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The Three Choirs Festival 2006 (JQ)


The Three Choirs Festival, which can trace its origins back to the early eighteenth century, is probably the oldest musical festival in the world. Each summer the festival rotates between the cathedral cities of Gloucester, Hereford and Worcester. This year itís Herefordís turn to host the festival, which runs from 4 to 11 August, though the major musical events donít start until Sunday 6 August.

2006 is a year thatís particularly rich in anniversaries and Geraint Bowen, the Director of Music of Hereford Cathedral and therefore the Director of this festival, would have been less than human if he hadnít picked up on some of these themes. Thus his programmes mark both the 250th anniversary of the birth of Mozart and also the centenary of the birth of Shostakovich. Nearer home, as it were, heís also celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Gerald Finzi with performances of several of his works, including what is arguably Finziís masterpiece, Dies natalis.

But itís another centenary, and one even closer to Three Choirs hearts, as it were, that will be marked on the opening night of the festival (6 August). The year 1906 saw the première of Elgarís last oratorio, Kingdom. The work received its Three Choirs première the very next year, at Gloucester, since when itís been performed at some twenty subsequent Three Choirs Festivals. This centenary performance will be conducted by Geraint Bowen and the solo quartet will include soprano Judith Howarth, who will have the glorious aria ĎThe sun goeth downí to sing, and, in the crucial part of St. Peter, baritone Roderick Williams; a prospect to savour. The Festival Chorus will be involved, of course, and the orchestra will be the Philharmonia, in residence for the whole week to play at the major concerts. Some eminent judges, including Sir Adrian Boult, have rated Kingdom even more highly than Gerontius and, much though I love Gerontius, Iíd place myself in the Kingdom camp too. Itís a wonderful work and it should sound marvellous in Hereford Cathedral.

The following night the cathedral is the venue for a concert that included two fine but all-too-rarely heard pieces. Kodályís exciting Budvari Te Deum will open the concert, followed by John McCabeís ravishing Notturni ed Alba. Schubertís great Mass in A flat completes the programme, which the Worcester Cathedral Director of Music, Adrian Lucas, will conduct.

Richard Hickox, a regular guest conductor at the Three Choirs, will be in charge for the next two evenings in the cathedral. With typical enterprise heíll direct a rare performance of Schumannís oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (8 August) with a strong team of soloists including Joan Rodgers (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor) and Roderick Williams. The following night Hickox demonstrates his affinity with English music by directing Vaughan Williamsís miraculous Fifth symphony and Steven Isserlis will play Shostakovichís First Cello Concerto.

Potentially one of the most exciting events is the UK première of a new work by James MacMillan (10 August). Sun-Dogs is a co-commission by the Festival and the composer will conduct. The Festival prospectus doesnít give any more information but it appears from the Boosey and Hawkes website that the work is a twenty-minute setting for unaccompanied chorus. Hereford will be hearing it hot off the press, as it were, for the world première is due to take place only on 6 August, in Bloomington, Indiana. MacMillan is one of the finest and most eloquent of contemporary composers. I donít expect that Sun-Dogs will be an easy listen but any new work by him is an event, for his music always has much to say. Sun-Dogs will be included in a programme of music by Vaughan Williams and Finzi. One of the Finzi works will be the afore-mentioned Dies natalis in which the soloists will be that fine tenor, James Gilchrist.

Space only allows a brief mention of the closing concert (11 August), which is sure to be a spectacular event with Waltonís Belshazzarís Feast to bring down the curtain on the 2006 Festival.

But thereís much more to the Three Choirs Festivals than the showpiece evening concerts. For one thing there's the daily Choral Evensong services, sung by the choirs of the three cathedrals. These offer a feast of church music in the context for which the music was written. More than that, these services offer an oasis of calm and refreshment away from the inevitable hurly-burly of the concerts and other events. Small wonder that the services are usually well attended.

Chamber music aficionados will be well served. There are recitals by the Brodsky Quartet (8 August), by pianist Andreas Haefliger (9 August) and an enticing opportunity to hear James Oxley (tenor) and Roderick Williams in a joint song recital (11 August)

Iíve neglected to mention so far the observances of the Mozart 250th anniversary. His music crops up in several programmes throughout the festival and one afternoon orchestral concert is given over entirely to his music. Geraint Bowen directs the 40th Symphony and the Requiem (9 August).

Finally, an opportunity to hear some outstanding young musicians comes on 10 August when Owain Arwel Hughes conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Wales in a morning concert devoted to Mahlerís Fifth symphony.

So, with a programme liberally spiced with talks and concerts to suit a wide variety of tastes and all taking place in the lovely city of Hereford with the beautiful Herefordshire countryside within easy reach what more enticing prospect could there be for a week in August? Enjoy!

Full details of the Festival are available at http://www.3choirs.org/ Bookings can be made either online or by contacting the Box Office at 1A, Cathedral Close, Hereford, HR1 2NG, United Kingdom. Telephone 01432 275932

John Quinn


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