Friday, 17 April 2009

Since 1715, the Three Choirs Festival

The 3 Choirs Festival started around 1715. So this year is Festival number 284!

Three Choirs came about when the choirs of three cathedrals, Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester, agreed to come together and sing in each other's home city every year. Who is the man in the statue, with the bike? No less than Edward Elgar, born in Worcester, and a regular visitor to the Festival most of his adult life.

Over the last three centuries, the Festival has been the epicentre of the British choral tradition. Indeed, its influence is so great that it has shaped the very nature of British music. In the 19th century, Germans used to call Britain Das Land ohne Musik because the British didn't do symphonies or operas. But think Handel, Mendelsssohn, Bach, and the whole perspective changes. We wouldn't have had Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Finzi etc without that tradition. It's Three Choirs that defines so much of the British musical heritage. For that reason alone, visiting at least once connects to the ambience.

This year's Festival is in Hereford, starting 8 August, with Elgar's Dream of Gerontius. This is always a festival keynote, carrying all kinds of emotional resonance. Geraint Bowen, the Festival director. conducts the Philharmonia and a cast including Catherine Wyn-Rogers. It's followed by a fireworks display and a reception in the Bishop's Palace Gardens, making the most of the long summer evening. This evening is the biggie everyone goes to, so book early.

Sunday morning starts with Haydn's Heiligemesse and ends with a very late night (2215hr!) Happy Hour with the Lay Clerks where the Cathdral singers let it hang out with songs old and new. Monday's big evening concert includes Haydn, Finzi and Britten, who inhabited a completely different world from Three Choirs, though he is known to have attended. The late night concert is interesting - the Philharmonia Brass play Gabrieli and Michael Berkeley.

Vivaldi's Four Seasons appears earlier in the programme, but Haydn's Four Seasons on Tuesday 11th will be a better treat. Performers include James Gilchrist, Roderick Williams, and Gillian Keith. I've heard them sing this in London with another orchestra and conductor, so it should be very good indeed. Next night it's Handel, Israel in Egypt, in a new edition by Stephen Layton, who conducts. Iestyn Davies sings! Handel operas, for me, work well when there's something to look at. Interestingly, when Mendelssohn conducted this in 1833, he staged it, even using transparencies of Durer and Raphael.) The last night is a famous and much enjoyed communal song fest, but the next to last night is Mendelssohn's Elijah. Unlike so many choral bonanzas, there are parts in this where really top class singing makes all the difference. Sarah Fox gets to do the killer high parts! That's why Three Choirs is way above the "average" choir festival. The singing here is altogether another league.

Three Choirs isn't just song though. Lots of other music to keep you busy all day, every day, and talks, generally of a high calibre. Plenty of open-air Shakespeare performances too. The Festival is also a big social occasion for those into British music – everyone converges for reunions like the Elgar, RVW and Finzi societies etc. Many people stay all week and party because this is a lovely, atmospheric part of England, still rural in many places. Lots of excursions if you travel by car (but parking in town is difficult) Plus, no likelihood of snow in August.

(photo above by Tony Hodges on flickr)

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