Last Friday marked the start of the eight-week Oxford Christmas festival. Many museums opened their doors with special evening events, from a festival at the Ashmolean to a moon-themed evening at the Museum of the History of Science. By far the most popular event, however, seems to have been Northern Lights at the Pitt Rivers Museum.

The event centred around all things Arctic, and the museum itself was to be shrouded in darkness, to be explored by torchlight. Most enticingly, the museum announced that the soundtrack playing that evening would include a voice-over of Philip Pullman reading from Northern Lights – the first instalment of his amazing His Dark Materials trilogy, the stage version of which was put on in Oxford just last week.

The Pitt Rivers had created its hype very carefully. To say that their publicity campaign was successful would be an understatement: 3500 people pledged to attend on Facebook alone. A reader who is familiar with the Museum of Natural History/Pitt Rivers building may well be confused by these numbers: the two museums each have one large floor space and an upper gallery – how are all these thousands of people going to fit in? The answer is sad and simple: they didn’t. Starting at seven, by eight o’clock there was an hour-long queue to get into the museums. Inside, most people would have to face another queue of at least half an hour to get into the Pitt Rivers itself, which led to the rather odd sight of seeing more people standing in line along the many display cases of taxidermied animals of the Natural History Museum than actually walking among them, even though this museum had its own Northern Lights-themed events, which included an Arctic bar, children’s activities, and a band playing with the T-Rex skeleton looming over them.

Northern Lights at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Northern Lights at the Pitt Rivers Museum

So, imagine someone would have stood in line for an hour and a half to get into the Northern Lights exhibition. Would it have been worth it?

Beautiful as it usually is, the hall looked even more impressive in twilight – to call it ‘dark’ would be an overstatement, and with many children visiting, darkness would have been too dangerous anyway. The torches were certainly necessary, to look into the display cabinets and read the explanations. And the shrunken heads, of course, already strange and creepy to see in full daylight, drew furtive whispers from a crowd of onlookers as they looked positively terrifying by torchlight.

Unfortunately, however, the soundtrack playing in the background proved to be a strange mix that did not always blend well. It consisted of “natural sounds from Arctic regions” and “samples of indigenous music” which indeed worked very well with the objects on display, but Pullman’s reading was drowned out too much by the large crowd to follow the story well enough to be able to fit it in with the surroundings. The final part of the soundtrack was filled by “Museum staff discussing Arctic objects on display”, and this was a strange choice indeed – whenever one of these sections started, it sounded as if a museum staff member was making an announcement to the crowd over the intercom, interrupting the music.

Pitt Rivers Museum in the daytime

Pitt Rivers Museum in the daytime

The museum staff themselves seemed rather flustered by the overwhelming number of people attending the event. It is unfortunate indeed that the event had a turnout such as this, because all in all, the crowds meant it would not have been worth a wait of an hour and a half to get into Northern Lights. For those who had never been to the museum before, this must have been an impressive sight indeed. Yet for those who had, although it was beautiful, it did not add enough novelty to the wealth the museum normally offers to reward such perseverance. This is a shame, since such special events are what would draw a previous visitor to a museum once more.

This, however, should not mean that the Pitt Rivers should avoid multimedia events in the future, it just might require more limited entrance numbers. The popularity of this event clearly showed that there is a large audience for such museum lates, and that they appeal to visitors of all ages. Considering the limitations of the venue, the two museums might have been better off by merging their events completely (am I opening a can of worms here?) in order to create one big event – with one single queue. If anything, Northern Lights proved that interactive events are more popular than some museums might anticipate, which should mean that we will hopefully be seeing more of them in the future.

K. Dihal

For more information about the Pitt Rivers Museum and their upcoming events, please visit their website.

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The Path to Abbey Ruins © Karyn Peyton

The Path to Abbey Ruins © Karyn Peyton


Introvert © Karyn Peyton

Karyn is a visiting student studying history (and coffee on the side) at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford; she is originally from the middle of the desert in Arizona. She bought her first high-end camera five months ago, and Oxford has kept her photographing ever since.

We are currently looking for photography submissions on the theme of ‘Hidden Oxford’. If you would like to submit your photographs to the Review, please email the editor at theoxfordculturereview@gmail.com

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Poet Leo Mercer is currently President of the Oxford University Poetry Society. He regularly blogs and tweets both about poetry, and his own poems. I spoke to him about the relationship between creativity and technology, developing language, and poetry’s place in society.

