Some interesting music making of the serious kind is taking place in town – not in the usual classical music settings, such as the Lionel Wendt Theatre or the Ladies’ College Hall, or other performing arts venues, but in a church. Or kirk, if you like.  The music is both sacred and secular, and written [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

We stand to sing and make a joyful noise

St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk celebrates British music and literature – and the English language

Some interesting music making of the serious kind is taking place in town – not in the usual classical music settings, such as the Lionel Wendt Theatre or the Ladies’ College Hall, or other performing arts venues, but in a church. Or kirk, if you like.  The music is both sacred and secular, and written largely by classical British composers, dating from recent times to centuries ago. Two splendid concerts three weeks apart featured the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Edward Elgar, Frank Bridge, William Walton, and sacred music composers such as Sir Hubert Parry and Herbert Howells. The music is as British as it gets, and makes an interesting and refreshing change to the German and French works that dominate most classical concert programmes.

The pews were packed at St. Andrew’s on Sunday, July 14, for a magnificent festival of hymns performed by the Voice of Praise Chamber Choir and the Colombo Philharmonic Choir. The singers were supported by the Colombo Brass Ensemble and resident organist Denham Pereira. The combined effects of singers and instrumentalists were overwhelming. It was a soul-stirring evening of hymns and psalms – powerful words set to exalting music. The seven psalms sung included the much-loved Psalm 23, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” This version of the psalm was set to music by Jessie Seymour Irvine, daughter of a 19th century Scottish pastor.

Just as the music was something to cherish and remember, the painstakingly prepared concert programme was something to take home and keep. A fascinating three-page story of how hymnody evolved in the Anglican Church is followed by the text of the hymns and psalms, with two or three lines of the music score quoted at the top of each page.  (The printed concert programme as a keepsake has become a rarity these days; the committed concert-goer appreciates a capsule history of the music and the composers, and audience members will remember a concert longer when they have something tangible to remember it by.)

To further fill in the background to each hymn and psalm, parishioner and educationist Jill MacDonald read out from the pulpit brief biographies of the authors of the hymns and paraphrased metrical psalms. Among those mentioned were British poets Nahum Tate, William Cowper and Robert Bridges. (Two of the poets, Tate and Bridges, were poets laureate in their day.) “Hymnfest ’13”, as the concert was titled, was very much a music-cum-literary experience.

The event was also a between-the-lines reminder that the Church of England and the King James Bible, first published 400 years ago, in 1611, have set much of the tone – and muscle tone – of the English language in its long evolution. The Rev. John Purves, pastor of St. Andrew’s, described the evening well in his thank-you speech. He said, “I have learned much tonight. This has been both an inspiring experience – and an educational one. Exceptionally so.”

Rev. Purves also observed that the evening was one of conversation – “conversation among the musicians, conversation between musicians and congregation, and between congregation, musicians and God.”

Rev. Purves declared the St. Andrew’s director of music, Denham Pereira, the “maestro” of the evening, the person “responsible for the words, sung and spoken, and the music,” and went on to say that the evening was one of two standout concert experiences in his 10 years’ ministry at St. Andrew’s.

More British music and literature was celebrated at St. Andrew’s on Saturday, August 3, in a very different kind of concert. While the Hymnfest ’13 featured up to nearly 40 singers and instrumentalists and the music was all sacred, this equally enjoyable concert had just three performers – the young Scottish baritone Sandy McCleery, pianist Asitha Tennekoon, and organist Denham Pereira – and the music was all secular.

McCleery and Tennekoon gave what must have been the first local performance of the song cycle “Songs of Travel”, a setting by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams of nine poems by Scottish writer and poet Robert Louis Stevenson. Singer and accompanist were in perfect synch in conveying the wistfulness and melancholy of the words and the music. It would have been a nice touch if the concert organisers had made available printouts of the R. L. Stevenson poems, beautiful in themselves.

(Incidentally, Stevenson, author of the great adventure stories “Treasure Island” and “Kidnapped” and the classic Victorian thriller “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, played the piano and the flageolet, and was a versatile composer himself. He wrote more than a hundred music compositions, original works and arrangements; the works were written for various combinations of instruments and included solos, duets, trios and quartets.)

Organist Denham Pereira, who had the second half of the programme, gave a lyrical and atmospheric rendering of short pieces by Sir Edward Elgar, Frank Bridge and other British composers. The music was well chosen. Anyone new to organ music in the audience would have gained a good idea of the instrument’s wondrous effects and seemingly infinite sonic possibilities.
The concert was given as a farewell to Rev. John and the Purves family.

If you are into serious music, and like it with a British tint, along with English texts of a strong literary hue, and you appreciate the aesthetics of a church setting, then you would do well to make a diary entry of future concerts at St. Andrew’s Scots Kirk.

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