Review of Froxfield Choir’s Remembrance concert

Chris Gardner writes:

Putting on a musical event to mark Remembrance Sunday is a challenge – the audience wants to be entertained whilst remembering those who lost their lives in something unthinkable for us to be able to enjoy the peace in which we now live. Froxfield Choir, with its concert at St Peter’s High Cross on the eve of Remembrance Sunday, struck the perfect balance with an evening of beautiful music, evocative and thought-provoking words and delicious food and drink.

The veteran broadcaster Martin Muncaster lent his resonant tones to a number of readings which were interspersed with the music. He began with John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, which first made the association between poppies and Remembrance (“In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row”), and finished with Winston Churchill’s famous speech in Parliament in 1940 which came after France had sought an armistice with Germany, and which ended with the famous words “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.” This was indeed a solemn reminder that the peace agreed in 1918 had been temporary and had in fact laid the seeds of the Second World War.

The choir began with a performance of the Canadian composer Stephen Chatman’s Remember, a setting of words by Christina Rosetti. This beautifully nuanced, shaped and balanced performance bore the hallmarks of careful preparation by Michael Servant, the choir’s conductor since 2016.

Mike Orchard, one-time Chairman of the choir, a man of many parts who builds his own garden furniture, can often be seen singing and playing guitar with jazz, folk and pop bands in local pubs and clubs, and writes music in many different styles and idioms. For this concert he set two poems by Edward Thomas, sometime resident of Steep, who started writing poetry in 1914 and was killed in action in 1917. Like all good settings, Mike’s music draws inspiration from the words and both reflects and amplifies them. In The Trumpet the music evokes the sound of reveille (“…as the trumpet blowing Chases the dreams of men,”) and finishes with a suitably stirring call to “Arise, arise, arise”. In the second setting, Out of the Dark, the music paints a picture of the world at night time while deer run silently, the wind blows quickly and the stars travel slowly. This natural peace is contrasted with the feelings of a Soldier for whom “fear drums on my ear”. It was evident from the performance that both conductor and choir really enjoyed performing them, and one hopes Mike will be inspired to write some more. Meanwhile, he has also written the music for Alton Fringe Theatre’s production of John Osborne’s play Luther later this month.

Before inviting the audience to join the choir for Parry’s Jerusalem, the choir performed four of his Songs of Farewell, which have words by various poets. They were written during the War. Parry knew he did not have long to live and so the Farewell in the title therefore has a particular significance. They are the work of a highly skilled and mature composer with full control of his expressive palette and technique and were delivered by the choir with the same expressive quality that had been evident all evening. They rose magnificently to the challenge of these songs (which are well known for getting progressively more difficult as the work goes on!)

One welcome touch of humour in the proceedings was the extract from the “Wipers Times” which advertised the trenches as a cure for optimism. The organist Oli Piper gave us two Chorale Preludes, one by Bach and an especially beautiful one (Placare Christe Servulis) by Marcel Dupré, coping marvellously with the idiosyncrasy of the Church’s entirely mechanical organ which is something of a rarity these days.

Dinner was served in the Village Hall after the concert and the evening had begun in the church with wine and canapés by candlelight. The reception and dinner were organised by Kate Allen and Suzanne Tong, who are masterminding a fundraising initiative to improve Froxfield’s car park and church facilities. In aid of this cause they have pledged to organise a musical event every month for a year. The performance in the church was definitely a case of the icing on the cake, with the cake having clearly involved an enormous amount of work behind the scenes.

Final note: What a memorable evening to mark Remembrance Day 2018. Special thanks to organist Oli Piper, veteran broadcaster and erstwhile member of the choir, Martin Muncaster, and to Mike Orchard for his settings of two Edward Thomas poems, commissioned for the event.

Thanks also to Kate Allen and Suzanne Tong, who organised the pre-concert reception and the dinner afterwards with their team of cooks and waiters – all in aid of the year-long fundraising initiative to raise money for much-needed facilities in Froxfield. Their aim is to put on one music-related event each month culminating in our annual summer concert in Privett in June. See you there!

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