Album review – Chemical Reactions by Gavin Harrison and Antoine Fafard


Gavin Harrison and Antoine Fafard prove that fusing jazz, rock and classical music does work

Graphic design by Antoine Fafard

In music, the words ‘fusion’ or ‘crossover’ used to a warning for any sensible music lover to run for the hills. Very fast. Musical genres such as classical, rock, pop and jazz have worked independently of each other, very successfully, for decades if not centuries, but attempting to splice their DNA together has sometimes resulted in disturbing mutations. It is therefore a pleasure to report that fusing the muscular but subtle and intelligent drumming of Gavin Harrison, and the jazz bass playing of Antoine Fafard, with a string quartet and even an orchestra, actually works.

It helps that Gavin is probably one of the best drummers in the world at present, having performed as a session musician but also as a member of Porcupine Tree and more recently King Crimson, also releasing a stunning solo album of big band arrangements Cheating the Polygraph a few years ago. To appreciate the quality of his drumming, listen to the opening of the second track on this new album, Atonic Water which begins with half-speed, laconic, almost lazy drumming which is joined by fast, buzzing strings, creating the illusion of two time frames running in parallel. Gavin has written about rhythmic illusions in the past and here he puts his theory into thrilling practice.

Antoine shows what a fine jazz bass player he is in the opening track Transmutation Circle, making fast runs high up the fretboard when he is soloing, sounding almost like a jazz guitarist at times, but also providing a solid underpinning when the music demands that he sounds more like a conventional rock player.

The first five tracks of the album, which also include Vision of a Lost Orbit, Pair of a Perfect Four and Proto Mundi feature a string quartet, made up of Maria Grig who overdubbed all the violin and viola parts and Jonathan Gerstner on cello. They bring great precision and intensity to these opening tracks. Gavin also plays marimba, helping to create a mellower vibe to balance the intensity.

The sixth track Singular Quartz adds Jerry Goodman on electric and acoustic violins, sometimes recalling the virtuosic performances of Eddie Jobson, who played violin for Frank Zappa and Roxy Music among many others.

In the last two tracks on the album Holding Back the Clock and Chemical Reactions the landscape suddenly up opens much wider, a lovely way to end an album that began with the intimate intensity of the string quartet and gradually opened out as more instruments are added. Both tracks feature the Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore, recorded in Ostrava in the Czech Republic as long ago as March 2016. They have a cinematic sweep that makes a superb climax to the album. In the documentary about the making of the album, Antoine says that he wanted real players rather than samples because of the subtleties that can bring. Gavin says he had worked with sampled instruments before but enjoyed working with ‘the living breathing organic unity’ that a real orchestra can provide. You can almost sense the joy in the playing of both musicians, particularly Antoine’s inspired bass soloing in the title track Chemical Reactions, and Gavin’s passionately animated drumming around four minutes in. The track rounds off a highly satisfying album that repays repeated listening to reveal all its subtle pleasures; listen on decent speakers or headphones if you can to enjoy its riches in full.

Track list

1 Transmutation Circle

2 Atonic Water

3 Vision of a Lost Orbit

4 Pair of a Perfect Four

5 Proto Mundi

6 Singular Quartz

7 Holding Back the Clock

8 Chemical Reactions


Gavin Harrison drums and marimba (tracks 1 – 5) drums (tracks 6 – 8)

Antoine Fafard bass (all tracks)

Maria Grig violins and viola (tracks 1 – 5)

Jonathan Gerstner cello (tracks 1 – 5)

Jerry Goodman acoustic and electric violin (track 6)

Avigail Arad Cello (track 6)

Reinaldo Ocando marimba and vibraphone (track 6)

Janáček Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Anthony Armore (tracks 7 – 8)

Chemical Reactions is released on 11 December on the Harmonic Heresy label.

