of the Year award, but we should. And its first recipient should be Lucia Jansen. Thanks, Lucia!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Perfect Economic Storm Hits Greenwich

An email to your scribe:

--- On Mon, 10/11/10, Lucia Jansen wrote: From: Lucia Jansen Subject: The RTM October call To: William Clark Cc: Valerie Stauffer Date: Monday, October 11, 2010, 11:46 PM

Hello Dear Bill,

A little heads up from your former District 7 friends. Check out our website and see the Sense of the Meeting Resolution and Historical Budget Report that was written and used as a reference point. Do you remember when I asked you some questions about the Town's labor....well, since then is all the research discovered. I think you will enjoy from at least a historical point of view. I would love your feedback.

Warmest regards,


And his reply:

Dear L,

I think this is a fabulous piece of work. As you know, Greenwich has the highest per-capita number of town employees in the State of Connecticut, if not the nation. I believe we have twice as many municipal employees per capita as the next-highest town on the list.

Labor costs are going to kill this town. Unfunded pension liabilities will bury the corpse.

Meanwhile, the US dollar is nearing a post-war low as the printing presses turn out TARP money day and night. We're right on track to follow the lead of Zimbabwe and the Weimar Republic.

Yet interest rates are at historic lows, and, from what I'm reading today, about to go still lower. What should a sensible person/municipality do at this juncture?

The answer is simple: borrow all you/we can at today's non-existent interest rates, build our town's capital projects with the proceeds, and pay off the loan over 15-30 years with vastly inflated, not to say worthless, dollars. It's a complete no-brainer.

Of course, many of the people in charge of the town's future welfare have no brains. P&Z, for example, neither plans nor zones. Enforcement of building codes and other municipal ordinances is almost non-existent. But the real problem is that the finance board--the BET--seems to have no glimmer of the fact that Greenwich has an historic once-in-a-century opportunity to turn this perfect economic storm to our long-term advantage.

I feel like John the Baptist preaching in the wilderness. As he must have wondered, so too do I: is anybody out there listening?

Feel free to circulate this to the District, along with my best regards to the members.

Best always,


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

58 Million Voters Kicked in the Face by the Democrats

The recent rumors that Social Security benefits will be frozen for the second year in a row because of a purportedly “negative” rate of inflation will very likely cause this powerful bloc of citizens to vote ABD ("Anybody But Democrats") in the forthcoming election. The reason is not far to seek.

Have gasoline prices gone up? Check. Have home heating oil prices gone up? Check. Have electricity prices gone up? Check. Have food prices gone up? Check. Have telephone charges gone up? Check. Have Cablevision prices gone up? Double check. Medical costs? Triple check.

Do seniors benefit from the artificially low interest rates that underlie the apparently “negative” inflation rate? No. In fact, their other retirement income has likely decreased as a result. The banks are the prime beneficiaries of this strategy…but have bank fees been going up? Check.

The actual “Senior Inflation” rate over last year and the year to come will probably hover somewhere around 5-10%—and more, if the inflationary seeds of the current government’s reckless policy of running the Treasury’s printing presses day and night begin to take root. But does that government seem to care? Un-uh. This utter callousness towards 58 million of our country’s elderly is unconscionable. Do most of them still vote? Check. Look for a backlash at the polls three weeks from today.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

John Scott Whiteley in Greenwich

Many people have been asking why your scribe doesn't post more often. The reason is not far to seek: if he has nothing to say, he says nothing. If he does, he does.

And so he is breaking radio silence to tell y'all about John Scott Whiteley's recital at Christ Church last night, kicking off the 2010-11 organ concert series. It was a great mixture of English eclecticism, including only one piece your scribe has heard before (although not in decades). John began with his own Entrada for Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of York, 4 July 1987. To the rest of us, that would be Prince Andrew and Fergie, of course. Since the couple married on 23 July 1986, clearly they were not entering Westminster Abbey when John composed this piece for them. A shrewd guess would be that they were entering York Minster, where John has served as an organist for some 35 years until his recent retirement.

Next followed Bach's twelve-part Partita on Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig, rarely heard it its entirety. Each variation shows a different style of 17th or 18th century composition, and John's use of both the chancel and gallery organs, along with his baroque registrations, showed off beautifully Bach's own showing-off of his musical mastery. The final variation, in organo pleno, may possibly be the piece missing from the blank page of Bach's famed Orgelbüchlein, where it would have fit in perfectly.

Next we enjoyed a duad of pieces that John subtitled, "Thalben-Ball goes to the cinema." The short piece "Edwardia" was composed for the Duchess of Kent, who was taking organ lessons at the time, and sums up some of the least-inspired aspects of the Edwardian age. "Soupy" was how John described it. He then cleared the air with his own arrangement of "Imperial Echoes" by the pseudonymous Arnold Safroni, in which the organ sounds like nothing so much as a calliope, full of bouncy rhythms and cinematic harmonies. Whee!

The great French organists loved to improvise. Usually they would stay on the organ bench after the Sunday mass and hold forth for their respective groups of devoted disciples. One day back in 1929 Marcel Dupré performed some variations on Adeste Fideles, which were later laboriously transcribed by an American, Rollin Smith. Making use of both the stately trompette en chamade as well as the quiet carillon, John brought these variations to life much as the original listeners must have heard them almost 80 years ago. They were stunning, including the fugue in particular.

There followed a scherzo-like piece by the Belgian composer Joseph Jongen, whose works for organ John has performed in their entirety. This one, "Papillons noirs", was originally composed for the piano, and arranged by John for the organ. It was a humorous palate-cleanser before the return to the grand improvisational tradition of the French organists.

The final two pieces were the Lento and Final movements from the "Symphonie en improvision" by Pierre Cochereau, then the organist at Notre-Dame in Paris. This 1963 performance was transcribed by John himself, and it is hard to know which to admire more: his skill as a transcriber, or as a performer. Safe to say, he excels at both.

Your scribe has always thought of Cochereau as a pale shadow of some his of great forebears, such as Vierne or Widor. But on this particular December afternoon, he seems to have been channeling the spirit of Dupré, and thus John took the time and trouble to make this music available to the world at large. Indeed, it sounds very much as though Dupré himself might have been playing, although, in the end, the music came off as being "Dupré-like" rather than the genuine article. Still and all, it was a rousing finish to a memorable recital.

As always, kudos are due to Jamie Hitel and Simon Thomas Jacobs of Christ Church--who, oddly enough, have both served as organists at one of John's own former posts, Waltham Abbey in Essex. Small world! Also, props to Neil and Joanne Bouknight, who not only set up the video apparatus so we could all watch John's artistry onscreen, but also hosted the wine and cheese reception afterwards. Your scribe has said it before, and will no doubt say it again: we here in Greenwich are extraordinarily fortunate to have such world-class performances right here on our own doorstep on such a regular basis. In the concert world, New York and London may be tied for first place, but Greenwich is running a close second. Thanks, one and all!