Review: Music and Memories featuring James Bowman Saturday 25th June in Ely Cathedral

The packed south transept of Ely Cathedral waited expectantly. With the disguised effortlessness of a world-renowned performer James Bowman began the first song of his evening of Music and Memories. The audience was mesmerized. His warm and beautifully shaped counter tenor voice brought Farrant’s Hide not thou they face alive, aided by Andrew Plant accompanying on the piano with perfect synchronization and sensitively. The audience knew this was going to be a special evening.

James then began the first of his tales about his experiences in Ely Cathedral as a chorister in 1951. During the evening he told of the changes in the Cathedral since his time. He remembered when there were no chairs in the nave; the building was freezing cold because of its then inefficient heaters and the shop as we know it was where the coal was stored for the heaters.

One of the highlights of the evening was the first performance of a work he commissioned from Arthur Wills (OBE), Ely’s Organist Emeritus and world-famous composer. Arthur was Director of Music in Ely Cathedral while James was a chorister and Arthur featured very much in the stories that were told. The work James commissioned was a setting of words by John Donne of A Hymn to God the Father. There was no sycophantic flattery on James’s part. He admitted before he sang this work that it was difficult to learn and that he was right in saying that there was no music without pain as far as Arthur was concerned. Arthur, sitting next to his wife Mary in the audience, good-naturedly went along with such repartee. Then James, with hardly any outward changes, immediately focused on giving a clear, expressive and informed performance of the work. Every note was carefully interpreted and placed. Every phrase was thoughtfully shaped with its wide-ranging intervals and elongated endings; he often left the listeners spellbound as a final single pure note lay suspended in the hushed atmosphere. This was the kind of work that one needs to hear several times before its true qualities can all be digested but what was apparent in this first hearing was the integral piano accompaniment and how Arthur took pains to make the turns of phrase interesting and varied. As Arthur told me once, in his compositions the words dictate the music and this composition was no exception. When the work ended, there was a moment’s silence before the expected rapturous applause broke out.

The rest of the evening was packed with a variety of songs: O nata lux de lumione by Tallis, Drop, drop slow tears by Gibbons, Here the deities approve and Vouchsafe, O Lord by Purcell, Yet can I hear that dulcet lay and Ombra mai fu by Handel, The yonge child, items from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Corpus Christi Carol  by Britten, The Call and From far, from eve and morning and Fear no more the heat of the sun by Vaughan Williams, Is my team ploughing? by Butterworth and King David by Howells. No matter which style James was singing, he added vitality to every expression with phenomenal tone, breath control, diction and intuitive musical awareness.

Between items more fascinating stories evolved from his time as a chorister in Ely Cathedral ranging from the time he met Vaughan Williams (who apparently was fascinated by the angels in roof of the south transept) to the fine dust that settled below the Lantern – the first signs of deathwatch beetles’ damage to its floor (now fully remedied and safe).

James also commented on the awesome beauty of the Cathedral and as beams from the slowly fading sun unveiled the colours of the stain glass windows, I believe I was not alone in feeling that this evening had been one of the most moving and beautiful occasions in the Cathedral I had ever experienced.



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