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.

The 2023/2024 season of the Shipston Music Society began on September 15th with a celebration of younger performers who all live, or attend school in the area. The evening began with Julian Halota. He chose three pieces: “Rondo a la Turca” by Mozart, “Opening Night Jazz” by Martha Meir” and “Rumba Toccata” by Paul Harvey. Julian is a confident pianist who can happily switch from the classical era of Mozart to the jazz idioms of the late 19th and early 20th century. His playing showed a developing maturity and understanding of the necessary elements required for performance.

Molly Sharma was next on the piano stool with two pieces. “Ivan is very busy” from “The Adventures of Ivan” by Khachaturian, a Russian/Armenian composer (1903 – 1978) and “Prayer of the Matador” by N. Dello Joio, another American composer. The first, as the name suggests is a piece of perpetual motion which Molly was able to execute with ease, but then in contrast we heard a haunting melody (the matador’s thoughts?)  captured by Molly’s lovely legato playing.

Next, a change of instrument as Aaron Notley Jones came forward with his classical guitar. For his first piece he chose “Old Mountain Thyme” (a traditional Scottish folksong) which highlighted the use of the Scottish “snap”.  In contrast he chose “Mazurka Choro” by Villa Lobos. This was exactly what one would expect of a piece based on South American folk music. It was apparent that Aaron enjoyed playing it and the audience liked it too.

Philip Mitroi was due to play several duets with his sister but unfortunately she was unable to be with us. However Philip offered to play “Juin” from “The Seasons” by Tchaikovsky. This lovely piece is in the style of a barcarole with a serene melody played over gentle chords providing the harmony. This was a performance that demonstrated his ability to make the melody “sing”.

Freddie Charles was also prevented from performing for us this evening so Julian had offered to play two extra pieces. Unfortunately I mislaid the programme on which I had noted the titles. My apologies. However the enthusiastic applause also prompted the offer of another piece each from Aaron and Molly so our thanks to them.

Our final performer was Cameron Spruce who began with “La Cathedrale Engloutie” by Claude Debussy. This piece conjures up a submerged cathedral as in the old Breton legend of the town of Ys, once engulfed but now revealing, at low tide, the foundations… Cameron had no difficulty in creating the dark and forbidding atmosphere of the scene with the tolling of the cathedral bell. It was very atmospheric. In complete contrast “The Golliwog’s Cakewalk” transported the audience to a comic scene of golliwogs having fun. After the applause Cameron immediately put on his jazz hat with a rollicking performance of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer”. The perfect finale for a super concert by our young, local talent. My congratulations to Julian, Molly, Aaron, Philip and Cameron for a most enjoyable evening. THANK YOU.

For the final concert of the 2022/2023 season the Shipston Music Society had great pleasure in inviting the internationally renowned pianist Alexander Ardakov to make a return visit, this time with a change from our usual venue of the Methodist Church to St. Edmund’s Church as part of the “Shipston Proms”. To our delight he accepted the invitation.

For this recital Ardakov chose two composers noted for their piano compositions, Frederick Chopin (1810 – 1849) and Sergei Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943).

The programme began with Chopin’s music. A selection of Nocturnes, Mazurkas and Waltzes displayed Chopin’s ability to produce energetic, lively sections which then “melt” into soft, gentle melodic phrases. Then came the Ballade No. 1 in G minor (op. 23). This is a real “show piece” which requires a complete command of the keyboard and very quick, delicate  fingerwork.  We were not disappointed. Finally the Scherzo No. 2 in Bflat minor (op. 31), a very powerful work so not for the faint-hearted!  We were treated to a very strong performance, giving us plenty to discuss during the interval.

Rachmaninov studied at the Moscow Conservatoire (1885 – 92) and graduated with distinction in both piano and composition. He wrote extensively for the piano although he is perhaps more widely remembered for his orchestral works especially the three symphonies and four piano concertos. As he was composing nearly forty years after Chopin’s death it is interesting to see his ability to create a lyrical melody from small motifs and the influence of the Russian Romanticism inherited from Tchaikovsky and his teachers. Ardakov chose to begin this part of the recital with Melodie (op. 3 no. 3) and Elegie (op.3 no.1) which were followed by “Polchinelle” (op.3 no.4). This was, from the outset a very playful, exuberant piece until in the middle section a beautiful melody gradually emerged. This too then receded as a lively section brought the work to its conclusion. Ten Preludes completed the programme of which no. 5 in G minor (alla marcia) was an excellent example of Ardakov’s technical skill.

This programme and it’s performance by Alexander Ardakov  was a real “Tour de Force” and all members of the audience, musicians and non-musicians, responded with rapturous applause. An encore of three short pieces by Glinka, Scriabin and Tchaikovsky was received with more well-deserved applause before we allowed our performer “to bow out”!

What a wonderful conclusion to our 2022/2023 season.