Who are Oxford University Poetry Society, and what do they do?

The society’s been around since the 1950s and has been running consistently since then. At the moment my conception of it is that it does a number of things. We try and cover all bases, so various aspects are represented by the society. There are reading groups, writing workshops, and open mics where you can read your work, and if you like listening you can come to both the open mics and to readings by established poets. If you’re interested in reciting poetry then we’re trying to start a group where people walk down Broad Street and recite classic poetry in public, Dead Poets’ Society style.

Another big thing we’re doing this year is moving into collaboration with other university societies, to try and draw links between poetry and everything else that exists! We’ve just run a filmpoem competition, a film poem being the equivalent of a music video for a poem. People sent in recordings of themselves reading their poems, and films were made from a selection, creating a set of images that are appropriate to the poem and characterise it in some way. I think that any two art forms have multiple collaborative potentials, but film and poems work together particularly well. A series of poetic images can almost seem stuck together abstractly, and you need something to bring them together and unify them. Poetry fulfils this demand. Equally, one limitation of poetry is that it’s black and white shapes on a page, and the amount of energy that it takes to get into that and make that world real is immense. Having a visual impetus sucks you in and makes the images distinct for you.

You run a termly magazine called Ash. What do you look for when you’re selecting poetry for publications?

Our idea this term is to go for more political poetry. I think there’s a tendency, particularly among undergraduates, to write about their very immediate experience and present a poem saying ‘Here’s something about undergraduate life’. The goal with the magazine this term is to think bigger, in political and social terms. As part of the collaborations I mentioned above, the editors of the magazine are in touch with various societies with particular social or political affiliations, so we can try to get a broad representation from different voices. We want to hear from people who don’t necessarily conceive of themselves as poets but know how to use language and have got things to say, as well as more conventional poetry.

Do you think, then, that poetry has a certain function in society?

I think that like art in general, it does have a function, and that is that for many people it’s what makes life worth living. It has a function in a sense that it allows more people to live the life that they want to be able to live. There are some types of poetry that particularly lend themselves to politics – spoken word is particularly good at getting out there and finding the words that will stir you up inside. I’m not sure I see page poetry as having an explicitly politically active function as I don’t think you can expect it to do that, but it’s a way for people to express their political sensibilities in a nuanced way. Poetry doesn’t change the world, but it changes people, and people change the world.

Is there a distinction to be made between political and ideological art?

Yes. This is something I think about a lot, because often when people say that ‘all art is x’, they then make a jump and say ‘all art is x therefore my art has to flag that up explicitly.’ But if all art is x, then it doesn’t need to be explicitly flagged up because it’s there already.

Poet Michael Schmidt

Poet Michael Schmidt

How do you feel that technology impacts upon poetry? Poet and editor Michael Schmidt has said that ‘Technology is a part of imagination’, but do you feel that there is a slight reluctance to acknowledge the role of technology in the creative process?

I think part of the problem here is with education. Because education is very historically based it tends to impart a particular idea of what poetry is, so by the time you reach university it’s then very difficult to conceive of how this huge range of linguistic raw materials made accessible via the internet can be used to create poetry. I write poetweets, and to some extent I’ve experienced pockets of reluctance when people can’t work out the language – it’s seen as ‘internet language’, and you can’t use that in a poem!

This attitude is definitely something that needs to be changed. My sense is that at any one time there are interesting things going on and there will be poets, artists, who will think that this is the point where things have to change. Of course people will be sceptical, but it’s the responsibility of the poet to show that their idea works. In return, it’s the community’s responsibility to be always open to new ideas and concepts.

How would you describe a poetweet?

In one sense it’s a poem that takes the space of a tweet – that’s the minimal level. There are a lot of good poets who come up with lines of poetry and put them on Twitter. But there is a more exciting level, which is to create poetry which is at home on Twitter. This isn’t a 19th-century poem put on Twitter, but a poem that tries to use creative language that you find on Twitter and then push it forward into an artistic medium.

What new relationships between form and content does this create? You only have 140 characters to write your tweet, but you can also use links to other media.

There are so many exciting new raw materials that the internet has made available for a poet. People say that Shakespeare would think in the form of a sonnet, and that this is the form that his head was moulded into. I think the same can happen with the tweet – once you tweet a lot it becomes a natural form, and you see opportunities and content through that form.