Review – iamthemorning – Counting the Ghosts


A deliciously dark Christmas treat

Counting the Ghosts by iamthemorning is out on 4 December

iamthemorning are a Russian chamber prog duo consisting of Gleb Kolyadin on piano and Marjana Semkina on vocals. According to their Bandcamp web page they specialise in writing songs about ‘dead Victorian girls and premature burials’. Their last album The Bell was inspired by 19th century song cycles in the style of Schubert, and drew themes from Victorian art and culture. The title of the album referred to the safety coffin which allowed anyone who had accidentally been buried prematurely to alert those above ground by ringing a bell which

when the poor soul awoke  and  on realizing  he’s been buried alive, could ring to let the people outside know what has happened‘ (from the band’s website).

iamthemorning have also released the albums Belighted, Lighthouse and Ocean Sounds (with a DVD filmed in a studio on a remote Norwegian island), all on the Kscope label.

The duo have now released a Christmas-themed EP, Counting the Ghosts, which consists of four tracks. It was recorded in lockdown with Marjana in England, Gleb in Russia, and their sound engineer (and guitarist on this EP) in Canada.

Cradle Song, recorded in isolation

The first track I Wonder as I Wander was written in 1933 by John Jacob Niles, based on a fragment of traditional song he collected in Cherokee County, North Carolina, and published in his ‘Songs of the Hill-Folk’ in 1934. It has become a Christmas carol, and there is a lovely arrangement by John Rutter in ‘100 Carols for Choirs’ for solo voice and unaccompanied choir. The arrangement on this EP is beautiful, with Marjana’s wistful, folky vocals multi-tracked to provide the vocal harmonies, with subtle instruments coming in towards the end.

Cradle Song is the first of two songs written specially for the EP. Marjana told Prog magazine that the words are based on the poem of the same name by William Blake, which is not a Christmas poem but has in her view ‘a nice, cosy feeling’,

 Sweet dreams, form a shade
O'er my lovely infant's head!
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
By happy, silent, moony beams!

from Songs of Innocence: A Cradle Song

Presumably she was referring to the version of the poem in Blake’s Songs of Innocence, quoted above; the poem of the same name in Songs of Experience is much more cynical about the sleeping baby,

 O the cunning wiles that creep
In thy little heart asleep!
When thy little heart doth wake,
Then the dreadful light shall break.

from Songs of Experience: A Cradle Song

The song starts gently enough, but soon takes a dark turn just over 30 seconds in , with a deliciously bleak key change, creating the sense that all is not well around the cradle, a gloomy tale to warm up Christmas around the fire like a ghost story.

The third track on the EP, Counting the Ghosts starts with ambiguous chords on the guitar and piano, immediately creating a sense of unease which is appropriate for a song that is about the ghosts of our Christmas past, and also about the people that have been lost during this tragic year. Marjana sings with fierce passion, revealing the depth of her feeling about a year that most of us would like to forget. The track ends suddenly, as if it has run out of things to say about 2020.

The final track Veni, Veni Emmanuel is a modern version of a very old carol, with Latin words that date back to around the eighth century, and a simple plainsong melody which dates back to around the twelfth or thirteenth century. Marjana sings the carol unaccompanied and in Latin, beginning with the first verse which is the melody alone and gradually adding more and more harmonies in another charming arrangement, ideally suited to her pure, crystalline voice. The heavy use of echo gives the recording a wintry feel, somehow appropriate to a singer who describes herself (on Twitter) as a ‘dead Victorian girl’.

Previous albums by iamthemorning have combined fine musicianship from Gleb with precise but soulful vocals from Marjana; there is always something deeper lurking in the shadows beneath the attractive surface of their songs. Counting the Ghosts continues in this vein, but adds a little Christmas spirit. It’s a real treat.

Counting the Ghosts is released on 4 December via Bandcamp.

Review – Manchester Collective: Recreation


A dangerous journey through a magical forest

Recreation is released on 4 September 2020 on the Bedroom Community label

Manchester Collective were last heard playing in public on 14 March (see review here) the final date of their Cries and Whispers tour. It may be a little while before we are able to enjoy their electrifying and fiercely intimate live performances in person again. In the meantime they are about to release a new EP, Recreation. This is the first of a series of recordings on the Bedroom Community, the Icelandic record label/collective formed in 2006 described by Drowned in Sound as ‘the best record label in the whole of Iceland and maybe even the entire world’.

