Workshop directed by Tim Brown

The Salt House, West Bay, Dorset; 23rd March 2019

This was a new venue and a new tutor for 50 or so SWEMF members and friends at a very well-attended workshop. The new venue was The Salt House in West Bay, just across the Asker Bridge from St. John’s Church. A stone building used in the past for storing salt for the local and Newfoundland fishing trades, it is now converted for use as a community hall, with kitchen and toilet facilities. It has a dry but crisp acoustic, and would probably be better suited to a workshop for either voices or instruments, rather than mixed voices and instruments. And, although one hesitates to suggest that there were almost too many participants at the workshop, 40/45 is probably the best number the space can accommodate.

The Salt House, West Bay

Our tutor for the day was Tim Brown, already known to some SWEMF members who belong to the Dorset Bach Cantata Club, of which he is President, but best known to most of us as the retired Director of Music at Clare College, Cambridge, where he brought the chapel choir to international acclaim.

Tim had chosen for the singers and players a selection of baroque opera and oratorio choruses in Latin and English by Giacomo Carissimi, John Blow, Henry Purcell and Georg Frideric Handel, which took us from despair, defeat and mourning to triumphant rejoicing.

Beginning with Plorate filii Israel from Carissimi’s oratorio Historia di Jephte, Tim made it very clear that not only did he expect us to sing and play the correct notes at the correct time, which fortunately was not too difficult for SWEMF’s pretty competent singers and players, but that precise pronunciation and observation of musical and grammatical punctuation were of paramount importance, with the result that throughout the day our performance had a clarity and crispness of attack which was very welcome.

Selecting choruses from larger works does mean that a programme can become a series of ‘bleeding chunks’, but Tim had very carefully chosen the extracts so as to avoid this effect. John Blow’s lament Mourn for thy servant from his opera Venus and Adonis, with a libretto believed to be by the first English woman novelist and playwright (and part-time spy!) Aphra Behn, was complemented and contrasted with the closing chorus, With drooping wings from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, which was clearly inspired by Blow’s opera. Both these items were comparatively unknown to us and were a real pleasure to sing.

The extract He saw the lovely youth from Handel’s oratorio Theodora, and the lament for the death of Saul and Jonathan, Mourn Israel, from his oratorio Saul came closest, perhaps, to the ‘bleeding chunk’ syndrome, but in both cases Handel’s instrumental writing, rather than the vocal lines, provided more than adequate compensation.

Finally came hope and triumphant rejoicing with Praise the Lord from the oratorio Solomon, and See the conqu’ring hero comes from Judas Maccabeus, and singers and players were able to really let rip, particularly on the crumhorn! The sound was amazing, both in rehearsal and in the final run-through, with the result that we finished the day on a real high!

Thanks must go to Elizabeth Gowers and to Maya Pieris for arranging the venue and programme for the day, and especially to Tim Brown for his leadership, scholarship, and encouragement to singers and instrumentalists alike. We look forward to more workshops at The Salt House, especially with Tim as our tutor.

– David and Louise Adams