Oxford University Poetry Society readings

Oxford University Poetry Society readings

Where a written poem is black and white words fixed onto a page, on Twitter the visual and temporal experience of reading the poem is very different. How does that impact upon the form and content of a poem?

One of the things that it will do – or rather, will continue to do, as this is always happening – is blur the boundaries between media. There’s a really interesting movement in America, called Alt Lit. They’re particularly good at taking things like memes, a particular combination of image and text, and creating poetry and art from it. I think the tension (and reticence from the academic community about moving poetry online more) comes from the difficulty of creating something that is not a gimmick whilst also being timely. You want to create something that captures the moment without relying on the moment.

It’s almost impossible to say how these changes will alter how we will think about poetry in the future. You don’t want to emphasise the change too much as a lot stays constant, but you also don’t want to ignore what is new. For example, with my poetweets, I will try and rearrange them into sequences after I’ve tweeted them, and print them out so they become like narratives. It’s still unclear to me whether they belong more on Twitter and the page is just a way of dissemination, or if Twitter is just a workshop before I eventually arrange them for the page? But the impact of new forms is almost impossible to intuit, and I think there’s a point where action has to come first, just doing and then working out what you’ve done afterwards.

How has your idea of what poetry is changed over the last few years, from both writing your own and reading others’ poems?

My intuitive sense of what a poem should be is that it is constantly breaking down boundaries, so I think ‘what poetry is’ is constantly expanding. Using new technology creates new artistic forms to create new means of expression to express the feelings we’re feeling. To try and capture our current way of life in a way that it’s not been captured before. Writing in the form of Facebook chat or gchats could be a new means of dramatic form. That’s another way of trying to capture experience of the current moment, because the forms we use limit what we can say; using old forms pushes us to the sorts of thoughts our minds have been taught how to think. Developing new thoughts is a way of opening up the mind to unexpected, new ways of thinking…

This is where the idea of free spelling comes in. This works on two levels, the first being that the way that we spell online shows us that we can spell pretty freely and still be understood. We can spell almost how we want and it will be entirely decipherable, so you can adopt typos and colloquialisms in poetry. On the second level, rather than mimicking the language evolution that happens naturally online, you can adopt artistic version of spellings. You can decide to respell things based on the reaction you think it will evoke. For example, I think the word ‘happy’ always looks much happier when it is spelled ‘happie’, it’s slightly more infectious, and the word ‘brughtal’ is more aggressive than ‘brutal’.

How do you personally go about beginning a poem?

My mind knows that if it gives me a phrase, I will write it down on my phone, so it’s started to be quite generous in giving me words. I’ll either write the poetweet in the moment of inspiration – so the tweets are often quite spontaneous – or else I’ll flick through my notebook app on my phone for a phrase and see where it takes me.

Looking at your phone app, it’s in an incredibly different visual format to a notebook. Do you think that changes how you go about writing a poem?

Virginia Woolf's notebook for 'Mrs Dalloway'

Virginia Woolf’s notebook for ‘Mrs Dalloway’

Definitely. You read Virginia Woolf’s notebooks and she has sprawling handwriting and incredibly long sentences that stretch out across the page. Her mind is made to fit the space of a notebook. For me, a big change happened when I got an iPod touch and started using apps. Your mind starts to fill in a different kind of space. So it certainly changes how I think of syntax and construction.

Who are your favourite poets working at the moment?

There’s the aforementioned Alt Lit community in America which I find really interesting insofar as they’re trying to up the value of the internet. People like Steve Roggenbuck, who does sometimes cheesy but sincerely emotional blog videos which is an intriguing use of a new medium, a new form. In London there’s a bunch of poets like Sam Riviere using other internet mediums and internet-inspired forms like blogs. I think the most interesting things come from people mixing internet sensibilities with the tradition of lyric poetry.

L. C. Broad

Leo’s poetweets can be found @the_poetweet, and recordings of his poems on his Soundcloud. He has also written an essay on free spelling, accessible here. More information about Oxford University Poetry Society can be found on their website.