The title ‘Recreation’ presumably has a double meaning here – the EP creates pleasure in a recreational sense, but also recreates the music of Bach and Vivaldi in a contemporary context.

The Collective describe listening to the EP as like ‘picking up something warm, soft and familiar, and pricking your finger’. So the familiar warmth of Vivaldi’s ‘Summer’ from the Four Seasons’ is savagely punctured by Bartókian night music from György Ligeti’s first string quartet Métamorphoses nocturnes. The Collective’s music director, Rakhi Singh, describes the experience as ‘like being in a forest, where light and shade alternate…full of life but also dark and mysterious’. It’s an apt description; the EP is a dangerous journey through a magical forest.

The Prologue begins with a burst of electronic noise which very soon metamorphoses into a dreamlike rendition, heavily drenched in reverberation, of Bach’s chorale Du großer Schmerzensmann BWV 300 which describes the agony of Christ on the cross. The voices come into focus, as if the dream is turning into reality, and the strings of the Collective appear out of the mist, playing a gently-falling motif written by Paul Clark. The music gathers energy and pace and we are thrown into the icy landscape of Vivaldi’s Winter from his Four Seasons. As Rakhi Singh told Valgeir Sigurðsson in a recent interview, ‘Baroque music can be so vivid and electrifying, so colourful’, and the playing of the Collective exemplifies this – you can just imagine the absorbed concentration of the players as they watch each intently as they play.

The bitter cold of Winter ends and The First Day of Summer takes us to an excerpt from Vivaldi’s Summer from the Four Seasons. The drowsiness of long summer days is beautifully expressed by the languid playing of the Collective, which suddenly explodes into bright, vivid and sparkling sunlight, with virtuosic solo playing from Rakhi Singh.

The scurrying strings of the Vivaldi are brutally mirrored in the excerpts from Ligeti’s first String Quartet, in Métamorphoses Nocturnes – First and Second Vignettes. This is where the Collective excels, finding links between musical genres and styles that are apparently unrelated, bringing new light and meaning to each. From the Baroque elegance of Vivaldi we are thrown into the nightmarish world of the ‘night music’ used by Béla Bartók in many of his pieces, particularly his String Quartets and orchestral pieces such as Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta. But in this recording Ligeti and Vivaldi feed off one another, so that Vivaldi gains some of the urgent modernity of Ligeti, and in return Ligeti gains some of the Baroque grace of Vivaldi.

The two Ligeti Vignettes are linked by a short, skilfully-written Interlude written by Paul Clark.

Finally, in the Last Day of Summer we are back with Vivaldi’s Summer, with a close-miced and raw in production, always living on the edge, making regular listeners long for the intimacy of live performances at the White Hotel in Salford where the audience is so close to the performers that the can read their music over their shoulders.

Hopefully this EP will be the beginning of a long a fruitful relationship between Manchester Collective and the Bedroom Community. It is certainly a thrilling start, that fully captures the visceral excitement of the Collective’s live performances.


  1. Prologue
  2. First Day of Summer
  3. Métamorphoses Nocturnes – First Vignette
  4. Interlude
  5. Métamorphoses Nocturnes – Second Vignette
  6. Last Day of Summer

Album Credits

Brendan Williams – Production, Recording/Mix Engineer
Adam Szabo – Producer

Doug Hemingway – Assistant Recording Engineer
Valgeir Sigurðsson – Mastering
Helenskià Collett – Album Artwork

Rakhi Singh – Solo Violin/Music Director
Caroline Pether – Violin
Will Newell – Violin
Helena Buckie – Violin
Steve Proctor – Violin
Will McGahon – Violin
Ruth Gibson – Viola
Kimi Makino – Viola
Kay Stephen – Viola
Peggy Nolan – Cello
Will Hewer – Cello
Sam Becker – Double Bass

