REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Robert Rice and William Vann, Late Music York

Baritone Robert Rice

Late Music York, Robert Rice and William Vann, Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York, February 3

WALTER de la Mare’s Peacock Pie (1922) is a charming collection of rhymes that have an appeal for all ages, not least through their evocation of childhood.

This recital, featuring baritone Robert Rice and pianist William Vann, mainly paired settings from the anthology by Armstrong Gibbs and Howells with first performances of the same poems by living composers, many of whom were in the audience.

Before that, Rice announced himself with Finzi’s song-cycle in tribute to Vaughan Williams, Let Us Garlands Bring, celebrating the latter’s 70th birthday in 1942. He at once established his sense of line and a keen awareness of text, while Vann added some tasty colour, not least in the postlude to ‘Who Is Sylvia?’. The duo was notably effervescent in ‘It Was A Lover And His Lass’.

Thereafter we had no fewer than ten premieres by nine different composers. As a whole, they were encouragingly well crafted, and a handful also revealed real inspiration.

Robert Walker found an ingenious way to conjure scissors at work in The Barber’s, which Armstrong Gibbs had not done. Also in the Gibbs corner was Charlotte Marlow’s Old Shellover, nicely shaped with its opening repeated.

Liz Dilnot Johnson exploited piano extremes in Hide And Seek and David Lancaster used effective syncopation in With Lantern Bright, a setting of the original ‘Then’. William Rhys Meek daringly selected Miss T, already wittily set by both Gibbs and Howells, and still managed to add tonal variety.

Amongst the Howells settings, Hayley Jenkins neatly milked the absurdity of Alas, Alack! in both parts, but her piano was hyperactive in The Dunce. Phillip Cooke conjured an appealing vocal line in Full Moon.

At this point we had heard no fewer than 26 songs. But there were still six to come that had nothing to do with the rest of the evening.

Having successfully curated the programme, David Power rewarded himself with his own (translated) settings of René Char, three written as a student nearly 40 years ago and the same three poems re-cast in 2016. The early ones had little to offer, the later ones were much bolder and more confident. But their relevance here was tenuous and looked like self-indulgence.

Nonetheless Rice and Vann treated them with the same tireless respect as elsewhere, despite not enjoying any biographies of their own in the otherwise truly admirable printed programme.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Late Music concerts to pay tribute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Reginald Smith Brindle at Unitarian Chapel on Saturday

Sir Harrison Birtwistle, 1934-2022

YORK Late Music pays tribute on Saturday to two British composers:  a major name and an unjustly forgotten figure who is surely due for a revival.

The evening concert, A New Matrix,  has been planned as a tribute to Sir Harrison Birtwistle, who died in April 2021. Birtwistle was a colossus in contemporary music, especially opera, whose influence was worldwide.

Based around the clarinet, the 7.30pm programme also acknowledges the work of York musician Alan Hacker, who was a long-term friend and musical associate of Birtwistle, and who taught many of those involved in this weekend’s performance.

Alongside Birtwistle’s work, the programme includes pieces by Messaien (whom Birtwistle acknowledged as an influence) and Peter Maxwell Davies, as well as a series of short pieces composed following Birtwistle’s death.

Guitarist Federico Pendenza

The lunchtime concert (1pm) celebrates the work of Reginald Smith Brindle, who died in 2003. A Lancastrian, like Birtwistle, Smith Brindle’s eclectic output included two symphonies, although he is now best known for his solo guitar work.

Guitarist Federico Pendenza, from the University of York, will be playing four works by Smith Brindle, pieces by Poulenc and a Chris Gander world premiere.

Both concerts are at Late Music’s usual venue, the Unitarian Chapel in St Saviourgate, York. The evening event will follow a 6.45pm talk by composer David Lancaster, with a complimentary glass of wine or juice.

