Stepping into a church, or a temple or a mosque equally, is rather like entering a book. A religious book, first, of course, but also a book of history, and often of literature. The image and sense of the Book is key to the experience of the place of worship.  In the case of the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Goodwill visitor sings of travel

Hear a musical setting of R. L. Stevenson poems, and a celebration of British organ music, at St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk

Stepping into a church, or a temple or a mosque equally, is rather like entering a book. A religious book, first, of course, but also a book of history, and often of literature. The image and sense of the Book is key to the experience of the place of worship.  In the case of the St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk, the venerable 100-years-plus Anglican landmark that stands by a sunken railway line near the Galle Face Green, it is essentially a Scottish, or British, sacred book. The music you hear will most likely be Scottish (or British), sacred or secular, and if there is a literary element, you can expect it to be sacred or secular work from Scottish (or British) writers and poets.

Two Sundays ago, this member of the congregation (or audience) attended a festival of hymns at the Scots Kirk. It was a stirring choral and instrumental concert, and it celebrated British religious music and religious literature. The concert brought to mind our very first visit to the Scots Kirk, in 1971, to hear a performance of Benjamin Britten’s St. Nicholas Cantata.

Sandy McCleery and Asitha Tennekoon rehearsing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel

The concert that immediately concerns us, however, is the one to be given next Saturday, August 3, at the Scots Kirk. This too is all about British music, mostly secular, and here too will be that special wholesome blend of British music and British literature.

Sandy McCleery, baritone, and pianist Asitha Tennekoon will perform “Songs of Travel”, a setting to music of nine poems of the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Most of the poems were written after R. L. Stevenson’s final departure from Britain, in 1887.

McCleery, a Scotsman, is a choral scholar and geography student at Emanuel College, Cambridge. He is a member of the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, and has taken part in BBC Proms concerts. He is devoting his summer vacation to a good cause, working with the Music Project and taking music (and English) to the underprivileged. The mission of The Music Project, a volunteer group, is to use music to bring brightness into children’s lives.

A few afternoons ago we tiptoed into St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk when McCleery and Tennekoon were rehearsing “Songs of Travel.” They were going through the nine songs in the cycle, starting with the ninth and going backwards. We were in time to hear songs three, two and one, in that order. The music was musically arresting, plaintive melodies and expressive piano accompaniment.

When singer and pianist were done with their rehearsal, we sat on the lawn outside the kirk and talked about the music. “Why ‘Songs of Travel’?” asked McCLeery. “Well, I have loved the music ever since I sang the first song, ‘The Vagabond’, at a school concert. When I discovered the remaining songs, I knew this was music I had to learn and perform one day in public. And, of course, it is no coincidence that R. L. Stevenson is Scottish and so am I, and that I am singing these songs in St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk!

“And why am I in Sri Lanka? When I heard about the Music Project and the wonderful work being done, I wanted to be a part of it. I am here for four months, living in Kurunegala and working with the project. I have travelled from the UK to India and Sri Lanka and I cannot think of anything more apt than to be singing ‘Songs of Travel.’

“And that also ties in with my interest in geography. Apart from my work with the Music Project and singing at Saturday’s concert, I am also taking in the geography of Sri Lanka. This is a big geography lesson for me, apart from the wonderful experience of being in this beautiful country.”

Tennekoon, who won a scholarship to study music at the University of Indiana, in the US, majored in voice. He is a baritone who spent many years also studying piano as a teenager in Sri Lanka.

Denham Pereira will perform a collection of favourites from British composers. Pix by Indika Handuwala

“This is fine music,” he says, turning the pages of the ‘Songs of Travel’ score. “There are nine songs. The ninth was thought to be lost until the composer’s widow discovered the manuscript among Ralph Vaughan Williams’ papers. The last song wraps up the cycle artistically and musically.

“The nine songs have echoes of the folk music of Britain, and the meshing of Vaughan Williams’ music to R. L. Stevenson’s words is extraordinary.” Sharing the Saturday concert programme is Denham Pereira, organist of St. Andrew’s, who will give a recital of music by British composers.

“There will be short works by Edward Elgar, Frank Bridge, Samuel Wesley, David Wilcox,” Pereira said. “You couldn’t get more British than that! And all of it is extremely beautiful.”  Denham Pereira studied music under choir conductor and teacher Russell Bartholomeusz at S. Thomas’ College, and David Ratnanayagam, the previous organist at St. Andrew’s.

The August 3 concert at the Scots Kirk will be special for anyone who loves good music and literature, and appreciates a church setting.  Proceeds from the concert will go towards funding the work of The Music Project, which is currently working on music education projects in Kurunegala and Mullaitivu.

Songs of Travel – and a recital of British organ music: St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk, Galle Face, Colombo 3, Saturday, August 3 at 7.30 p.m.

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