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Virginia Woolf’s Orlando remains one of the most daring and unusual novels of the early twentieth century. Based loosely on the life of Woolf’s companion Vita Sackville-West, the semi-biographical narrative spans over three hundred years as it follows the life of Orlando, a sixteenth century nobleman at the court of Elizabeth I, who abruptly changes gender at the age of 30 and continues to live through to the twentieth century as a woman. It challenges perceptions of gender, how we write history, and fundamentally reconfigures the stylistic possibilities of biographical writing. Subsequently, much of the impact of Orlando lies in its manner of construction, meaning that a stage adaptation faces significant challenges from the outset. Is it possible to capture the chimerical world conjured up by Woolf in a far more concrete setting; how does one negotiate the distinct lack of dialogue in the book?

Nonetheless, this week sees Byzantium Productions staging Sarah Ruhl’s 2011 adaptation, with Orlando played by Dominic Applewhite and Grainne O’Mahony on alternating nights. The most striking aspect of the adaptation is its humour: Ruhl altered little of the original script, leaving Woolf’s biting wit to shine through. Her cutting observations regarding the status of women are transformed into fantastic one-liners, with Femi Nylander and Grainne O’Mahony standing out with brilliant comic turns as the Archduchess/duke and Queen Elizabeth respectively.

Dominic Applewhite & Florence Brady as Orlando and Sasha

Dominic Applewhite & Florence Brady as Orlando and Sasha

Unfortunately, when placed on stage, a text as multi-faceted as Orlando demands immediate transformations of mood from the cast which were not always achieved. The more serious undertones of the text did not have time or space to emerge from under the physical humour, and as the tone shifts to focus upon the horror of ‘the present moment’, the power of memory, and Orlando’s perception of time, the direct transcription of the text sometimes came across as stilted philosophising. This effect was heightened as with a running time of only 1.5 hours, the play omits much which contextualises these observations (the character Nicholas Greene is also noticeably missing and the ending slightly altered, neither of which are obvious improvements).

For the most part, Byzantium Productions staged the play imaginatively. The costuming and lack of significant props were especially effective, and the acting quality from the cast was flawless throughout. Allowing the majority of the scenery to be created by projections and lighting effects captured something of the magical quality of Woolf’s journey through history, with the suggested landscape largely left to the audience’s imagination. The projector could have been used more constructively, however, when the twentieth century arrives. This is the point where the theme of the inadequacy of language reaches its climax as signs become gibberish, and Woolf declares that ‘the body and mind were like scraps of torn paper tumbling from a each and, indeed, the process of motoring fast out of London so much resembles the chopping up small of identity which precedes unconsciousness and perhaps death itself that it is an open question in what sense Orlando could be said to have existed at the present moment.’ Alongside the vivid descriptions of the bustling tumult of the twentieth century city, this final chapter provides the perfect opportunity for some truly innovative staging which was not capitalised upon.

Grainne O'Mahony as Queen Elizabeth I

Grainne O’Mahony as Queen Elizabeth I

I was greatly entertained by the vast majority of tonight’s performance. As a comic take on normative gender roles, Byzantium Productions’ Orlando cannot be faulted. Fast-paced and amusing enough to earn spontaneous bursts of audience applause, the cast gave a thoroughly exceptional performance. As a theatrical incarnation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, however, this is an adaptation which falls a little short of the brilliance of the original. The fluidity of identity is not transferred completely effectively to the stage, where you are faced with a very physical and tangible incarnation of the protagonist. It is unclear, however, whether a different production would be able to avoid this pitfall, given the significantly different demands of the novel/reader and the stage/audience. What Byzantium Productions’ staging does it does well, and should be commended for tackling such a daunting project.

L. C. Broad

‘Orlando’ runs until Saturday 22nd November at the Keble O’Reilly Theatre; more information can be found on their Facebook page.

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Monkey Bars states its ambitions unambiguously: to faithfully reproduce for the audience the all-too-often-ignored voices of children. Playwright Chris Goode, in collaboration with counselor and self-proclaimed “specialist in dialogue” Karl James, interviewed school children across England, transcribed their words, and edited them into a play made out of 30 vignettes. Goode, whose inventiveness is limited by the restrictive conditions he has set himself, relies chiefly on two means: selection and alienation-effect. Firstly, he has to cull dramatically interesting dialogue from a mass of raw material, much of it no doubt unpromising, and his choice of scenes ultimately coheres around a few recurring themes — family, politics, religion, gender, careers, growing pains — which does endow the finished product with a small measure of unity. The scenes that end up on stage are, for the most part, humorous and engaging, though rarely challenging. Secondly, he attempts to coax the audience into reexamining routine scenes from daily life by transposing the children’s dialogue into adult situations – political debates, job interviews, cocktail parties – thus creating a form of alienation-effect.