Lunchtime concert tickets cost £5; evening, £12, students £5, at or on the door

REVIEW: Steve Crowther’s verdict on Soon Amore Choir’s afternoon concert, 12/2/23

The poster for Soon Amore Choir’s Sunday concert

Soon Amore Choir, Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York, February 12

THE Soon Amore Choir programme was very much a pick’n’mix affair – and a very tasty one too.

It opened with a hunting call on natural horn, which threaded through the first half, chasing the concluding traditional French fanfare Et Chansons de Chasse. Of course, this was somewhat contrived, but it did treat us to the superb playing of Martin Lawrence.

There was much to enjoy here, not least the performances of Shoebox and Heavy Laden with Jane Stockdale (voice) and Dave Pearce (piano). Stockdale sang Shoebox with an instinctive feeling for folksong tradition while Pearce’s crisp piano octave attacks dispelled any sentimentality.  For Heavy Laden they were joined by the choir with the simple counterpoint setting acting to reinforce the song’s world-weary narrative.

The traditional Ghanaian Senwa Dedende was performed by the “people’s” choir, that is, us. And very well indeed and certainly better than our vocal coach, Chris Bartram!

As I know David Lancaster personally, it wouldn’t be particularly professional to comment on his piece itself. Suffice to say that the distinctive sound-world of Fell was very well performed by Soon Amore in its world premiere, where the ritualistic, repetitive choral statements were very clearly delivered, commenting on the convincing spoken narrative by Laura Potts and Gary Craig. Martin Lawrence’s playing was, of course, imperious.

By contrast, Bruckner’s sweet, touching Locus Iste simply glowed with joy. Following an impressive The Deer’s Cry by Arvo Part, which is actually quite tricky, the “people’s” choir were back to perform the traditional Bella Mama. The higher pitch gave our vocal coach the opportunity to redeem himself, which he did admirably. It was genuine fun singing the simple canon and very satisfying too.

Eric Whitacre is a very fine composer and his choral writing is always distinctive. The choir clearly relished the lovely harmonies and gentle dissonances of his Sleep and their enjoyment was infectious. For me, anyway.

Chris Bartram is an excellent, entirely musical conductor and his engaging manner made the Sunday afternoon concert a very rewarding experience.

Review by Steve Crowther

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Gemini, Unitarian Chapel, York, 3/12/2022

York composer Nicola LeFanu, pictured in 2003

Late Music presents Gemini, Unitarian Chapel, St Saviourgate, York, December 3

NICOLAS LeFanu’s 75th birthday earlier this year was celebrated in fine style by one of our most distinguished and long-lived groups, Gemini, itself only a year short of its half-century. Two of her own works framed eight others, including one by her husband David Lumsdaine.

Gemini is a flexible ensemble led from the clarinet by Ian Mitchell. Here he was joined by a piano trio for the premiere of LeFanu’s appropriately titled Gemini Quartet, newly commissioned and written only this summer.

As an opener it was designed to reflect how we welcome others, in a dozen or so brief “bagatelles” (her word), some of only a few seconds. It charms with surprises, moving seamlessly between comfort and anguish, impressionism and rhythm, sometimes noisy, more often gentle, using the instruments in a variety of different groupings. Gemini delivered it with loving care. I could only have wished its 13 minutes had lasted longer.

At the end of the evening, more than two hours later, we heard her Piano Trio of 2003. Its single movement is rhapsodic, all its material developed from high harmonics and tremolos, which are soon amplified by a piano solo. It charts a fascinating course between nerviness and relaxation, the two moods changing between strings and piano, as dialogue influences their responses to one another.

As always with LeFanu, her orchestration is imaginative. It eventually reaches a harmonious conclusion, with trills in the piano as the strings disappear into the ether. Gemini interacted intuitively throughout.

Only a handful of the other works on the programme reached these levels. One of them was another premiere, David Lancaster’s Hell’s Bells Bagatelles, inspired by church bells, especially those of York Minster, and conceived over the last five years.

