Apr 22

Goodnight, sweet Prince…

2016 gropes blindly forward, bludgeoning its way through each month at the expense of more well-loved musicians; first there was Bowie, then Boulez; guitarist and co-founder of The Eagles, Glenn Fry; prog-rock’s Keith Emerson; and hot on the heels of the death of the incomparable comedienne and pianist, Victoria Wood, comes the news of the death of Prince at the age of fifty-seven.

sign-o-the-times-posterFor those of my generation, Prince’s fierce creativity during the 80s was the backdrop to our formative years; cassette copies of Sign O’ the Times and Under the Cherry Moon exchanging hands feverishly, eager ears desperate to catch up with the latest release from the endless outpouring of creativity from the Prince stables. We air-guitared to the screaming agony of Purple Rain, or stepped light-footedly to Kiss and Alphabet Street. That famous SOTT poster, in which Prince squeezed his guitar orgasmically, adorned our bedroom walls. We were in thrall to this relentless fount of arresting, driven music, created by this pint-sized genius who swaggered around on the stage in platform heels and outrageous outfits, the epitome of pop’s immediate, glamorous appeal and yet somehow also impossibly cool at the same time. If you didn’t know the latest Prince song, or hadn’t got a copy of the new album, you weren’t worth talking to. He seemed to flirt with you too, whether you were a boy or a girl, the taunting ambiguity of If I Was Your Girlfriend, or the come-hither knowing look which promised, lured and generally batted its eyelashes at you from the cover of Lovesexy. He exhibited such a confident sexuality, a surety in himself that gave his provocative lyrics and stage-strut such power, that was awe-inspiring to my gawky, angst-ridden teenage self. “If I gave you diamonds and pearls,’ he sang, ‘would you be a happy boy or a girl ?’ I still recall idly channel-hopping and stumbling across Channel 4’s broadcast of the Sign o’ the Times film (with Eric Leeds playing sax in what seemed to be a hooded monk’s robe); I’d never seen anything like it before, so blatantly theatrical yet so musically vibrant and flawlessly executed, it was astonishing.

There were the dark years, in which he wrangled with Warner Brothers over creative decisions and speed of album releases; there were stories about huge bins of recorded takes, whole swathes of music that the record label wasn’t putting out because it couldn’t keep up with him and was stifling his apparently limitless creativity; the name changed, interviews were denied, he refused to speak and wore a handkerchief over his face, ‘slave’ tattooed on his cheek; there were some fallow albums – who remembers the sprawling Emancipation ? and Diamonds and Pearls is highly forgettable – but 2004’s Musicology was a return to the Prince of old, and he was always one step ahead of the game, evident in his releasing later albums as cover-mounts on tabloid newspapers, believing that albums were a signal for live performance and the shows. And that, reportedly, is where his genius lay, the legendary after-show jam sessions that would run for hours and had greater kudos than the live gigs, the stage performances full of energy and drive and flamboyant costumes. The film Purple Rain was mainly soft-focus soft porn, but it spawned a soundtrack that transcended the comparative poverty of its film to become one of the greatest pop albums of all time. There was a sense, too, that even his cutting-room floor leavings were better than what others mainstream artists were releasing.

Unlike his main rival to the title of Prince of Pop, Michael Jackson, you never felt that Prince had gone off the rails or lost touch with the business of making music, never mind the endless creativity. His million-dollar Paisley Park studio never bloated into the ill-conceived Neverland that became an emblem of Jacko’s lost grasp of reality. Prince was always about the music, the white-heat of recording and performing that governed his career. Rhythm and blues, in the older sense of the term, remained at the heart of Prince’s output, but he brought to it an inventiveness that gave it renewed swagger; just listen to the closing chords of the full version of Purple Rain, those aching harmonies yearning over a circling piano-figure, slowly shifting colours at the exhausted finale of one of the greatest pop ballads ever written.

But he could be funky too: funky as hell. Think of Sexy MF, New Position or Controversy.