For this reason, the production rises and falls on the level of the acting, for much of the dramatic interest comes from the incongruity of having grown men and women play children. Here, under the guidance of director Siwan Clark, the overall performance concept always steers a middle road between childhood and adulthood: the actors neither commit fully to being adults and speaking their lines earnestly, nor (with the exception of the prologue with the boy who sings to his jelly) do they adopt clichéd physical mannerisms to indicate that they are children. Instead, they play their scenes as if they were children playing house, pretending to be adults – no mean feat for adult actors pretending to be children. When they do choose to reveal their childishness to the audience, the actors almost always opt for subtle means – a furtive glance, a casual slouch, a mock-confident posture, or a half-self-conscious smile – over gross ones. Their performances are fluid and rarely draw attention to themselves, with Callum Lynch and Connie Treves standing out especially through their ability to smoothly transition between a wide variety of different characters. The other actors, though excellent, do show seams in their performances as they sometimes allow their personal mannerisms to prevent themselves from disappearing into their roles. On the whole, they are effective in milking as much humour out of the play as it can yield, and credit has to be given to the director for blending their performances in such a way that they match each other in quality and intensity, lending some coherence to a fractured and episodic play.

The more purely visual aspects of the production are perhaps less successful. To be sure, the manipulation of colour in the show, juxtaposing the monochrome outfit of the children with a precise blend of warm and cool light (designed by Becki MacDuff), does complement the dialogue and liven the play without being intrusive. In particular, set designer Zoe Dickey’s choice of conveying scene changes through having actors use coloured chalk to draw a variety of items – podiums, wedding cakes, lounge chairs – on stage blocks serves two purposes: it allows pacing to be brisk and augments the whimsical nature of the text. However, the abstract dance interludes are less successful. The opening number involve actors making their entrance to the sound of low-key electronic ambience music, walking only in straight lines past each other, staring straight ahead, giving the choreography an impression of clockwork. While this does set a kind of vague mood for the play, it is hard to say what exactly is being conveyed: are these children brutalized by the mechanical conformity of modern life? or are these rigid adults presented solely to contrast with the freer, more genuine children? In any case, the choreography seems as if it were content to merely gesture towards being a piece of abstract dance rather than actually trying to be a piece of abstract dance. The closing number is even more egregious, for it is the only section not underscored with the aforementioned electronic music (superbly designed by Eric Foster) but with a maudlin lyric. This is especially unfortunate because the production, despite the ample opportunity it has to sentimentalize childhood and turn the play into a feel-good affirmation of conventional virtues, has largely steered clear of that trap. The closing number is therefore especially jarring with the way it aestheticizes childhood using none-too-original means.


This fundamental conventionality of the text, rarely stressed by this particular production but always present as an undertone, is all the more problematic because it also perpetuates conventional prejudices, and does so quite unconsciously. For example, the only two scenes that explicitly deal with religion as a topic chooses Muslim children – and those raised in very conservative households at that. The vast majority of moderate Muslims do not, as one character does, find music haram, and would think the notion that you can’t say the word “cross” laughable, since orthodox Muslim theology reveres Jesus as a Prophet. And I trust that no explanation is needed as to why another character who relates that the Quran says “God loves war” is a gross caricature.

This brings me to a difficult question: how to talk about the ideological content of a verbatim play? If verbatim theatre is to be critiqued as serious theatre, it must be assumed to be just as undergirded by ideology as any other narrative. Using found dialogue inherently masks the ideology of a text, for it presents itself “as it really happened” – even though the author’s point-of-view shapes the material from its genesis, whether through James’ choice of interview subjects, or Goode’s editorial discretion in selecting 42 children out of the 70 interviewed and picking particular strands of dialogue out of context. Asserting that these words really were said, somewhere, by real children, does not in any way absolve the playwright of responsibility. The text starts from the pious premise that the voices of children are too often ignored, and then flatters the audience into feeling better for listening to the voices of children on stage, rather than, say, in real life. Indeed, there is very little dialogue in the play that one can’t hear simply by talking to real children; and while that is the point, what makes the play safe and unchallenging to the audience is precisely that it serves the dialogue of children in concentrated doses, filtering out the boring static that is an unavoidable part of meaningful interaction with real children, as any parent or babysitter can tell you. The audience can feel good for listening to stage children, have all the fun, skip the chores. This may all seem perfectly harmless, but the fact remains that the numbing conventionality of the play can easily become a way to hide sinister prejudices – prejudices never registered as such by an audience lulled into complacency, precisely because of how conventional the prejudice is. While this production managed its best with the material, the deeply safe nature of Monkey Bars isn’t just a problem with its surface – it undermines the whole.

