Review of the 2009 St Davids Cathedral Festival

The Festival began, as last year, with a singing workshop on the afternoon of Friday 22 May. The event brought together over 120 children from four local primary schools to form the first Children’s Festival Chorus and to work with the exciting young vocal ensemble, Voces8. As well as fun warm-ups and singing games the Children’s Festival Chorus performed Bob Chilcott’s City Songs, which was the culmination of many weeks work rehearsing with the schools and a team of animateurs. Voces8 returned for the Launch Concert which was a delightful evening of mainly close harmony arrangements.

In a break with tradition the Festival Chorus performed on the first Saturday. The Chorus is the driving force in Handel’s dramatic oratorio Israel in Egypt and with much of the writing for double choir, this was a challenge that the Chorus rose to superbly. Joined by six young soloists from Voces8, the bass, Dingle Yandell and counter-tenor, Barnaby Smith were particularly impressive.

The Festival Organ Recital was given by David Briggs who performed just one work; Mahler’s 6th Symphony in his own transcription. David’s performance was utterly convincing and he found an extraordinary wealth of new combinations on the organ.

The Bank Holiday Monday Concert was given by the Tallis Scholars. Unsurprisingly for the biggest hitters on the early music scene, they sang to a capacity audience, giving captivating interpretations of some of the most glorious music of the high Renaissance.

Following a very successful CD launch, the Cathedral Choir was joined on the Tuesday evening by the Corelli Orchestra for Handel’s Coronation Anthems. The choir has been in fine voice all year and delivered these ceremonial pieces with real panache. The orchestra, on ‘authentic’ instruments, played two solo numbers; Handel’s Water Music and Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. The famous orchestral exit in the Farewell surprised and delighted the younger members of the choir.

Wednesday evening’s full house brought in a very different crowd to enjoy the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. The atmosphere was more Glastonbury (without the mud) than Cathedral Festival and the orchestra were thoroughly entertaining in their arrangements and humorous introductions. The hope is that those who may have experienced the Cathedral for the first time through this concert might think about returning in the future to try something else.

On Thursday night virtuoso cellist Natalie Clein showed just why she is one of the most sought after young artists on the circuit today. Her interpretation of two of Bach’s cello suites was sublime and she made Kodaly’s rarely heard Sonata really come alive.

The surprise package of the Festival was the ‘Andrew Skidmore and Friends’ Trio on Friday evening. Not only did the Cathedral come into its own again as a prime chamber music venue, but the music making was out of this world, with pianist Katya Apekisheve on particularly scintillating form.

The Festival closed with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by the inspirational young conductor Alexander Shelley and joined once again by Natalie Clein for a performance on Shostakovich’s 1st cello concerto. This was a finale of the very highest calibre and on this performance must place the BBC NOW amongst the top 5 orchestras in the UK. We are so fortunate to host them each year.

Lunchtime concerts were given by the talented young flautist Rebecca Griffiths and the Amadio Duo, who pitched their programme just right for the audience at Llanrhian. Mark Blatchly’s superb organ recital also featured the premiere of this year’s Festival Commission, the Mass for St Davids by the Choristers as well as some of his other works. It is a beautiful and melodic setting and a fantastic addition to the girls’ repertoire. The highlight of the concert was the Karg-Elert Symphonic Canzona where the organ was joined by violinist Barry Haskey and the choristers divided into four parts of the most ethereal harmony.

 This year’s innovation was to hold two coffee concerts in the refectory. The first exhibited the burgeoning soloistic talents of this year’s choral scholars and the second was given by the Boy’s Choir. On show was the Festival’s newly purchased Roland keyboard which was a convincing substitute piano.

This year we once again held several late night concerts. Nicholas Prozzillo had devised a very interesting programme around the Festival’s theme and Mary Remnant’s lecture-recital was well supported and the subject matter was interesting. On Thursday evening the men of the choir took centre stage and entertained a very appreciative audience with their selection of early music and light classics. The final late night was a well received screening of the Hunchback of Notre Dame accompanied by the Artistic Director on the Cathedral Organ and Festival keyboard thus enabling a realistic bell effect amongst other things.

As well as the concerts there were exhibitions by Philip Clarke and Tony Goble and a talk by Keith Bayliss at the Deanery which were of great interest and enjoyed by many.

The Cathedral Choir’s singing of the services was of a very high order this year. The first Sunday was dominated by the premiere of David Briggs’s stunning new St Davids Service, commissioned by the Friends of the Cathedral. The Radio 3 broadcast made a welcome return to Wednesday and was a terrific show case for the choir, which gave a wonderful second performance of the Briggs. I am still in awe of what the choir and particularly the girls achieved this year: two premieres in one week on top of all the other music was little short of amazing. Once again it was yet another successful and extremely memorable Festival.


This review was written by the Festival’s Artistic Director, Alexander Mason.

Photographs on this page taken by Philip Clarke


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