Or Kiss, covered immortally by the great Tom Jones;

the euphemistic Tambourine from Around the World in a Day; and the unstoppable, barrelling energy of Life Could Be So Nice. He flirted with jazz, too, being the multi-tracked performer on the various number-titled albums with Madhouse and saxophonist Eric Leeds, as a side-project. Because, damn him, he was a poly-instrumentalist who played everything on early albums like For You, and sang too. It was ridiculous, really. And he could write such intimate, heart-breaking songs like Sometimes it Snows in April, that could pull you up short and wrench at your heartstrings. Sinead O’Connor’s greatest moment in the pop limelight, Nothing Compares 2 U, was penned by Prince.

For me, three minor gems sum up his musical magic: from 20Ten, the nimble funk of Sticky Like Glue and the dreamy ballad Walk in Sand, the polar opposites of what he did best, and from 2014’s Art Official Age, the understated, hip-shimmying Breakfast Can Wait.

Here, in the realm of us mortals, the doves may be crying, but you can be sure that upstairs, there’s now one heck of a gig going on: Miles Davis, Prince and Bowie. It seems fitting, for someone whose music seems to have come from another planet, to let those final chords of Purple Rain circle and lift as he goes back. The world mourns the loss of one of its brightest, most creative musicians, who will remain, always, indisputably, the Prince of pop.

Apr 19

Word Up! Canterbury’s literary and musical festival set to blossom next week

Words, music, poetry and song will echo around the stones of the historic cathedral city next week, at the opening weekend of Wise Words, Canterbury’s literary festival which blossoms anew each spring and autumn.

The festival encourages wonder and curiosity through new encounters with literature, the written, spoken and sung word, and this year features poet and Radio 3 presenter Ian McMillan, Olympic Poet Lemn Sissay, former Canterbury Laureate Patience Agbabi, current Canterbury Laureate John Siddique, and a host of writers, poets and spoken word performers.

Matthew Sharp

Matthew Sharp

The festival has a strong musical thread running throughout its nine days, which sees all manner of performers take to the stage in the yurt in Greyfriars’ Garden, including cellist and baritone Matthew Sharp’s voyage from Bach to Tavener by way of Piazzolla; there’s a return visit from rapper and musician Dizraeli,
bluegrass with Gentlemen of Few, and even Your Loyal Correspondent in a lunchtime performance on the opening day, Saturday 30 April, at 12.30pm, as accompanist in a recital with mezzo-soprano Michelle Harris, in a programme of operatic arias and musical theatre songs ranging from Handel and Bizet to Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hammerstein. The opening musical weekend is a partnership with City Sound Project, Canterbury’s metropolitan music festival taking place in venues across the Bank Holiday.

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay

Poetry on the river; writing workshops and retreats; midday music each day; magic lantern parades and events for children and families expect the unexpected when Wise Words bursts to life in the city next week. The festival runs from Saturday 30 April to Sunday 8 May, find out more online here, or browse the digital programme online:

Wise Words 2016 logoand keep an eye out for printed programmes around Canterbury. It all starts next weekend…

Apr 01

Cecilian Choir and Sinfonia bring alive the drama of Vivaldi and Mozart

Congratulations to the combined forces of the University Cecilian Choir and Sinfonia, who yesterday came together in the bright and airy interior of St Peter’s Methodist Church for an Easter programme of Vivaldi and Mozart.

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Conducted by Your Loyal Correspondent, the drama of Vivaldi’s Credo and Magnificat were matched by the contemplative Ave Verum by Mozart, and a deft Vivaldi trio sonata performed by oboists Jonny Butten and Dan Lloyd, with cellist Faith Chan.

An enthusiastic audience greeted the performance with rapturous applause; our thanks to the team at St Peter’s Methodist for making us welcome, and for the post-concert refreshments which went down a storm with many of the performers afterwards, including our technician, Mike…

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The final concert of the term takes place this Sunday, an all-American programme with the University Chorus and Orchestra and pianist Helen Crayford, which includes Rhapsody in Blue; more details here.

Photos: Mike Knott

Mar 29

Cecilian Choir featured on BBC Radio 3

The University Cecilian Choir, together with the String Sinfonia, was featured on BBC Radio 3’s The Choir on Easter Sunday.


Image credit: Matt Wilson

The weekly programme dedicated to all things choral has a regular feature, ‘Meet My Choir,’ and last Sunday, Dr Michael Hughes – lecturer in linguistics in the School of English and a member of the Cecilian Choir – introduced the Choir, its ethos and its place within the University community. The musicians can be heard during the episode performing Monteverdi’s Beatus Vir.