E. Kamalabadi

‘Monkey Bars’ runs at the Burton Taylor Theatre until Saturday 22nd November. For more information and to book tickets, please visit the theatre website.

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While studying composition at university I wrote a string quartet in which every pitch and rhythm was determined by a formula. My favourite moment in the nine-minute-long piece was a bright, brief G major triad, a chink of light breaking to the surface through a mist of dissonance. It reminded me of the first string quartet that I had ever written, a naïve, flawed piece that I was nonetheless very attached to. I found the moment beautifully unexpected: arising from within the piece’s inflexible rules and dense harmonies came a fleeting glimpse of simplicity and nostalgia.

Peter Els, composer-protagonist of Richard Power’s novel Orfeo (longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize), is forever preoccupied by such tension between beauty and academic innovation, secretly longing for the former even as he doggedly pursues the latter. His most recent compositional venture: to code music into bacteria. After police become suspicious of Els’ home laboratory, his house is raided and he becomes a fugitive, sensationalised in the press as the ‘Biohacker Bach’. Els’ artistic endeavour is an extreme one, perhaps, but by no means an absurd one: his composition with bacteria is modelled on the work of bioartist Steve Kurtz, whose own home laboratory was investigated by the FBI following the death of his wife.

150- call in.Richard Powers-Orfeo jacket

Orfeo hops between two narratives, past and present. The former is a recollection of Els’ life up to the raid, while the latter follows him as fugitive. Powers handles the balance between the two remarkably well: one fleshes out the novel’s characters; the other gives it forward momentum. An aphorism or musical witticism is placed at each divide between one time period and the other, the meaning of which is revealed at the end of the novel.

Orfeo’s structure reflects its concern with the complex relationship between music and time. The past: Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder sends Els’ mind spinning back to an adolescent romance with a cellist named Clara; his own compositions prompt recollections of his soprano ex-wife and their daughter. The present: Shostakovich’s  Fifth provides the score for a cross-country drive; Els’ elderly pupils listen to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time and hear life stretch out before their very ears. And life yet to come: uncertainty; Els’ desire for compositional immortality. The novel’s two-page ‘overture’ tells us that he ‘wants only one thing before he dies: to break free of time and hear the future.’

To write about music is a challenge, but Powers handles it admirably. He does not shy away from technical terms, but is just as ready to fill his pages with evocative metaphors or biographical contextualisation: a group of singers battle through ‘a thicket of tangled harmonies’ before losing their way and ‘tumble laughing into a ditch’; Messiaen’s Quartet is accompanied by an extensive account of his experience of war camp composition. In both cases, Powers manages to please lovers of classical music without losing a wider appeal. Whatever the audience, Orfeo remains highly accessible, amusing and surprisingly moving.

J. Wadsworth

‘Orfeo’ is available to buy from most bookstores, RRP £8.99.

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This week has hardly been short of Remembrance events of one stripe or another in the centenary year of the outbreak of the Great War. Consequently, the challenge of presenting something different and original could be a daunting one. It was, however, one which the Arcadian Singers, under their Musical Director Jacob Ewens, rose to spectacularly in last night’s concert. The reflective nature of such a concert was wholeheartedly embraced by the performers, but never short of emotion among the reverence shown to the memory of the War.