Review – Martinů The Greek Passion

Nicky Spence as Manolios with the Chorus of Opera North, The Greek Passion © Tristram Kenton

Opera North  

The Lowry, Salford Saturday 16 November 2019 

A visually striking production of a topical drama 


‘The poor are always with us’. So are refugees, and Martinů’s message in his opera the Greek Passion is both topical and timeless. The refugees who are at the centre of the story make a simple request of the villagers from whom they seek help, 

Give us what you have too much of 

One of the most striking moments of the Greek Passion comes at the start of Act IV when the wedding feast of the villagers Lenio and Nikolio is interrupted by the loud cry of the refugees’ priest Fotis looking down from high above. The wedding celebrations had seemed out of place in such an austere production. The rustic wedding feast could have been part of a comic opera but we are brutally reminded of the poverty of the refugees who have been forced to live up on the mountain above the village. 

The Passion of the title is the Passion Play for which parts are handed out to the villagers in the Greek village of Lycovrissi. Martinů again subverts our expectations. There is no ‘play within a play’ in which the villagers enact the story of The Passion of Christ; instead they slowly take on the characteristics of the Biblical characters they have been chosen to play.

The most striking transformation is that of Manolios who becomes increasingly inward-looking as he transforms himself into the character of Jesus, eventually becoming a public preacher and meeting his death at the hands of a baying crowd just as Jesus did. And there’s a powerful visual contrast between those who have been chosen to take the parts of Jesus, his disciples and Mary Magdalene, and the rest of the cast. They wear richly coloured garments that drop down from heaven, and are seen in stylised tableaux that could come from an Italian Renaissance painting. 

Martinů damns Organised Religion in the form of the Grigoris, preist of the villagers. He blames cholera for the death of one of the refugees, rather than starvation so that his flock have a reason to reject the refugees. He and other village elders condemn Manolios for preaching the truth and excommunicate him. The visual contrast between him and the refugees’ priest Fotis is striking. Grigoris wears the traditional costume, echoing Sean Ryder’s lyric in his song The Reverend Black Grape, ‘There’s nothing more sinister/As ministers in dresses’.

Fotis is stripped to the waist for most of the opera; shaven-headed and wearing round glasses he looks like an ascetic, cerebral Buddhist monk. 

The final, and most obvious visual contrast is between the two Choruses. In the original opera, Martinů writes for two separate Choruses – Villagers, and Refugees. In this production the same Opera North Chorus becomes both, but signifies that it’s the chorus of refugees by each singer holding a life-size white effigy of a human being. The refugees become vulnerable, ghostly, fragile figures. 

The Chorus of Opera North © Tristram Kenton

All of this would be for nothing if it the production were simply an abstract essay in morality. It isn’t. It’s populated by passionate human characters, superbly acted and sung to create a compelling and moving drama. 


MANOLIOS …….. Nicky Spence (tenor) 
KATERINA ……Magdalena Molendowska (soprano) 
YANNAKOS ……Paul Nilon (tenor) 
PANAIT……Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts (tenor) 
PRIEST GRIGORIS……Stephen Gadd (baritone) 
PRIEST FOTIS……John Savournin (bass-baritone) 
KOSTANDIS……Richard Mosley-Evans (baritone) 
LENIO……Lorna James (soprano) 
CAPTAIN……Steven Page (baritone) 
ARCHON……Jonathan Best (bass-baritone) 
MICHELIS……Alexander Robin Baker (tenor) 
NIKOLIO…….Alex Banfield (tenor) 
SCHOOLMASTER……Ivan Sharpe (tenor) 
FATHER LADAS……Jeremy Peaker (baritone) 

Opera North Chorus 
Opera North Orchestra conducted by Garry Walker 

Available to listen for the next 22 days on BBC Radio 3’s Opera on 3:

