The Blockley Blokes Choir are a cheerful lot.  They arrive for the concert in ones and twos, smiling and greeting each other like long lost friends.   In May, this was their second visit, and how many are actually in this choir is still a mystery for this writer, but for the concert in hand there were 22 Blokes who fitted themselves into the small but perfect acoustic space that is the Methodist Church in Shipston.  

Their Musical Director, Martin, is a talented man with a drole sense of humour which showed itself throughout the evening.   The first half began with “Send down a song for me” which perfectly reflected the evening’s intention to show the range of a “blokes’ choir”.   “Tebe poem” sung in its original Slav language came next and we are pleased to say they got every word correct.  This was followed by a Welsh hymn sung in Welsh in honour of one of their founding members who had sadly died recently.  “Flow gently, sweet Afton” and”My Love is like a red, red, rose” both with words by Burns were sang beautifully with some good harmonies on show.   The song “Linden Lea” which originated in Dorset came next and no doubt transported many in the audience to their school days.  The half ended with “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” made famous in the 1960s by the Hollies, and with words that bring tears to the eyes.

After a jolly interval, the second part of the evening took us to the US, beginning with a wonderful medley of songs made famous by Al Jolson which were a joy to hear.   A barber shop song from 1926 “Peggy O’Neill” came next and then we went to the classic musical era with “Almost Like Being in Love”, and “Some enchanted evening” which once again showed off some lovely part singing and harmonies.

The evening ended with Aznavour’s “She” and the rousing “When the Saints Go Marching In” as a stirring finale.

It was a merry evening and the choir went off as cheerful as when they had arrived – and the applause of the audience showed they felt the same.     I’m sure Blockley Blokes will be back again in the future, and it’ll be well worth spending some time in their company.

One of the pleasures of being a long-term member of the Music Society is the fact that from time to time you see returning musicians.  When that musician happens to be a child and they return several times as they grow up, you see their progression and maturity developing and it is a delight. 

In April this very thing happened and, in front of a large audience which included members of his Shipston based family, what a treat of an evening it was.

George originally played at one of our annual Young Musicians’ concerts some years ago as a young schoolboy.  Since then, he has been back from time to time and he is now a postgraduate music student studying in Brussels, so we were more than delighted to be able to take advantage of his Easter break to invite him to plays in our April concert.

His programme opened with Dvorak’s Waldesruhe op 68 no 5 an evocative and descriptive piece reflecting the “Silent Woods” of the composer’s homeland.  Next came the Bach Suite no 1 in G major which will have been well known to many in the audience, and allowed us to truly appreciate the player and his instrument as he progressed through the seven parts of the Suite, ending with the lively Gigue.  

The second half opened with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata no 4 in C major.  This piece which comprises two movements perhaps unexpectedly appeared to give almost equal prominence to the piano, played by Charles Matthews, alongside the cello.

Finally, we heard Ernest Bloch’s three pieces which make up his From Jewish Life movements. These were played in the order Prayer, Supplication, Jewish Song.  The cello reflects so well the emotions contained in these pieces and the audience could not fail to have been moved by the melancholy of the music which resonates so much in these troubled times.       After some prolonged applause, the audience were treated to Vocalise by Rachmaninov, again a deeply emotional piece for cello and piano.

It was indeed a pleasure to welcome George Wilkes back to Shipston, this time so ably supported by Charles Matthews on the piano, and we look forward to reprising the evening in the future and of course to watching the career of this brilliant young musician.

At the March recital our guest performer was Samantha Oxborough, a very talented young mezzo soprano from Birmingham. She has already won numerous awards since graduating from the Birmingham Conservatoire and was asked to sing the National Anthem at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. Viewed by over a billion people worldwide she was then invited to meet Prince Charles and has since been a popular choice to sing the ‘new’ “God save the King” at football and rugby matches. She has received national newspaper praise for her opera performances and recently won the Geraint Morris Award in Cardiff.