In his words, its five sections may reflect ecstasy or doom, but within those extremes his use of rhythm verges on dance most appealingly and pizzicato cleverly and regularly evokes the percussive ping of bells.

Lumsdaine’s Blue Upon Blue (1991), for unaccompanied cello, also fell pleasingly on the ear, combining slow melody with more urgent, un-tuned ‘commentary’ from wood, gut and hair, and transitioning between the two by means of glissandos. Sophie Harris teased out its essential lyricism with focused intensity.

Thomas Adès’s suite from his 2005 opera The Tempest was predictably clear-cut in its reactions to six Shakespearean scenarios, always with an ear to vocal characteristics in the four instruments.

Space forbids discussion of the other works, most of which fell into the category of vignettes. For the record they included two pieces without piano, Dorothy Ker’s Water Mountain (1999) and Blaze And Fall (2017) by Charlotte Bray, Martin Suckling’s Three Venus Haikus (2009), setting poetry by George Bruce, and two lockdown pieces for solo piano (Aleksander Szram) by Janet Graham, Church Blackbird and Advent Thoughts. All had something positive to offer.

But most of all we were reminded just how valuable an asset Nicola LeFanu is to York, Yorkshire and well beyond. Many happy returns!

Review by Martin Dreyer

Prima Vocal Ensemble and York Railway Institute Brass Band reunite for Christmas Classics concert at Selby Abbey on Dec 11

.Prima Vocal Ensemble performing with York Railway Institute Band in Selby Abbey in 2018

YORK choir Prima Vocal Ensemble and York Railway Institute Brass Band are uniting for a Christmas concert on December 11 at Selby Abbey.

The two groups last collaborated in 2018 to perform Karl Jenkins’ Armed Man at the same church to a sell-out audience and are looking forward to working together again.

Prima Vocal Ensemble, under the musical direction of the ever-energetic Ewa Salecka, have been active throughout the pandemic, progressing from the ubiquitous Zoom rehearsals, through small and then larger outdoor gatherings, and onwards to indoor rehearsals with Simulcast participation for those unable to meet in person.

This time last year, the choir was one of the few in the UK preparing for a live recording session, shortly before lockdown.

In a ” “very emotional step forward” for members, the choir gave a live concert in September, performing material largely learned in isolation during lockdown.

“Having missed Christmas celebrations last year, this year means and feels even more important to us,” says Prima Vocal Ensemble director Ewa Salecka

Later this autumn, they were honoured to be asked to sing again with Russell Watson at Buxton Opera House and Harrogate Royal Hall on the Salford tenor’s 20thAnniversary Tour in another milestone for the choir on its journey back to normality.

The Christmas Classics for Voices & Brass concert at Selby Abbey will be special for choir and band alike.  Ewa says: “Having missed Christmas celebrations last year, this year means and feels even more important to us. David Lancaster, director of the fantastic musicians of York Railway Institute Band, and I have prepared a very special Christmas programme and invite everyone to join us.”

Traditional carols and Christmas songs will be performed alongside the directors’ favourites. The choir will sing classical pieces by Morten Lauridsen, Gabriel Faure and John Rutter, while the band has chosen wide-ranging festive music, such as Shepherd’s Song and Eric Bell’s Kingdom Triumphant, based on Christmas themes.

The 7.30pm concert will end with choir and band together performing Gordon Langford’s joyous Christmas Fantasy, woven from the most popular Christmas carols.

Tickets cost £20, £5 for children and full-time students, on 07921 568826, in person from Selby Abbey or at

The poster for Prima Vocal Ensemble and York Railway Institute Brass Band’s Christmas concert at Selby Abbey

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on The Elysian Singers, Late Music, St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, York, November 6

The Elysian Singers: “Intelligent programme linked settings by different composers of the same or similar texts”

ALTHOUGH unable to welcome back Late Music last month due to an unfortunate clash, I do so now with open arms.

Steve Crowther has had to work miracles to keep Late Music afloat and bring it back into action, and he will doubtless feel amply rewarded by the appearance of the London-based Elysian Singers and the excellent turnout they elicited.

