Each school year can be measured in various academic, dramatic, musical and sporting events; each with their own particular place: each with a direct connection to the passage of time. Within the annual musical events the Evening of Music holds a significant and poignant place, being the final musical performance of the year and, thus, the final opportunity for the Upper Sixth choristers and musicians to perform on the stage at Dalriada. But what the evening also demonstrates is the depth and breadth of musical talent across all of the year groups: individual and group talent which never ceases to amaze and delight.
As the lights dimmed in the John Armstrong Hall; as the eager chatter subsided to be replaced by an expectant hush; as the sound of warm applause for, firstly, the leader of the orchestra, Hannah Tran, and then the conductor Mrs Heather Montgomery, echoed around the full-to-capacity hall, the audience already knew that, based on previous experience, they were in for a diverse and immersive musical experience: they were not disappointed!
Immediately, as the stage was flooded with light, the hall was flooded by sound as the orchestra began the evening with William Walton’s orchestral march “Crown Imperial”, originally performed at the coronation of King George VI in 1937. The pomp and sense of circumstance required by this piece was skilfully captured by the musicians; the tentative opening rapidly replaced by an evident assurance as the piece progressed. The interplay between the brass and string sections, reinforced by the incessant pound and crash of the percussion, created a soundscape within which sonic wave upon sonic wave washed over those present.
As the audience settled, the stage was set for the first of three soloists: Zak Hassan and his exquisite rendition of the third movement of Vivaldi’s “Concerto in A minor”. The fluid ease with which this young violinist rose to the challenge of a difficult piece was impressive, as were his finger speed and rapid bow strokes. The rapturous applause had no sooner faded than we were treated to the second soloist of the evening, flautist Hannah Christie. During her performance of the second movement of Francis Poulenc’s “Sonata for flute and piano” all other sound seemed to have been sucked from the hall, so enthralled were the audience by her controlled playing of this piece, a prominent feature in 20th century flute repertoire. The subtle nuances of Claude Debussey’s “Minstrels”, an exploration of the introduction of American minstrel music to the British music hall scene, wherein can be heard banjo chords, beating drums and a sentimental song, were then exploited to the full by pianist Graham Cooper. This was the first of two visits to the piano by Graham; in the second he was joined by his sister, Claire, for an equally successful piano duet during the selection from “The Carnival of the Animals”.
Following the accomplished triumvirate of soloists we returned to the powerful and potent sound of the orchestra for an impressive performance of James Horner’s main theme from the successful movie, Titanic. Celtic overtones, reminiscent of Enya, were much to the fore in the mix of strings and flute, buoyed up by strident brass and the subtle use of percussion. There then followed evidence that the musical talent at Dalriada extends beyond performance with the first of two student compositions, “The Wandering Jew” by Sarah McQuillan. The contrast between strident and subdued aspects of the piece was well realised by the orchestra, building insistently to the final climactic chord.
It was then time for the first vocal soloist of the evening, Claire Cooper. Her performance of the gospel hymn “His eye is on the sparrow” was genuinely uplifting, simply beautiful and received a well deserved ovation.
The focus was then shifted onto the String Group with a showcase of two numbers, beginning with Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, first movement. The undoubted high quality of the composition was ably matched by the group’s performance, with the essentially aggressive ascent of the first movement allegro of this “little night music” perfectly increasing the pace in preparation for Bach’s Concerto in D minor for two violins first movement. This late baroque concerto is characterized by the subtle yet expressive connection between the violins throughout the work: the soloists, Hannah Tran and David Tang, perfectly encapsulated this relationship; trading phrases, exchanging runs and capturing the counterpoint with aplomb.
It was all change for the eighth item on the programme as Kelsey McKenna and Friends plugged in their electric guitars, loosened their collars and transported the audience back to the heady days of the early seventies, by means of an instrumental version of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. Kelsey confidently led the band through the varied parts of the song, which increased in tempo and volume as the song progressed: the initial slow folk song section, where Catherine Graham replicated the recorders of the original; the middle section with a slightly harder edge; and the high tempo hard rock final section, with Kelsey’s intricate solo matching Jimmy Page’s original.