The feature is permanently on the Radio 3 website here: click here to listen.

Mar 22

Wild Wild West: American-themed concert next week

Grab your horses, wield your lasso and hold on to your hats as the University Chorus and Orchestra bring a programme of American music to Colyer-Fergusson Hall next week.

Yee-HaaOn Sunday 3 April at 3pm, the hour-long afternoon family concert (to which children under 10 go free) will feature popular American music, with Copland’s Hoe-Down from ‘Rodeo’ and three of his folk songs, together with a medley from Bernstein’s West Side Story.

Also joining the programme will be pianist Helen Crayford (whose lunchtime concert From Rags To Riches, celebrating the music of Scott Joplin et al, was a popular hit last year), who will ride up (well, not literally, perhaps…) to join the Orchestra and conductor Susan Wanless for a performance of Gershwin’s brilliant, jazzy Rhapsody in Blue.

Helen Crayford

Helen Crayford

The performance will be very informal and a great way to experience these exciting pieces – whatever your age! Join the performers afterwards for brownies and cookies in the foyer. Tickets are £8 , students £5 and free for children under 10. More details here.

Mar 22

Musical Express steams in to Colyer-Fergusson

Congratulations to the University Concert and Big Bands, who steamed in to Colyer-Fergusson Hall on Friday night for Musical Express!

A packed concert-hall was treated to a night of fabulous music-making from students, staff, alumni and guest musicians, steered expertly by conductor Ian Swatman.


photo_05 photo_06photo_03photo_01Both bands will be back in action on Wednesday 8 June for Summertime Swing, their end-of-year concert that forms the centrepiece of Summer Music Week, our week-long musical festival bidding farewell to another year at Kent. Find out more details here; tickets have already started to go…!

Images: thanks to Leilan Ali / Phoebe Hopwood

Mar 15

Acclaimed harpsichordist records new disc in Colyer-Fergusson

Last Wednesday proved another milestone in the life of the Colyer-Fergusson building, when the first CD to be recorded in the Hall arrived on our desks.

WP_20160315_003In August 2014, the internationally-renowned harpsichordist and conductor (and Honorary Graduate of the University of Kent) Trevor Pinnock spent two days recording works by Cabazon, Byrd, John Bull, Sweelinck, JS Bach, Frescobaldi, Handel and Scarlatti. It was wonderful to hear such amazing music drifting over the Hall relay into our offices and we were even invited to sit in on some of the takes. The extraordinary acoustics of the Hall proved so sympathetic that Trevor and the recording team actually finished a day early.

trevor_pinnock_recordingtrevor_pTrevor has very kindly acknowledged the Colyer-Fergusson Hall and the University Music department team in the CD leaflet; the disc, Trevor Pinnock – Journey; Two Hundred Years of Harpsichord Music is available on the Linn label here.

Mar 15

Minerva Voices visit residential care home

A bright and blustery day yesterday saw Minerva Voices, the University’s upper-voice chamber choir, pay a special visit to the Kimberley Residential Care Home in Herne Bay, in order to take music to the residents.CareHome_01

A care home for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia, the Kimberley Care Home was treated to a programme of choral music from the choir, and afterwards there was tea and biscuits – and cake! The event formed one of the many recreational activities the centre provides for its residents, and was thoroughly enjoyed by both the listeners and the choir alike.

20160314_141930 Care_Home_04Thanks to Sarah and the team at the home for their hospitality; it was a pleasure to come and sing!

Mar 11

Passion play: discovering the darkness at the heart of Vivaldi this Easter

This Easter, the Cecilian Choir and Sinfonia explore the dark side of Vivaldi, his Credo and Magnificat, two ferocious statements of religious belief that are shaped by the fear, uncertainty and death that coloured Venetian life at the time.

Less than a hundred years before the composition of the Credo, the population of Venice had been devastated by a particularly fierce outbreak of the Black Death; a scant two generations separated the fearsome death-toll, accounting for nearly a third of the population, from Vivaldi’s writing. The city had been riven by plague five times; after each, relieved and terrified citizens gave money to the building of so-called ‘plague churches,’ in the hope that thankfulness and prayer would save them. It was a time when the prospect of Purgatory and Hell was all too real, and the awareness of the fragility of human life hovered at every turn.

