Henley Choral Society celebrated their 50th anniversary in truly memorable style on Saturday at St Mary’s Church with the world premiere of a work by Cecilia McDowell specially commissioned by the choir. She came late to composing, being 47 before the piano improvisations she had done since childhood became finished pieces. The composer enjoys writing for choirs and has won many awards, including the Ivor Novello Award for “a consistently excellent body of work” and the Choral Category of the British Composer Awards for “Night Flight”.
The starting point for the creation of The Ice Is Listening was Henley, the river, hence water, this leading on to thoughts of another form of water, ice. A fascination with the Frost Fairs on the Thames in the 17th Century became the piece’s starting point and then the current catastrophe of the melting of the Greenland Ice Cap provided the genesis for the second part. The final part of the work was inspired by the strange beauty of the deep blue Moulins in glaciers, created by melting water flowing over the surface, entering through cracks, sinking to the bottom of the glacier, so speeding the melt. Cecilia McDowell believes that all creative artists have to connect with the contemporary world and clearly, for her, the melting of millennia-old ice is of prime concern.
Choral music requires words and necessitates close collaboration with a writer. For this work, Cecilia turned again to Kate Wakeling, who she has worked with previously. Inspired by the ideas presented to her, Kate did extensive research, finding a contemporary pamphlet describing the Frost fairs and reading current scientific studies of ice melt. The result was the text we heard on Saturday, unchanged by the composer, save for the addition of a single word, “and”!
The concert opened with Bach’s G Minor mass and finished with a crackerjack performance of the Vivaldi Gloria, including a beguiling and beautifully sung “laudamus te” by two sopranos, but the centrepiece was the new work.
The performance of “The Ice Is Listening” began with a bright, expressive picture of a 1684 ice fair, with exemplary playing by The London Strings ensemble. The choir sang the poetic text with great clarity and force. The second movement was a sad, reflective consideration of the part played by ice melting, with glockenspiel and cymbals adding to the musical textures. The third movement represented the effects of ice melting in both the text “crick crack…dizzy…dazzle”, the orchestral textures and the urgent choral singing. The choir clearly loved singing the whole piece and the audience loved the whole musical effect. Composer, lyricist and the ensemble of performers shared the well-deserved and enthusiastic applause at the end of the piece.
Performing a new work is a daunting prospect for any musician and for the members of an amateur choir, even more of a challenge. There are no recordings to listen to, no academic studies, no pointers or guidelines. It is to the credit of the choir that they decided to mark their 50 years with such an ambitious project and, under the leadership of their new Director of Music, Richard Harker, to succeed with such brio.
Next event in the special 50th year is an all-day singing Workshop on Saturday 20 May with choral composing and conducting legend Bob Chilcott.
All singers welcome. Tickets www. henleychoralsociety.org.uk