As the audience settled, the orchestra prepared to change the mood once again with four of the fourteen movements from Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals. The piano duet, which drives the first movement “Introduction and Royal March of the Lion”, was performed by siblings Graham and Claire Cooper. From the bold tremolo, which introduced the movement, it was evident that they were working as one and totally in control. The stately theme, initiated by the strings, was suitably regal, as was the orchestral march theme. Against the melody provided by the strings, the duettists impressively fashioned the roar of the lion from low runs of octaves and high ostinatos.
For the next movement, The Aquarium, a delightfully dreamy melody was played by the strings, backed by glissando-like runs on the piano, successfully evoking the peace of a darkened aquarium. The audience were then woken from their reverie by the up-beat movement Fossils; where Saint-Saëns’ use of the xylophone to recreate the sound of a skeleton’s bones clacking together, was assuredly captured by the skilful xylophone playing of Bethany Millican. The reflective mood of the previous movement was alluded to by the musical fossils “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and “Au clair de la lune”: once again this connection revealed the high level of planning which is necessary when constructing a balanced, stimulating concert programme.
As the practice of scales is central to the achievements of any musician, so they were to the realisation of the final movement, where Graham and Claire once again led the orchestra with deceptive ease. The tremolo notes which opened the introduction were repeated here, the wind section reinforcing the notes before the strings began to build the tension with a few low notes; the glissandi from the piano appropriately gliding the whole ensemble to the lively main melody. The humour at the heart of this piece was once again evident in the six successive “hee-haws” from the jack-asses which heralded the final three blasted chords. A well deserved ovation followed.
The task of bringing the first half of the programme to a conclusion was handed to the Wind Band. Through the feel good factor present in the oompah rhythm of the Wallace and Gromit theme, they actively encouraged a correspondence with the warmth of spirit present in the movies. This was immediately reinforced by their toe-tapping rendition of the challenging “Birdland” (kudos to Mr McGavock for selecting a Weather Report number!); it had, however, no sooner taken flight than a roll on the drums and a crash of the cymbals signalled the interval. Surprisingly watches showed that the first half had lasted for an hour and a quarter: whilst minds were stimulated and active, bodies cried out for some movement, a trip to the refectory was the order of the day.
Once the audience had returned, refreshed, the choral half of the evening’s programme began. Instantly the hall was filled with harmony as the massed ranks of the Senior Choir presented a promise, in both theme and performance, of what was to come. The perfectly balanced blend of voices enhanced the audience’s e experience of two selections from Bernstein’s “West Side Story”: “Something’s Coming” and “Tonight”. As in the orchestral first half the attention to detail in both choice of piece and position in the programme was evident.
As the Senior Choir gave way to the Junior Choir, the deficit in age and experience was not reflected in musical quality. The trio of soloists, Caitlin Buick, Reanne Craig and Charis Nevin, entranced the audience with the purity and warmth of their voices during “From a Distance”, written by Julie Gold, but more associated with Nance Griffiths in this part of the world. This performance perfectly captured the meaning of the song: the difference between how things appear to be and how they really are. The third show tune of the choral section, “Do-Re-Mi” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music, was an appropriate selection, showcasing the choir’s perfect pitch.
The focus then moved from many voices down to one, and what a voice it was! Hannah Hamilton’s performance of Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Think of Me”, from “The Phantom of the Opera” was fittingly haunting; the confident control throughout, especially on the superb high notes, aligned the maturity of her approach with that of her voice: the rapturous applause from the audience was evidence of their unanimous delight.
The balance in the first half of the programme had been weighted towards the classic over the modern; in the second half that balance was reversed: in particular by the Intermediate Choir’s choice of numbers. Their first, “Run” by Bangor’s Snow Patrol, was strikingly impressive, in no small part due to the choir’s consistently clear enunciation. This was again apparent in the choir’s second number, Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”, where the clarity of the words, even when highly paced, was matched by the accuracy of the finger-clicking percussive accompaniment.