Their intelligent programme, directed by Sam Laughton, linked settings by different composers of the same or similar texts. The result stretched back as far as the 13th century, but was brought right up to date with three new commissions.

Part of Psalm 95, taken from Rachmaninov’s Russian orthodox treatment of the All-Night Vigil, inspired Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s effective Bogoroditse Devo (Rejoice, O Virgin), which was essentially tonal and included a gently rolling alto line underpinning a soprano melody. Both were sung in Russian.

The anonymous mediaeval setting of Edi Beo Thu, Hevene Quene (Blessed Are You, Queen Of Heaven) was picked up in Kerry Andrew’s setting, which she additionally framed with the words ‘O virgo splendens’. Her spare harmonies, although unmistakeably modern, reflected the early setting’s approach. The choir treated its triplet figures smoothly.

There were echoes of the past, too, in the next piece. Tom Armstrong’s setting of Emily Brontë’s poem No Coward Soul Is Mine, here enjoying its premiere, uses antiphons from Vespers for Whit Sunday, so that the text emerges in striking unisons, thereby gaining emphasis, an extraordinarily powerful effect.

Brontë enjoyed a strong Christian faith, fearless about death; Armstrong clearly senses this. He uses techniques of imitation and overlapping lines, sometimes giving the plainsong slow treatment in the men’s voices with contrasting momentum in soprano and alto lines. The Elysians were especially persuasive here.

Thea Musgrave’s witty juxtaposition of poems by Herrick and Edwin Morgan with the anonymous I Saw A Peacock With A Fiery Tail, in her imaginative journey On The Underground (Set 2), made a pleasingly comic interlude, the reprise of Herrick’s Dreams making a rueful postlude to the perky staccato of the other poems.

The choir was equally alive to Britten’s word-setting in his Five Flower Songs, which have deservedly become choral staples over the past 70 years.

There were two further premieres after the interval. David Power’s minimalist setting of the opening words of St John’s gospel, The Transfiguration, was cleverly built around an insistent refrain, ‘God spoke, light shone’. It does not deal directly with the transfiguration story, but suggests light at the end of any tunnel of trouble – as in present times. Those four words certainly shone through, often at the top of the spectrum.

The story of the Sirens’ search for Proserpine, as told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, was the inspiration for David Lancaster’s Feathers, since Demeter gave them wings for the task. Opening with a very high soprano solo, suggesting soaring flight, its slow, rhythmless progress was beautifully sustained by the choir.

An interesting setting by Ivor Gurney of a Robert Bridges poem on John Milton was contrasted with a deeply elegiac prayer, Requiem, by John Duggan to words of Gurney, which was much the more touching of the two.

There was distinguished company in a James MacMillan folksong and Judith Weir’s My Guardian Angel, which involved the audience in a threefold Alleluia. And it was impossible to suppress a smile at the creamy Victorian harmonies of Bantock’s response to ‘My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose’, lovingly caressed by this superb group.

Review by Martin Dreyer

York Late Music continues with two events on December 4; full details at

Never too late for York Late Music’s cutting-edge contemporary concerts to start again

Ian Pace: Regular innovative performer on piano at York’s Late Music concert series, returning on December 4

YORK’S Late Music programme of contemporary music returns from pandemic lockdown with two concerts on Saturday at St Saviourgate Unitarian Chapel, York.

As ever, this celebration of new music in York will turn the spotlight on compositions of the 20th and 21st centuries, premiering new works and commissions aplenty on the first Saturday of each month from October to December 2021 and February to June 2022, with two concerts per day at 1pm and 7.30pm.

“We moved the programme to start in October because we’ve missed a year of concerts through the pandemic and could not re-start until now because of the small size of the chapel,” says concert administrator and York composer Steve Crowther.