The mood of the times is captured perfectly in its art, too. One of the plague churches, the Scuola di San Rocco, houses Tintoretto’s Annunciation, painted between 1583-87; but this is no dewy-eyed moment of revelation. Instead, the angel and various cherubs tumble out of dark, louring skies to find the Virgin amidst ruin, tumble-down woodwork, executed in a dark, sombre palette with only a hint of clear skies in the distance.

Tintoretto: Annunciation

Tintoretto: Annunciation

The same sense finds expression in Vivaldi’s music, with sheer drama realised musically in stark black and white with vivid contrasts. Part of a large collection of music written between 1713-17, the Credo is no rose-tinted joyous affirmation of faith; rather, it’s a fist-clenched proclamation, driven by a very real fear. The sombre E minor tonality broods throughout the first and last movements – there is no escape from its relentless grip. The mystery of Christ’s birth is expressed in slowly-evolving harmonies in the ‘Et incarnatus est,’ which move in unexpected ways as we marvel at the incarnation of God in the flesh. But the mood is dispersed in the ensuing ‘Crucifixus,’ in which the steady, unremitting crotchet pace of the lower strings takes the listener on each step of the walk to the crucifixion with Christ himself, underlined in the angular shape of the fugal idea. The phrase ‘Passus est’ (He suffered) sighs through the choir in sympathy with Christ’s misery, rising to a peak and then gradually subsiding onto ‘Et sepultus est’ (He was buried) in a very low tessitura.  The last movement’s ‘Et expecto resurrectionem’ is delivered in an almost manic intensity, underlined with stark homophony, giving voice to a very real desperation as much as it is a declaration of belief; I expect – nay, demand – the Resurrection of the dead because I have little else left to me.

Similarly, the Magnificat celebrates the Virgin Mary not only as the Mother of Christ but as a Protector of the Venetian Republic, as another prospect of hope in these plague-ridden times. The grand sonority of the opening moves from a brooding G minor through a series of gradually heightening dissonances before returning, inescapably, to the tonic; hope is scarce. A quantum of solace is offered in the dancing ‘Et Exultavit,’ but it is all too brief; the aching dissonances of the ‘Et misericordia’ movement unfold hesitantly, as though the musicians themselves don’t know how the music is going to proceed. Then comes the truly astonishing heart of the work: two fiercely declamatory movements – ‘Fecit potentiam’ (He hath shewed strength with His arm) as much a comment on the devastation of the plague as it is on the might of God – followed by choir and orchestra coming together in a ferocious, unison ‘Deposuit potentes’ (He hath put down the mighty from their seat), railing with anger, and with the choir in full spate in ceaseless quaver runs. The final ‘Gloria’ is given menacing overtones in its return to the tonic minor, and a vigorously fugal ‘Et in saecula saeculorum’ seems to suggest that the consolation of eternal salvation is a long way off. After the cascading fugue, the piece finally offers hope in its conclusion in the major – but Vivaldi makes you wait until the very last chord.

Luini: Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels

Luini: Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels

Fear, plague, darkness; these elements combine to inform two of Vivaldi’s greatest choral works, revelling in the drama and the fervour of the text. The concert on Thursday 31 March also includes Mozart’s sublime Ave Verum – a lyrical antidote to the Vivaldi, yet not without its intense harmonies too – and a Vivaldi trio sonata. The light, airy interior of St Peter’s Methodist Church, on the High street in Canterbury, will, for one afternoon in March, become a Venetian plague church, with its hopes, dreams, fears and beliefs brought to life in Vivaldi’s vivid music; admission is free, find out more here.

Mar 10

All aboard the Musical Express with Concert and Big Bands next week

The University Concert and Big Bands invite you to board the Musical Express next week, as they return to Colyer-Fergusson Hall for their annual spring concert on Friday 18 March.
Image: Jennifer Pickering

Concert Band & Big BandDriven by conductor Ian Swatman, the Musical Express will be calling at stations including Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Philip Sousa; the cornerstone of the performance is Philip Sparke’s sparkling Orient Express.

The train will be leaving Colyer-Fergusson platform at 7.30pm sharp – there’s still time to get a boarding-pass here; all aboard!

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