Trust News

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February 14, 2024

A week on the road with Alexander Armstrong

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DAY 1 – EDINBURGH

All was prepared, we just needed the trains to run smoothly (on a Sunday…) – and by some miracle, we arrived in good time to hear the Choir of St Mary’s Cathedral singing a glorious service of Evensong for Candlemas in Edinburgh. This was particularly special for our Ambassador, Alexander Armstrong, whose own chorister journey began at the Scottish capital’s mother church. Ahead of the service, we took in ‘The Presence’, a painting that has hung in the North Aisle since Alexander was a choirboy. It’s a striking piece, as is the music by Cecilia McDowall that the choir sang as an anthem during Evensong. The contemporary composer’s work was inspired by this very artwork – dedicated to the cathedral’s Master of Music, Duncan Ferguson, who conducted music by Townhill, Bevan, Holst and Matthew Martin. Imogen Morgan – organist at St Mary’s and Future Leader for the Trust – sent us on our way with a foot-stomping rendition of Dupré’s Lumen ad revelationem.

Alexander Armstrong with former Edinburgh Cathedral Organist Peter Backhouse The Presence painting

Photos: Alexander with Peter Backhouse, former Organist at Edinburgh Cathedral, Alexander’s old hymn book, The Presence painting by A E Borthwick.

DAY 2 – NEWCASTLE

No Monday morning blues as Alexander presented his weekday Classic FM show, featuring in his playlist God So Loved The World from St Mary’s yet-to-be-released Stainer disc on Delphian. A quick bite to eat in Newcastle Cathedral’s refectory before meeting just a few of the many people who make music happen in the north-eastern powerhouse. With the Bishop of Newcastle, Helen-Ann, joining the Dean for the service, it was bound to be a memorable affair. Alexander read the first lesson for the congregation to reflect on, whilst the massed choirs treated us to a diverse range of music by composers past and present – beginning with Kris Thomsett’s spell-binding setting of Ubi Caritas before moving back in time to Howells and his ‘Coll Reg’, where Assistant Organist, Kris, and the organ came into their own; and the choir so evidently enjoyed singing Bob Chilcott’s anthem, Be thou my vision. As we hot-footed it back to the station to catch southbound trains, we noted how the team at Newcastle – clergy and musicians alike – has created something really special with its ethos of ‘radical welcome’ and a renewed singing model.

Photos: Newcastle Cathedral Choir rehearsing before Evensong, a stained glass window, Alexander reading the second lesson.

DAY 3 – YORK

Day 3 began with Newcastle’s recent recording of Vaughan Williams’s The Bird’s Song, transmitting across the radio waves to the homes of Classic FM listeners around the country. It’s hard not to catch your breath when entering the hallowed confines of York Minster. A most remarkable feat of architecture, and even more breathtaking once filled with the sumptuous sounds of its renowned choir and the ‘Grand Organ’ – built by Harrison & Harrison in 2020. The Minster’s Precentor, Victoria Johnson, alongside choristers, Vicars Choral, and both the Assistant and Director of Music spoke with Alexander about the choir and traditions of York’s jewel in the crown (we’re of course biased), before moving seamlessly into the stalls for a pre-Evensong rehearsal. We were able to sit back in the Quire as we allowed a sublime feast of music and prayer to wash over us – a double bill of Tomkins alongside the second rendition of Matthew Martin’s Preces & Responses of the tour. Before making our way further south, we were given an exclusive demonstration of the organ by maestro Ben Morris – with Alexander snapped pulling the ‘final stop’ of the day before heading into the night.

Photos: Alexander outside York Minster, Alexander with choristers from the choir, Ben Morris gives Alexander a post-Evensong organ demo.

DAY 4 – CAMBRIDGE

Classic FM’s track of the day on Wednesday was one of Byrd’s many motets, Justorum animae, sung with characteristic attention to the meaning of the text. We couldn’t visit Cambridge without linking up with Alexander’s fellow Ambassador, Anna Lapwood MBE – Director of Music at Pembroke College and Artist in Residence at the Royal Albert Hall. It was clear from the outset that Anna’s enthusiasm for choral and organ music is infectious – with both her Girls’ and Chapel Choir hanging on her every word. An additional treat was the display from guest organist Wayne Marshall OBE, putting the Chapel’s organ through its paces, with his jazz influences shining through. A highlight of day four was experiencing the Girls’ Choir singing the Responses they wrote under Anna’s direction – it was so telling that they were invested in every phrase, every suspension. We also heard an introit by former choir member Lucy Walker – her O Sing floating along the chapel’s rafters. With it being 100 years since the death of iconic composer Charles Villiers Stanford, the choir performed his Canticles in A – and Alexander could not resist joining them for such a stonking bass part. The Choir of Pembroke College has an impressive recording collection, and Beach’s Peace I leave with you did not disappoint when it was broadcast on Classic FM the next morning.

Photos: Alexander Armstrong and Anna Lapwood in Pembroke Chapel, Wayne Marshall playing the chapel organ, Anna Lapwood conducts the combined Pembroke choirs.

DAY 5 – LONDON

Walking into Westminster’s catholic cathedral, you can’t help but be transported to a European City – perhaps the Basilica in Rome or Paris’s Notre Dame. This vast trove of ornate art and sculpture was the perfect setting for our final choral services of the Choral Adventure. Vespers in the Lady Chapel was sung by just five Lay Clerks, providing an escape from the busyness of the everyday (and this tour!) As the sounds of Palestrina’s Missa brevis travelled from the Apse down to the eagerly awaiting congregation, we marvelled at how brilliant, remarkable and rare this tradition really is. Before we parted ways one final time, Choristers could not wait to meet the voice of Hey Duggee, parents were excited to see the host of Pointless in the flesh, whilst grandparents remembered fondly Alexander’s Armstrong and Miller days. There’s nothing quite like a group of choristers queuing up with their chant books and pencils, grinning at the prospect of our ambassador’s signature inscribed on the inside cover.

Photos: Outside Westminster Cathedral, Alexander inside the cathedral, Alexander signing choristers’ chant books!

Now the dust has settled, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on an incredible week. Alexander Armstrong, in just five days, brought huge congregations to all five cities – but please remember, this music is sung every day of the year, up and down the UK. The music that fills our churches, chapels, abbeys and cathedrals cannot be taken for granted, and we must continue to support it.

How can you keep our cherished choral and organ tradition alive? Attend regular choral services, become a supporter of Cathedral Music Trust, get involved as a volunteer for the Trust or simply spread the word with your friends & family.

 

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