Cockermouth Harmonic Society

Cockermouth Harmonics Review - ‘For the New World’.

Cockermouth Harmonics Choir and the West Lakeland Orchestra combined to give their audience an imaginative programme of music at their Summer Concert.  The various pieces were linked together by references to the ‘New World’ of the Americas.

We started and ended the evening with ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’, part of Longfellow’s poem set to music by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.   First up was the overture, well played by the orchestra with Ian Wright conducting.   This is a demanding piece for woodwind and brass, with exciting playing from the French Horns.   Listening to this, you could see why this black British-born composer was so highly thought of by his peers, including Sir Arthur Sullivan who regarded him as a genius.  

Five Spirituals from Tippett’s ‘A Child of Our Time’ followed, the choir and soloists unaccompanied.  Fiona Weakley’s (soprano) and Christopher Steele’s (tenor) performances made the hairs on one’s neck stand on end.  There were excellent dynamic contrasts from the choir in ‘Nobody knows’.  Fiona and Jolyon Dodgson (Bass) came together effectively for ‘Go Down, Moses’ with Fiona the soloist in ‘By and By’.  The three soloists were joined from the choir by Jenny Weakley, Fiona’s daughter, to make up a quartet for the final spiritual ‘Deep River’.  

Dvorak is probably best known for his “New World” Symphony but this concert featured another American commission, his ‘Te Deum’ a setting of the Christian Hymn, ‘Te Deum Laudamus’ meaning ‘Thee O God we praise’.  The work proceeded from one section to another without a break.  After a vivid opening from choir and orchestra, Fiona Weakley was in fine voice as she sang ‘Sanctus’.  Jolyon Dodgson took a convincing lead in ‘Tu Rex Gloria’.   The choir and orchestra gave us ‘Aeterna fac’.   Both bass and soprano led into ‘Dignare, Domine’, before the whole company came together in a fantastic finale, full of soaring voices, strings, wind instruments, timpani and percussion.     

The second half was devoted to ‘Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast’ completed in 1898.  It is the first part of a trilogy of cantatas entitled ‘Scenes from The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’.  It made Coleridge-Taylor’s name known throughout the world.  The work consisted of nine sections, eight for chorus and orchestra and one for solo tenor and orchestra.  The choir was seated behind the orchestra into the chancel of the church, where the sound tends to go up rather than forward.  Balance was always going to be a challenge and the choir sometimes could not be heard as well as they would have liked though it was obvious they were singing their hearts out.  After the muscular dancing of Pau-Puk-Keewis, came the beautifully sung, almost all unaccompanied, request to Chiababos, the ‘sweetest of all singers and the best of all musicians’, to sing to the assembled guests.  After that daunting introduction, Christopher Steele’s singing of ‘On away! Awake, beloved!” was a delight, as always.  Finally, Iagoo, the storyteller with ‘immeasurable falsehoods’ is invited to tell the guests ‘a tale of wonder’.  Musically, the central motif is passed round the orchestra once more and a thunderous crescendo brings the piece to a thrilling end.  Wonderful.  

Martyn Evans

July 2019.