Greenwich Gossip

Monday, December 20, 2010

Best of Times, Worst of Times

The setting was "Carols by Candlelight" at Christ Church. The lighting was low, and the choristers filed in, each holding a lighted candle to read their music by. The expectant hush was broken by Eli Abbasi's clear treble voice singing the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City", and then the choir processed to the back of the church and up the central aisle as we all joined in the hymn.

Slowly the lights came up. After the opening prayers, the Choir of Men and Boys sang Mack Wilberg's boisterous setting of "Ding! Dong! merrily on high", while the carillon of bells in the church tower rang distantly in the background. A chorister read us the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from Eden, and then the men and boys sang Elizabeth Poston's setting of "Jesus Christ the apple tree." Emma Tebbe read us the story of God's promise to Abraham to multiply his seed as the stars of the heaven, and we all joined in Michael Praetorius's classic hymn.

Isaiah's prophecy of the Prince of Peace was followed by Handel's chorus from The Messiah, "And the glory of the Lord", performed by the mixed-voice Christ Church Singers conducted by Simon Thomas Jacobs and accompanied by Artist-in-Residence Philip Moore, organist emeritus at York Minster in England. It was a light and pleasing rendition, well-articulated, with none of the pomposity that can sometimes afflict singers of Handel.

Wendy Claire Barrie read us more Isaiah, the prophecy of the Peaceable Kingdom. Your scribe watched her son Peter in the front row as his mother said, "And a little child shall lead them," but his nose remained engrossed in the book he was reading. Perhaps he already knows Isaiah's story well, and is continuing to prepare himself for leadership by learning something new.

The combined choirs sang John Rutter's "What sweeter music can we bring," carefully noting all the elisions in Herrick's magnificently baroque poem. Director of Music Jamie Hitel, who conducted most of the music, read us the story of the Angel Gabriel's visit to Mary. This was highly appropriate, in that Gabriel is obviously the guardian angel of Jamie's daughter Gabriella, and helped to right the Hitel family car after it spun out and flipped over on the icy roads of Pennsylvania a few weeks ago. The roof right over Gabi's head was crushed in, but her head rest (and Gabriel) prevented it from crushing her. Then a quick flip of an angelic wing, and the car was right-side-up again, and the whole family walked away from the wreck with nary a scratch. True story.

Mother Teresa's dialogue poem between the pregnant Mary and and the somewhat alarmed Joseph, set to music by John Tavener, is appropriately titled "Rejoice, O World!" and speaks of things "inexplicable". Miracles then, miracles now. Gabriel is one busy angel, it seems.

Linda Austin-Small, the indefatigable music administrator, read us the story of the birth of Jesus. There followed the musical highlight of the evening, as Emma Tebbe sang the solo first verse of Harold Darke's sumptuous setting of Christina Rossetti's poem, "In the bleak midwinter". Emma performed the music with an exquisitely tender vibrato—was it a product of nerves? Superb voice control? Perhaps a combination of both?—which was heart-rendingly beautiful. Brava, Emma!

Ian Shearson took the third verse solo, showing us all yet again why he has been a mainstay of the Christ Church choir for over a quarter of a century. Your scribe heard Ian sing Stanford's lovely Magnificat in G in Wells Cathedral in 1987, and he still wears his Head Chorister ribbon awarded to him all those years ago. Bravo, Ian!

But then the service ended abruptly for your scribe. The woman sitting behind him decided to jiggle his pew, causing a torrent of hot wax to cascade down upon him from the candle above, all over his bare arms, his shirt, his pants, his shoes, and even his hair. "Sorry," she said perfunctorily, as he was picking the wax off his scalded arm and realizing that his clothes were probably ruined.

Sorry, lady, but "sorry" doesn't even begin to cover the damage you did. Your scribe had to leave the service forthwith to salve his arm and try (unsuccessfully) to scrape the molten wax off his clothes. One hopes that perhaps the cleaners can do something about wax stains, as otherwise his shirt and pants are toast.

"Sorry," she said, with complete and utter insincerity. Yeah, right, sure you are, lady. Of course, if it had been your mink coat that was covered with wax, then perhaps you really might have been sorry.