Review – Britten The Turn of the Screw

Opera North

The Lowry, Salford

Wednesday 11 March 2020

A superbly creepy staging of Britten’s masterpiece


Sarah Tynan as the Governess and Nicholas Watts as Peter Quint ©Tristram Kenton

The small scale of the forces involved in Benjamin Britten’s 1954 opera was evident when the whole cast came on stage at the end to take their well-deserved applause; rather than the usual choruses of flower girls, matadors and several principal roles there were just six people. The orchestra was equally small, just 13 players. This creates a peculiar intimacy, ideally suited to this intensely claustrophobic and atmospheric ghost story. Every singer and musician was exposed, and they were all equal to the task.

The set played a vital part in creating the unsettling atmosphere, dominated by a huge bed which cleverly doubled as a puppet-theatre, and a stage coach, perspectives and images distorted and exaggerated like terrifying visions from a child’s nightmare of a fairy tale. Even inanimate objects took on a sinister aspect – the rocking horse in Act I became animated on its own; the gramophone in Act II crouched malevolently.

Image ©Tristram Kenton 02/20

The nightmarish quality of the sets was enhanced by some surreal touches. The opening image of the Governess, seen from behind as she travelled in a stage coach to the country house could have come from a painting by René Magritte. The wallpaper on the vast wall at the back of the set could have been by William Morris but on a surreally large scale. When the wall disappeared to reveal the garden behind, the flowers unnaturally bright colourful as if from a painting by Henri Rousseau. The windows through which Miles stared, looking for Peter Quint, were like the windows of a pagan cathedral. Sometimes the characters cast huge shadows behind them, and even the floor sloped unsettlingly, like images from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

This production worked like the best horror films where the viewer’s imagination weds powerful visual imagery to unsettling music to create a sense of the uncanny. The two apparitions, the dead Miss Jessel and Peter Quint appeared suddenly at the window or at the door; combined with evocative lighting, a little dry ice and sinister music the two human figures take on a menacingly eerie aspect. An analogy from the world of cinema is the 2014 psychological drama and supernatural horror film It Follows, in which the disturbing score by Disasterpeace (Richard Vreeland) inspired by John Cage, John Carpenter and Penderecki, and Goblin (who wrote the score for the original 1977 version of Suspiria) makes the ordinary human form seem extraordinary and terrifying.

It Follows Original Sound Track by Disasterpeace

All this would have been for nothing if the cast hadn’t made the impressive set their own. Sarah Tynan was on stage for virtually the whole opera, and we saw much of the action through her increasingly anxious eyes. Heather Shipp was a suitably caring Mrs Grose. The children were superb – Tim Gasiorek’s movement as young Miles was outstanding, particularly when he danced to the gramophone in the second Act. Jennifer Clark as Flora had a memorable moment as she climbed on top of the four poster bed and dropped puppets down, an eerie puppeteer. They both moved convincingly like sometimes naughty children; another highlight was when a ghostly hand pulled back the curtain at the back of the bed, and it was revealed as a child’s hand, a delicious jump scare. All the singers were in fine voice, despite very occasionally being slightly overwhelmed by the orchestra. Nicholas Watts as Quint relished his melismatic melodic lines addressed to Miles, and Eleanor Dennis as Miss Jessel was suitably ghostly. Their line (from The Second Coming by WB Yeats) ‘the ceremony of innocence is drowned’ lives long in the memory. And conductor Leo McFall brought out the taut instrumental lines from his skilled ensemble with great clarity.

And so out into the real world, where appropriately, it was a dark and stormy night but without the raw emotional storms we had just witnessed inside the Lowry.

