July 25, 2024

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Beats Of Music

Review of Serenade to Music by Candlelight

4 min read


























Rating: 5 out of 5.

A magical, soaring musical evening with more to offer than what first meets the eye

Located in the heart of Trafalgar Square, St Martin In The Fields is one of the most ornate of venues to perform this candlelit serenade, a day after Valentine’s. However, the event did not limit itself purely to romantic themes, exploring the work of Vaughan Williams – whose pieces commenced and culminated – but were illuminated by Dieterich Buxtehude’s 17th Century ‘Membra Jesu Nostri’ and Caroline Shaw’s To The Hands – reflecting on crises in the modern day and our response to this. Conducted by Andrew Earis, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields Chamber Ensemble and St Martins Voices present a transportive and utterly compelling demonstration of storytelling through ensemble choir, that does not merely sound beautiful – although it did – but also is used to confront profound and pressing questions of our time.

Before I begin, a couple of allowances. Firstly, I am mainly a theatre attendee and can count the amount of classical concerts or choral performances – church attendances as a child excepted – on one hand. The second is that my lovely friends at TfL have, for reasons known to them but not to me, exceedingly few Central line trains at the moment, and despite the assurances and wonderful customer service of the ushers – and one particularly patient receptionist – I arrived on the borderline of late, in the first church I’ve been in in years, as an uninitiate of the opera, to review this show. Church pews are not famed for their comfort*, but this was a blessing as I was only on two and a half hours sleep (trains again, thanks LNER) and a full day’s work. So, a haggard, tired, inexperienced, uncomfortable and stressed-out reviewer walks into a church. 

And experiences something utterly beautiful. Challenging. Eye-opening. World expanding. Life Affirming. Really bloody good.

The serenade began with Williams’ ‘Five Mystical Songs’, the arrangement of which showed off each of the singers individually before demonstrating what they could do as a group. Lighter than the subsequent songs, this took us on a journey which veered between the bright and airy and the mysterious and magical, the changes between the dark and the light gorgeously handled by the St Martins Voices, and by the Chamber Ensemble which at points seemed to breathe as one.

Following was Buxtehude’s Ad Manus from ‘Membra Jesu Nostri’, and we went back in time. It was at this point, my eye drifted around the stunningly decorated church roof and I wondered if this piece had been here before. It was darker, the lower notes of the Ensemble reverberating on the hard wood pews. How might an audience four hundred years ago have felt to listen to this? It’s in Latin. I don’t know Latin. Did I actually travel back in time, my Youngish Perspective being of later 17th Century Germany? Who am I to be here? I look around and see an audience of friends, proud parents, enthusiasts and others looking similarly as lost and then something odd happens. A soprano’s voice sails over everything else and for a second, then a moment, then a minute, and onward, I’m drawn in, and it all just drops away. I have travelled back in time, but I’m here and in this wonderful classical sound bath. 

As an answer, and written in direct response to this, we were presented to Pulitzer-Prize-Winner Caroline Shaw’s ‘To The Hands’ which examined the human right – and need – to seek refuge in the face of multifaceted and insurmountable crises. This was the moment I leant in. Okay, I don’t know much about Choral music, but give me an unresolved chord, some soaring discordant melodies and I’m hooked. Throw in some unsung numbers, ever increasing; contrast chaotic babble with choral unity; challenge what I think of when I think of ‘classical’ music. More please.

Completing this conversation of music through the centuries was our second Vaughan Williams piece, and namesake of the evening: ‘Serenade to Music’. The Voices gave way to a Tenor and my gosh (still in a church, don’t forget) what a voice. More episodic than the preceding pieces, this last one felt like a summing up, a beautiful arrangement with an irresistible end. Andrew Earis, in his conducting, did something I adored at the end of every piece. He waited. Just enough for the sound to dissipate, the dust to settle, so that we may catch our breath and know what we had just heard. It’s a little thing, but it was effective.

The concerts at St Martins happen every week around Thursday to Saturday. In a city where rushing around, not sleeping enough, working too much and making excuses based on the train timetables are the norm, an hour-long break to listen to an ensemble of virtuosos in a gorgeous setting is just what is required. It should’ve been packed, but it wasn’t, and it deserves to be. 

*I’m also assured you can get cushions for those bereft of the padding this reviewer has in abundance.


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