And so, dear reader, this evening epitomized both the best and the worst about Greenwich: the fabulous musicianship of our young people, the top-notch music programs here in Town, offset by the mindless, thoughtless self-centered boors, the "sorry" types who are lurking everywhere in Greenwich these days. You know who they are—the ones who run stop signs and red lights, use two parking spaces for their Hummers and SUVs, and flip you the bird if you try to assert your right to use a crosswalk. And unfortunately there seem to be more and more of them with each passing year. Isn't that a cheery thought as we prepare to welcome in another New Year?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Jesus Comes to Christ Church

Well, He's actually a frequent presence here, what with all the numerous celebrations of the Eucharist, but last night His namesake college from Cambridge, England also came to visit. The conductor was Mark Williams, who himself is no stranger to Christ Church; see

The choir of Jesus College, some twenty-five voices strong, were arranged in mixed quartets, which helped to ensure a smooth blend of sound. Each of these singers seems to possess a solo-quality voice, as indeed became clear during the occasional solos and duets, but their firm sense of teamwork resulted in a crisp and even group dynamic.

Your scribe sat in on part of the pre-concert rehearsal, during which the choir worked on the opening selection, Purcell's Hear My Prayer. Mark urged them to use this piece to "grab hold of the audience and not let go." They did. The early bars, sung in a crystal-clear pianissimo, swelled into a fuller mezzoforte, climaxing in a rich fortissimo before fading back to the softness of the opening. Right away we in the audience knew we were in the presence of an extremely accomplished group of singers.

The selections spanned the centuries from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and right up to the present day. Particularly noteworthy were Benjamin Britten's Hymn to the Virgin, the Magnificat quinti toni of Hieronymus Praetorius, John Tavener's The Lamb, and the long-time Christ Church favorite, John Gardner's Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.

Mark singled out William Byrd's Vigilate for special mention. Byrd, a closet Roman Catholic during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, would use his music to send coded messages to his fellow believers. In this case, the message to those celebrating the mass in secret was "Watch out! Be careful lest you get caught!", according to Mark.

Harold Darke's version of Christina Rossetti's lovely poem In the bleak midwinter brought tears to the eye. The choir sang the original words as Rossetti and Darke intended, with none of the "PC" fiddling with the text one sometimes encounters these days. Simply gorgeous.

The greatest hit of the evening was Jingle Bells, in the stunning arrangement by Ralph Allwood, Precentor and Director of Music at Eton College. Your scribe has heard this piece sung many times here in Greenwich by the Chamber Singers at the High School, and had always (wrongly) assumed that the arrangement was of American origin. At dinner afterwards Mark was quick to set him straight. Allwood will be retiring in 2011 after more than 25 years at Eton, during which he has doubled the size of the music program.

Senior Organ Scholar Tim Lambourn is a student in geography at Jesus College, and thus music for him is "merely" an academic sideline. He accompanies the College chapel services, teaches theory to the choristers, and has toured many countries in Europe exhibiting his skills on the piano and violin (the latter as concertmaster of the Richmond Youth Symphony Orchestra). Not bad for a lad of a mere twenty summers or so. He treated us to a performance of Bach's Wachet auf!, using the gallery organ in the rear of the church.

The choristers of Jesus College (the choirboys) will arrive in the States tomorrow, and the full combined choirs will be singing at services and concerts in New York City, Philadelphia, Delaware, Virginia, and Washington, DC over the course of the next ten days. They are clearly not here on holiday. And yet, it must be said, the young people who sang for us last night were obviously having a good time, and enjoying themselves every bit as much as we in the audience were enjoying hearing them.

So, many thanks to them for coming here, and to Mark Williams for bringing them, and to Jamie Hitel and Simon Preston Jacobs for sponsoring them, and to Linda Austin-Small for making the arrangements, and to the numerous local families who hosted them for two nights. The icing on the cake—or rather, the ganache on the ice cream—was provided by Wendy Claire Barrie and her irrepressible son Peter, who graciously co-hosted a lovely dinner afterwards for Mark, John Hughes (Chaplain and Acting Dean of the College Chapel), Amanda Bauman and Rachel Flamm (the two young ladies who are organizing the transportation logistics of the tour), and your humble scribe. All in all, it was a wonderful evening long to be remembered!