In a late change to the musicians, but not to the programme, baritone Alistair Donaghue and pianist Polly Sharpe replace Robert Rice and William Vann for Saturday’s opening afternoon concert, an exploration of 21st century British songs, featuring settings from the album Songs Now: British Songs Of The 21st Century and the NMC Songbook.

“Unfortunately, Robert is ill, but we’re very grateful that Alistair and Polly have agreed to step in to do the same programme.”

In Saturday’s second concert, at 7.30pm, the Gemini ensemble give first performances of both their commission of Sadie Harrison’s Fire In Song and Morag Galloway’s It’s Getting Hot In Here, complemented by Peter Maxwell Davies’s Economies Of Scale and works by Steve Crowther and Philip Grange, including his Homage To Chagall.

Pianist Duncan Honeybourne: Lockdown compositions on November 6

On November 6, in the afternoon concert, pianist Duncan Honeybourne presents pieces from time spent productively in stay-at-home 2020: Contemporary Piano Soundbites: Composers In Lockdown 2020. The works have been featured on BBC Radio 3, greeted by presenter Tom Service as a “dazzling explosion of creativity”.

For the evening, Elysian Singers’ director Sam Laughton has devised a programme that pairs a contemporary work with an earlier piece with words from the same poet or source. For example, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and Rachmaninov’s settings of All Night Vigil or James Macmillan, Thea Musgrave and Benjamin Britten’s settings of words by Herrick.

These will be complemented by new works by regular Late Music composers David Power and David Lancaster and Tom Armstrong, formerly of the University of York, and a motet by Ivor Gurney, published in 2017, fully 92 years after it was composed.  “It was just sitting in a drawer,” reveals Steve.

Nick Williams and Tim Brooks combine to present York Music Centre and the new Yorkshire ensemble Spelk’s afternoon recital on December 4. “It’s great to be working with Nick and Tim,” says Steve, looking forward to Brooks’s commissioned piece for young people, And Another Thing. In the second half, Spelk perform music by John Cage, Andriessen and Stravinsky and a new Murphy McCaleb work.

In that evening’s closing concert of 2021, stalwart Ian Pace performs his 13th, or maybe his 14th, Late Music piano recital, this one entitled The Art Of Fugue. “In 1845, Schumann discovered his passion for composing fugues,” says Pace. “This recital explores the threads that connect and resonate through a form that straddles three centuries.”

Framed by two Prelude and Fugues by J S Bach, Pace will be performing works by Shostakovich and Schumann, plus new works by Anthony Adams and Jenny Jackson. “You don’t associate Ian with playing Bach, so it will be interesting to hear his interpretation,” says Steve.

Soprano Anna Snow: 100 Second Songs on March 5

The 2022 programme opens on February 5 with pianist Jakob Fichert’s The Character Piece Throughout Music History (1pm) and Living Songs, soprano Jessica Summers and pianist Jelena Makarova’s evening of Songs of Love and Exile.

Next up, on March 5, will be clarinet player Jonathan Sage (afternoon) and soprano Anna Snow and pianist Kate Ledger’s evening of 100 Second Songs, featuring a patchwork of musical miniatures by the likes of Nicola LeFanu, Sadie Harrison, Tarik O’Regan and James Else.

Bass Stuart O’Hara and pianist Ionna Koullepou perform new settings of York and regional poetry by York composers on the afternoon of April 2. That evening, Bingham String Quartet play Beethoven, Schnittke, LeFanu and Tippett pieces.

Spelk return on May 7 with a rare chance to hear John Cage’s complete Living Room Music at 1pm, followed by Delta Saxophone Quartet’s Dedicated To You…But You Weren’t Listening, including Soft Machine interpretations.

The season ends with soprano Amanda Crawley and pianist Josephine Peach’s Sounds Of The Unexpected (1pm) and Trilogy Ensemble’s evening of Debussy, Libby Larsen, Yu-Liang Chong, William Matthias and more.

Lunchtime concerts costs £5, evening concerts, £12/concessions £10, online at or on the door.