SWEMF Workshop with Ben England
2nd March 2024 – West Leigh Infant School, Backwell

Vivaldi Gloria – with voices and instruments

It could be said that the success of this day was miraculous.  First, as Ben said, the Gloria was lost for two and a half centuries after Vivaldi had composed it in 1715 for the Ospedale della Pieta.  It was possibly only performed for the first time in the 1950s, but it has become such a popular work that we tend to forget that it is only by a happy chance that we are able to enjoy it.

Secondly, many woke up unexpectedly to the first snow of the year.  So some journeys started with de-icing the car and travel to the venue took longer than expected. (“How do all the indicators on Audis and BMWs seem to be broken?”).   Luckily there was no snow in Backwell, but we did have persistent heavy rain.

Thirdly, a certain amount of engineering work had to be carried out on two of the violins in the orchestra, because of a snapped string and a dramatically broken bow.  It was fortuitous that spares were available!

The School Hall was surprisingly warm, some even said hot; the chairs were a proper size (your reviewers had worried about having to perch on infant sized seating); and the facilities and space available to us were good. The acoustic was not quite cathedral like, but we were asked to use our imagination.

Of the 40 singers, the sopranos and altos were well represented, and there were reasonable numbers of tenors and basses.  The orchestra comprised two first violins, two seconds, viola, cello and keyboard – the music being played at baroque pitch.  The workshop concentrated on the choral sections of the work, so most solos were omitted, but we were delighted that Althea Hamlyn.sang the solo in the aria for alto and chorus, Domine Deus, Agnus Dei.

Ben England will be known to many from his work in Bristol and nationally as a music educator.  During the Covid outbreak he founded Homechoir, a free YouTube channel on which he broadcasts a range of musical and educational programmes.  For services to the community during Covid he received the BEM.  Among his many appointments he is musical director of Choir of the Earth and conductor of the North Somerset Philharmonic in Nailsea.  His style is warm, friendly and encouraging.  His humorous comments and explanations were very appropriate.  He warned us about being like a choir that looked as though the singers were thinking “If only there was someone at the front showing us what to do.  Well,” he said “there is.  You just have to put up with me.”  In short, he knew exactly how to engage with the singers and instrumentalists.  His years of experience, first as a chorister and then as a teacher, shone through.  And he worked precisely to a clear timetable.

The Gloria was Ben’s first major work as a boy treble, so it has a special connection for him.  Whether it was the energy he required, and the precision needed to pronounce the “Grrr of the word Gratias or the “eggshells” he wanted in Gloria in excelsis Deo, Ben was able to get the best out of us.  The basses were encouraged to make sure they had enough fuel to get to the end of their minibus trip (Et in terra pax hominibus voluntatis) and Ben’s 14 year old self appeared when he told us to saddle up and get ready for the off for Domine Fili Unigenite. The orchestra played the rhythmic instrumental introduction with such energy that the choir felt inspired to follow their example.

There was enough time for some to reach The Rising Sun for lunch although Ben was disappointed there wasn’t a Waitrose in Backwell.  After discovering it was just the Spar, Ben used the connection to help with pronunciation.  “Remember, it’s KHRRRREEEEsté, not (in a west country accent) Chris from doewun the Sparrrrr.”  (Tu solus altissimus Jesu Christe).

If Vivaldi’s Gloria is Ben’s favourite work, then the chorus, Et in terra pax is the pinnacle.  Ben likened this fugue to the tribes of the earth all separately going their own way, with the harmonic tension increasing with a huge upsurge of emotion, until the end of the chorus when everyone comes together to sing “And on earth peace to all people”.  To quote Ben, “Vivaldi’s music can teach us a lot.”

Our thanks to the school for allowing us to use their premises; to all who helped during the day; and most particularly to Heather for organising the workshop – and for her cello shaped shortbread biscuits.

Ann & David Heymans