Cathedral Voice

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September 1, 2023

Notes from the Three Choirs Festival

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The 2023 Gloucester Three Choirs Festival was a great success, without it being a vintage festival such as the last Gloucester Festival in 2019. Post Covid, the world of the arts has changed, partly because there is a lot less money available, and partly because the cultural life of the nation is changing very fast indeed. In 2019, we were able to offer Berlioz -La damnation de Faust, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony, Verdi’s Requiem, John Joubert’s English Requiem, and so on. The only large scale choral works this time were Vaughan Williams’ Sancta civitas, Elgar’s The Apostles, and Francis Pott’s A Song on the of the world. The Festival Chorus thus had a lot less to do than in previous years. I sincerely hope that the reduction in activity in the Festival of this famous chorus is not a permanent matter.

The Three Cathedral Choirs performed heroically, although their activity has been slightly reduced as well.(This reduction in activity  is not so much for financial reasons, but for safeguarding reasons. The choristers used to be hosted by families for the festival week. This is no longer allowed; so the visiting choristers’ parents have now to drive many miles every day for the festival’s events.) Traditionally, the three choirs, (after whom the Festival is named of course), sang four Evensongs together in the week, including one broadcast “live” on BBC Radio 3. This year they only sang three together. But they were each stunning services with spectacular music, much of it by women composers including Judith Bingham and Ruth Gipps. Perhaps the highlight of the week’s services was the choirs’ broadcast performance of Finzi’s Magnificat, which drew much praise from many quarters. Gloucester Cathedral Choir gave its services to sing an Evensong on the last day of the Festival. The choir sang music by Gloucestershire composers (Howells and Parry) to a packed quire.

The three cathedral choirs, under the direction of Geraint Bowen, performed one of the best evening concerts of the week: Bach’s St John Passion. This dynamic and passionate performance was made especially memorable by the thrilling singing of the three sets of Cathedral Choristers. I was reminded how much children love singing Bach; the music’s relentless rhythms, interesting themes, and the music’s drama seems really to appeal to younger people, (and to older ones too!). The music is very hard though; and the choirs of course sang the work in German. Another thrilling concert which involved choristers was that which included Vaughan Williams’s Sancta civitas. The Gloucester Choristers, (with members of the Cathedral’s Youth and Middle Choirs), sang the many off-stage interpolations thrillingly. The work should be better known; the Festival audience loved it.

So there were many highlights in the 2023 Three Choirs Festival, and much to be grateful for. But I hope that in due course the traditional pattern of concerts and evensongs can be re-introduced.