The jewel in the crown of high altitude choral achievement should be the Chamber Choir; and so it proved to be. In an outstanding display of part singing the choir, in their rendition of the American folk song “Shenandoah”, transported the audience down the mighty Missouri river to the deep south of the United States; the parts coming together then separating like the waters of the river: crystal clear and refreshing. The contrasting tones of the soloists, Hannah Hamilton and Laura Witherow, combined in the choir’s second number, Lloyd-Webber’s motet, “Pie Jesu”, to create a delightful melancholia. The perfect juxtaposition of this with the next number, the humorous “Beethoven’s Sympathy”, which highlighted the choir’s outstanding breath control, created the shading necessary to heighten audience experience.
One final contemporary classic completed the Senior Choir’s contribution to the evening’s programme: Coldplay’s “Fix You”. The slow tempo of the song fitted perfectly with the choir’s powerfully sustained notes, building to a heavenly crescendo.
Ethan Kearney’s beating of the bodhran signalled another inspired juxtaposition, as the tempo was lifted by the Traditional Group’s jig set: it also initiated audience participation in the form of committed foot-tapping! The group’s second piece was also the evening’s second premiere, Susan Montgomery’s holiday retreat inspired “Isle Na Maru”. Here the experience was impressively translated into the music, which in performance by the group successfully conveyed the reality of the experience; the tranquil sounds of the retreat in the first section quickly morphed into the busy middle section before settling back down into tranquillity at the end. Both Susan and Sarah should be proud of their compositions: neither was out of place in a programme filled with items from such illustrious composers. The reel set was suitably uplifting, with Kelsey on spoons (he’d be wasted on a bowl of soup!) driving the group’s short section through to its conclusion.
And so to the finale, with massed choirs and musicians filling one third of the available space; bright lights reflecting off eager faces; and one of the most challenging pieces of the evening: Handel’s coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest”, traditionally performed during the sovereign’s anointing. The orchestral introduction of layered soft string textures lulled those of the audience unfamiliar with the work, into a false sense of security: those in the know waited for the sudden surprise of the rousing forte tutti entrance of the full orchestra and choirs – and it was breathtakingly stirring! As was the final item on the programme, Paul Mealor’s “Wherever You Are”: the Christmas Chart Number One , a poignant love song, the sentiment of which was perfectly captured by the assembled choristers.
Following the Headmaster’s closing remarks, in which he highlighted the staggering fact that two hundred and fifty students had been involved in the evening’s performances – almost one third of the total school population, and the presentation of gifts to those who made the evening possible, there was one final music treat – a showcase from the principal singers from this year’s outstanding school production: Les Miserables. It is a tribute to all of the performers involved in the evening’s entertainment that, despite the lateness of the hour, there was no unrest evident in the audience: they remained transfixed until the last note had sounded.
The traditional of fine performances, to which audiences of this annual event have become accustomed, was continued and built on here tonight. The technical skill and ensemble cohesiveness of these young players and singers is mind boggling: hats off at this point to all of the Music Department staff, but especially to Mrs Heather Montgomery and Mr Philip McGavock who do such a magnificent job in identifying and nurturing the undoubted talent – then allowing it to blossom on evenings such as this.
To describe this as merely An Evening of Music would be the equivalent of describing Sir Chris Hoy as a cyclist, or William Shakespeare as a writer: true up to a point. This was an evening of sonic splendour; an evening in which the audience were immersed in harmonics from beginning to end. The recurring themes which threaded their way through the programme, drawing it tight, were nature and heaven: and indeed the audience, as they made their way home reflecting on the evening, may have been aware of how those themes were conveyed via instrument, voice and talent into the reality of an experience which transcended nature and, if only metaphorically, moved them towards heaven.