Shrewsbury School

Salopian musicians old and new put on two amazing performances for OS Day

Thursday 13 October 2011

This year's Old Salopian Day, on 8th October, had a musical theme to it.  Two highlights were the concerts, one on the preceding evening, given by past and current Salopians, and one on the day itself.

Shrewsbury's concerts and musicians have a justly deserved reputation for their high standards.  When we feel that a concert surpasses these levels, we quite often ask Martin Knox to write the review, as he has an extraordinary ability to capture the essence of the event and write such a gripping piece that anyone reading it will wish that they had attended. 

Martin was asked on Monday to review the two OS concerts.  We hope you'll agree that he has managed to do justice to these two exceptional events.

New to the programme of this year’s Old Salopian Weekend were two concerts in the Maidment Building, the first of which, on Friday evening, featured both past and present pupils of the music department.   Ensemble contributions included the latest product of the Churchill’s Conservatoire, a “Barbershop” quintet, immaculately blended as if they had been together for an age, which apparently they had not, an elite group of string players, led with poise and panache by David Joyce, and lastly, the dynamic Big Band, under the direction of Maria Eglinton, rounding off proceedings in rousing style. All these fine musicians will, I trust, forgive me if I devote the bulk of this review to the three returning Old Salopians, the special guests of the occasion.

Ten years ago, a very special guest, HRH The Prince of Wales, conducted the formal opening of the new music school, and prominent among those chosen to play for him that day was Andrew Hughes, a cellist, as was the royal visitor. Andrew was quite obviously delighted to be once again on the scene of that memorable experience, and as well as guesting in the Salon Strings, he gave us that favourite among cello solos, “The Swan”, from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals. A member of the audience was moved to cry out “beautiful” at the conclusion, and so it was. Welcome back.

James and Robert CrossA recent (and very witty) presenter of the school prizes, James Cross had left in 1980 to take up a Choral Scholarship, and it was good to hear him still in fine voice. Far from leaving it “to rust unburnished, not to shine in use”, he has continued to develop his talent and three songs by 20th C English composers were eloquently presented. Only one thing worried me: the programme stated that he was going to give us Flanders and Swann, but as yet, no sign. Had he abandoned them? Mercifully not, and after a gleefully lascivious “Have Some Madeira” (strictly post-watershed stuff), came the famous lament for lost railway stations. It is a truly remarkable achievement to make poetry out of a catalogue of place-names, interspersed with phrases from platform parlance, but that is what Flanders did, and James gave a performance even more wistful, more melancholy, than the original. He was joined for this number by his son, Rob, who may for all I know never have seen a steam engine, but whose piano accompaniment captured Donald Swann’s evocation of the slow train, puffing its way down a doomed branch line and into history.

There was nothing slow about the final item, Flanders’ inspired adaptation of a Mozart horn concerto. Unique in the repertoire of comic song, it calls for exceptional clarity of diction and the capacity to imitate the timbre of the instrument in question. Though marked allegro vivace, it was given here a prestissimo treatment which might have proved disastrous had it not been for the virtuosity of singer and accompanist. As it was, James didn’t miss a syllable, and John Moore, back at the piano, matched him all the way. It was sublime entertainment, deservedly cheered by a grateful audience. Let this be a trailer for a full programme.

Admission to the concert was free, but the day may come when we have to dig deep to hear the magnificent bass voice of David Shipley. In his time at Shrewsbury, he was best known for his horn-playing, though his singing was beginning to attract attention. What has happened in the meantime was a revelation to those who had not heard him since. A course at the Royal Academy, continuing into post-graduate studies, has produced a voice of stunning power, utterly free of harshness, and a sophisticated singer, versatile in language and style.  I venture the claim that the Maidment auditorium has never witnessed the like; the volume would have filled the Albert Hall, yet it was never too loud, such was the accompanying musicianship. Like fine claret, a voice takes time to reach its peak, and David is rightly pacing his career with an eye to the long term. Granted a share of the good fortune that is needed in a highly competitive profession, he will go far. His extract from Simon Boccanegra set me thinking of the many darkly menacing soliloquies that feature in Verdi’s operas. He sang in Russian, too. A future Boris Godunov?

The President of the Old Salopian Club paid generous tribute to all who had taken part in the evening, regretting only that the concert had not attracted a larger audience. He spoke for all of us when he said that it would be with gratitude and pride that we could say in the years ahead, “I was there”.

Saturday lunchtime.

In contrast to the previous evening, the Maidment Building was packed at midday for a concert given by pupils of the Music Department. Unfortunately, school commitments prevented my hearing most of the programme and I can only report on the last two items. Apologies to those performers that I missed.

That the standard of music is going up all the time will be familiar to readers of these pages, but even so, I suspect that those present who are not regulars at our concerts will have been taken by surprise, to put it mildly, by what they heard.  We are fortunate in having in our midst a virtuoso trumpeter in Henry Thomas who played a competition piece, designed to test (and show off?) the skill of the performer. Let us not pretend that there are another dozen like him, but it goes down well on such an occasion to put the stars on parade. There are many good wind players at Shrewsbury at this time, but it is fair to say that Henry is in a different league – and he is only in his first term.

It has already been established that Galin Ganchev is a very special pianist indeed, but his breathtaking technique should never be taken for granted. Again, the choice of music, Balakirev’s “Islamey”, emphasised the flamboyant, and the reaction of those present who had not heard him before (the majority) was little short of disbelief. The longer the piece went on, the more dazzling it became, though I confess that it seemed lacking in the kind of musical depth which this artist has proved he can convey. It worked at the superficial level of display, but I cast my mind back to my first acquaintance with his brilliance. That he could play the notes of a Beethoven sonata was admirable, but it was the profundity of the interpretation which was unforgettable.


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