It was in 2021 that trumpeter Paul (Harry) Dowler managed to bring together a small group of semi-professional jazz musicians and convince them that the year 1959 was not only the pinnacle of mainstream jazz, but it was also the year of his birth so they should form an “Old-Fashioned Jazz Combo” and call it “Jazz 59 Quintet”. Later it became a sextet consisting of trumpet, saxophone, guitar, bass, drums and keyboard. In 2021 Paul and his wife Heather decided to organise a Charity Jazz Concert which was a such a success that they realized not only were they enjoying themselves but that they had inadvertently created a unique fundraising vehicle – so they convinced the performers that if they claimed just travel expenses they would be raising funds for a very good cause. A wonderful idea – and it worked!

Jazz is a fusion of African and European music and was developed in the USA in the early part of the 20th century and was well established by the year 1959! The rhythmic and chordal features used then are still evident in our modern era. The programme began with a powerful, cadenza-like solo from Paul demonstrating the full range of the instrument, before being joined by the rest of the group. As is the tradition, each member of the group had the opportunity to perform his own variation of the main theme thus making us aware of what a talented group they are. It was a varied programme from the slow, lazy feel of “Blue in Green” then “Yesterday” and “Beautiful Love” to the lively “Moments’ Notice” and it was obvious that they really enjoyed performing together. There was extra applause after “When I Fall in Love” in which Paul had used two trumpets, one in each hand, (one muted to produce the tonal variation for the alternate lines of the lyrics). It was a most enjoyable performance. In contrast “One for Daddy O” brought the concert to a close with lots of toe-tapping and smiles all round. There was much well-deserved applause - and admiration of their snazzy waistcoats!

“Sax a Trois” was the group of musicians who entertained us at our April meeting and what a talented group they were. Anna Young, Paynor Tsate and Samantha Matthews from the Birmingham Conservatoire have all won prizes for their solo performances and as members of trios and quartets. The accompanist was Charles Matthews, a tutor in piano and organ at the Conservatoire. He is in great demand for his legendary accompanying skills not just at the Conservatoire but also in the wider circle of professional music making.

The programme consisted of a trio to both begin and end the entertainment with each student playing a solo piece in each half of the programme.

“Dance for three Saxophones” (originally for three violins) arranged by Charles Matthews set the scene with a very robust and rhythmic performance with excellent attention to detail. Anna then played “Fuzzy Bird Sonata” by Tokashi Yoshimatsu in which after several attempts Fuzzy Bird finally manages to take flight. After the interval Anna played Vocalise by Messiaen which demonstrated her beautiful legato tone quality. Paynor chose “Majorca” by Albeniz which, as expected, displayed a real Spanish atmosphere particularly as Paynor was very keen to highlight the rhythmic content. For his second piece he chose “Escapades” (from the film “Catch me if you can”) by John Williams. After  the opening section the mood became mysterious with a rather free rhythmic content before ending with “Joy Ride” which brought the piece to a very lively conclusion. Samantha played “Concerto” in three short movements by Lee Actor and in the second half she played the soprano saxophone and played “Fujiko” by Andy Scott. This demonstrated her control of the instrument and her beautiful smooth legato playing as the piece ended very softly and mysteriously. The final piece is best known when played by three violins but Pachelbel’s “Canon” nevertheless was an interesting choice and in the hands of such talented performers one could always hear the melody as it is passed from one player to the next.

Charles, as usual, was superb in the way he coped with some unbelievably difficult accompaniments  and, after an evening of excellent music-making,  the performers were rewarded with long, enthusiastic and well-deserved applause.

The March meeting of the Music Society was held, not in the usual venue of the Methodist Church, but in the Music Room at Famington Farm, Willington thanks to the very kind invitation of David Hodges. This is a perfect venue for Chamber music and the Arcus Piano Trio certainly enjoyed playing there.

The programme consisted of two Piano trios, the first by Schubert (1797 – 1828) and the second by Brahms (1833 – 1897). Schubert completed the Trio No. 1 in B-flat major in 1828 just before he died. Written in the classical style of that era, it nevertheless brings to the fore his wonderful ability to compose beautiful melodies particularly in the first two movements. In the third movement (Scherzo) the instruments imitate each other before leading us into the final movement which ended with an exciting section, played as marked, at presto speed!

After the interval, in which members of the audience enjoyed a glass of wine, it was the Piano Trio No. 1 in B major by Brahms. Although theoretically it is still in the classical age it certainly shows leanings towards the romantic era that was to follow with a stronger sense of emotion and less adherence to the classical forms. The opening of this Trio is an example; the cello and piano introduce a bold melody which builds up to the entry of the violin. Then follows a lively section in which various themes are developed. In the Scherzo the delicate finger work from all players was beautifully executed.

It was clear from the start that these three performers really enjoy playing together; the synchronisation was superb, seemingly by instinct on occasions and their musicianship is of the highest level. Formed in 2015 they have already received many accolades in this country but each one of them also pursues a successful career as a soloist. They are based in the Midlands and hopefully, we may be able to persuade them to play for us again in the future.

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