Samantha began her programme with three songs by English composers, “Silent Noon” by Vaughan Williams, “Music when soft voices die” by Roger Quilter and “King David” by Herbert Howells. Immediately one was impressed by the rich tone quality of Samantha’s voice and her admirable breath control. The following two folk songs, “The Sally Gardens” (Irish) and “Blow the wing southerly” (from Northumberland) were a good choice to provide contrast with the previous songs and the two which followed -  “ Must the winter come so soon” by American composer Samuel Barber from his opera “Vanessa” and “Voi che sapete” from “The Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart.

During the interval the refreshment room was buzzing with excitement at the programme so far; obviously the audience was most impressed by our performers.

The second half began with “To Music” by Schubert, “It breathed a gentle scent” by Mahler and “Dedication” by Schumann and were followed by four songs from musicals. “We’ll gather lilacs” from “Perchance to Dream” by Ivor Novello, “Someone to watch over me” from “Oh, Kay!”, “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess” and “The man I love” from “Lady, be good” all three by George Gershwin. These were all beautifully executed with great attention to the necessary style that each required.

Finally, Samantha sang “Danny Boy” – a traditional Irish song and for a fitting conclusion followed it with “Habanera” from “Carmen” by Bizet. This was sung with all the necessary inflections and nuances from the swaggering female worker in the cigarette factory! What a fantastic performance! I am sure she will enjoy a successful and rewarding career in the future. However, this wonderful evening’s music would not have been possible without the superb accompaniment of Charles Matthews. As many will already know he is a very busy man; an organ tutor at the Conservatoire, an accompanist for many of the students there and for many other performers in the Cotswold/Birmingham area. He is of course the Patron of our Music Society and we were delighted to see him “in action” this evening.

For our October recital we were delighted to welcome Madeline Kirby who is a freelance harpist based in Worcestershire. She plays in concerts as a soloist and with orchestras and other ensembles. She is also a teacher and offers lessons on the harp, piano and classical singing. Madeline also enjoys playing for special occasions including weddings and corporate events. Born in the South West she started studying music at school, achieving three ABRSM Grade 8 distinctions for Harp, Piano and Singing. She then went to Birmingham University to study Music and Modern Languages and played the harp in both orchestras. She was awarded a Dip.ABRSM Diploma and graduated with a 2:1. Since graduating she has remained in the Midlands and works throughout Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Leicestershire and further afield.

Madeline began her recital with “Watching the Wheat” a traditional Welsh folk song followed by a set of three traditional Welsh Airs arr. by Samuel Milligan. Immediately one was captivated by Madeline’s ability to produce a performance with the melody always played with great attention to the phrasing etc. whilst adding with such ease, the accompaniment of scale passages, arpeggios and chords, which are such a feature of harp music.

Then followed two pieces by Ailie Robertson, a multi- award winning composer and harpist from Scotland. Firstly, “The Boatman” a traditional Gaelic melody arranged by Ailie and then “Haar”, one of her own compositions. This piece had a haunting theme and a recurring rhythmic pattern rather like the tolling of a bell. It was very atmospheric.

“Three Magical Pieces” from “Suite for Celtic Harp” by Fabio Rizza came next. 1) ”The River’s Dance” with a lilting rhythmic melody above strummed chords was a delight, as was 2)“The Enchanted Mill” a dreamlike contrast.  3) “The Faun” began gently but, with each variation (or verse?) becoming more powerful, it built to a strong climax.

The recital ended with three pieces by Alfredo Rolando Ortiz, an internationally acclaimed soloist of the Paraguayan harp and a composer, author, educator and recording artist. He was born in 1946. “Once on the Mountain” was very rhythmic with a strong South American influence, “Waiting” in contrast, was more subdued but “Milonga for Loving” was again a reminder of the influence of the composer’s nationality.

After much enthusiastic applause Madeline spent a few minutes explaining a little about her magnificent instrument and the basics of playing it and was rewarded with yet more applause. It was an evening of rarely performed music brought to us by a most talented exponent of the genre.

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