Review: A new cantata – “On Windover Hill: Music of the Sussex Landscape”

Nathan James’ On Windover Hill: Music of the Sussex Landscape was recently given its première at Boxgrove Priory as part of a programme of music, poetry and dance to a full house.

The concert celebrated the South Downs as a focus for a huge amount of creative outpouring, and all of the featured composers and most of the poets whose words they set to music lived in Sussex.

On Windover Hill is a new Arts Council-supported cantata describing the famous hill-figure of The Long Man of Wilmington and is the culmination of nearly four years of work. The cantata was performed by The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra and the Harlequin Chamber choir and conducted by Amy Bebbington.

Nathan explains what originally inspired him. “I have been excited to discover the many different ways the figure of the Long Man has inspired people through the years.

“Through my research I have also met an incredible group of people including artists, poets, authors and fellow musicians, who have interpreted the Long Man in their own unique way more recently.

“I’m delighted that through various collaborations, my new cantata has been the driving force behind some new bold creative ideas.

On Windover Hill is an example of how music can be influenced, not only by primary inspiration from the natural environment, but by secondary inspiration; poetry, prose, art, and music, that has itself been inspired by the landscape. It demonstrates the power nature has over our consciousness and creativity if we only stop, look, and listen to the wonderful countryside in which we are lucky enough to live.”

Its nine movements, interspersed with poetry readings and dance, skilfully made me familiar with the stories around the mysterious form on the East Sussex hillside, and the beauty of the expansive countryside around it. Is the Long Man really a man, or a woman? And is the figure holding two staves, or opening the gates, welcoming the people to the Downs?

I much enjoyed the feeling of the choir and orchestra being in a conversation during the course of this piece. They were both brilliantly assured, adeptly handling the often-abrupt changes in mood.

The concert also featured little-known performances from Ruth Gipps (Goblin Market) and Avril Coleridge-Taylor (Wyndore), both of whom were proud of their Sussex roots.

What was as impressive as the charm of the music was the spectacular 32 pages of programme notes, a gold mine of information and insight.

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