Herbert Howells’s Requiem, composed in 1932 but unpublished until around fifty years later, provided the concert’s opening. This work, intimately tied up with the death of his son, was beautifully presented from the outset, Howells’s lush harmonies finely tuned and well-controlled with some admirable low D’s from the bass line. With the texts, in English and sung beautifully clearly, drawing on both the Anglican and Catholic funeral rites, the intimacy of the circumstances of its composition was well balanced with the wider significance of the concert’s theme, though a little more in the way of dynamic contrast would not have gone amiss. The numerous solo moments, performed by members of the choir, were well sung, and especially those at the beginning of the second movement and at the end of the last – here, the soprano soloist soared over the rest of the choir, providing the pinnacle at the piece’s conclusion where the hope of resurrection, taken from the Revelation to John, cuts through the despair of death and provides a radiant, reassuring D major conclusion. The lengthy silence at the end said as much as needed to be said.

arcadians requiem fb cover 29 10 14

Jonathan Harvey’s Remember, O Lord had a job to live up to the previous item in the concert, and although it came off well, a few intonation issues at the start meant that it perhaps fell a little short of the standard of the Howells. After this came the first of the three world premieres of the evening, Laurence Armstrong-Hughes’s Severn and Somme, musical settings of six poems by Ivor Gurney. It is difficult to say too much about this piece mainly because the balance between harp, oboe, and voice meant that the words were a little more difficult to comprehend, and perhaps better suited to a smaller space than Keble Chapel. The instrumentalists here did a commendable job with the piece, but on looking back at the texts, the opposition of the title was perhaps not exploited to its full potential. That said, the desolation of the third song, describing the memories of a lost loved one, was beautifully executed, and provided a foil to the bucolic landscape of the other movements.

The indubitable highlight of the first half was David Allen’s setting of In Flanders Fields, which tapped into something of the same sound world as the Howells previously. The harmonies were again well controlled and tight, and when combined with the clarity of the text coming through, made for a heartbreakingly beautiful rendition of the poem. To take such a familiar piece of writing at this time of year is a bold move, but the piece and its presentation left their mark truly enough – “we are the dead…” raised actual goosebumps even in the warmth of the Chapel, and another long silence, a rush of applause, and the unmistakable sound of people humming the primary motif of the piece made it a perfect end to the first half, establishing it as one of the highlights of the concert.

The Arcadian Singers

The Arcadian Singers

After the interval, a nod across to Germany, in the form of Brahms’s Geistliches Lied, brought out the organ for the first time in the concert. The typically luscious harmonies were fully exploited, the German excellently and clearly pronounced, and the final “Amen” concluding the piece allowed it to take its place fully within the programme, managing both to avoid sounding tokenistic and provide a contrast with the otherwise exclusively British repertoire. The final premiere of the evening was Laurence Armstrong Hughes’s English Requiem, which placed Psalm texts (here 46, 86, 27, and 90) next to some perhaps lesser-known War poems. All the instrumentalists were involved at various points, as well as excellent soloists, again taken from the choir, and the variety of combinations and balance were well managed this time. Of particular note was the second movement, a duet for alto and oboe setting Ivor Gurney’s poem Mist on Meadows – the resounding opinion of the audience appeared in a thoroughly un-British round of applause which, for all that it might have disturbed the ‘flow’ of the concert, was utterly deserved after a desolately beautiful depiction of Ypres. Emotional range was again played out to its fullest extent, the optimism and fervent hope of Psalm 27 in the fifth movement captured in the organ accompaniment before sinking into the devastatingly beautiful end. The sixth movement, split into two, were both excellently sung by the soloists, and particularly the first, singing an unaccompanied setting of When the long trek is over by Alec Candole. This took on the feel of a folk song, which in itself made the personal costs of the War come to the fore, before the relative optimism of the next song looking to a brighter future when it was all over. The final movement, like the Howells capturing the optimism and hope of resurrection, was a rousing finish to the piece before the tender final blessing which brought the mood of reflection back to the proceedings.

When I saw there was to be an Act of Remembrance in the concert itself, I was initially concerned that it would feel too forced. This was utterly unfounded as the choir proceeded to the back of the Chapel, in the dark and in silence, to sing George Guest’s For the Fallen. The reverence of the entire concert was encapsulated in this performance, and although the mood was distinctly more subdued than might be expected of a concert performance, the respectful silence of the audience on the way out spoke for itself. I am still humming that motif from In Flanders Fields, and still humbled by the range of emotion presented last night in such a beautifully controlled set of repertoire. It could have been all about the choir, but it became something much larger than that, ensuring, as if it needed restating, that We Will Remember Them.

C. E. Queripel

For more information about the Arcadian Singers or to view their upcoming events, please visit their website.

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