Review – Poulenc Dialogues des Carmélites

RNCM soloists, chorus and orchestra

RNCM Manchester

Saturday 14 December 2019

A stunning staging of Poulenc’s emotional opera


This was the final performance of the RNCM’s staging of Poulenc’s opera, Dialogues des Carmélites, set in a Carmelite monastery during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. It’s a deeply religious work appearing towards the end of his life in the 1950s, a couple of decades after the sparkling frivolity of his early works was wrenched in a new direction by the violent death of a close friend and a visit to the sanctuary at Rocamadour,

A few days earlier I’d just heard of the tragic death of my colleague … As I meditated on the fragility of our human frame, I was drawn once more to the life of the spirit. Rocamadour had the effect of restoring me to the faith of my childhood.

The staging was superb, beautifully designed and evocatively lit. The main set was split into two levels, both painted a pristine white, the lower level sometimes looking like a Dutch painting drained of all colour by the stark white light. This was desecrated in Act III by the brief incursion of the Revolutionaries who had ripped the religious symbols off the walls, sprayed the lower walls with the slogan “god is dead”, the staircase with the word ‘liars’, and the upper wall with an anarchist symbol.

RNCM’s Dialogues des Carmélites (c) Robert Workman

And in Act III the stark, timeless simplicity of the nuns’ costumes contrasted shockingly with the brutal black leather of the riot police with their plastic shields and the garish colour of the revolutionaries’ costumes. The nuns remained at the still centre of the violently turning world.

But impressive and dramatic as the staging is, the opera is about the inner drama of the characters and the terrible beauty of the decision to nuns sacrifice themselves to the guillotine at the end of the opera. This was effectively staged, each nun throwing her head back and dropping her cloak to the floor to represent her execution, the human soul then leaving the body as each nun slowly left the stage. Poulenc’s music does most of the emotional work, the chorus of nuns becoming smaller and smaller as each nun disappears with the swift metallic sound of the guillotine. There were some tears in the audience.

The Soprano Yuliya Shkvarko was fresh-voiced and impressive as Blanche, youthful and convincing as Blanche de la Force courageously facing her moral dilemmas. A moment of horror was well-expressed when she dropped a figurine of the Christ Child from the upper part of the set and it smashed. Her young companion, the soprano Pasquale Orchard was equally good as Sister Constance. The older women impressed too – Molly Barker was moving as Madame de Croissy, sitting in anguished pain writhing in her wheelchair before she fell to the floor in a bathetic death that was too small for her, like an ill-fitting coat as the libretto says. Georgia Ellis as Mother Marie and Mariya Sevdanska as Madam Lidoine led the Sisters impressively, contrasting well with Blanche and Constance.

There were a couple of minor problems – the surtitles failed to fire up during the first Act, making it a little hard to follow, and there were some early tuning issues in the orchestra which gradually blossomed under Andrew Greenwood.

RNCM’s Dialogues des Carmélites (c) Robert Workman

But the final word belonged to Blanche, joining Constance at the very last minute to be guillotined, with a beatific smile.

Kent Nagano’s classic recording of the final scene of the opera

Review – Manchester Collective: The Centre is Everywhere

Manchester Collective

The White Hotel, Salford

Saturday 30 November 2019

A stunning concert of metamorphosis and a curious incident of a dog in the night time


The White Hotel in Salford is neither a hotel nor is it white (more like a little off-white). It’s a former car repair garage, now a night club. It still feels more like a garage than a night club. And it was cold, very cold – to be fair, I had been warned. It reminded me of another local venue, The Haçienda, a former yacht showroom, which was cold and cavernous in the days before it became an extension of Ibiza and was always full. And before the concert itself started one of the songs sounded played by the DJ sounded like Manchester band The Fall, who played at the Haçienda.

I forgot the cold in the intense white heat of the stunning first half, as one piece metamorphosed into another to create a strangely coherent whole.

The Collective performed only a few feet away from the audience who surrounded them. And being so close to the performers (I could read the cellist’s score over her shoulder) meant that we felt part of the music making. The intensity of the performers’ concentration was almost visceral.

The first half began with a gently-sung, quietly kind, introspective Bach chorale which metamorphosed into some of the most fiercely rhythmic string playing I have ever heard, in part of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. There were also excerpts from Ligeti’s terrifying First String Quartet Métamorphoses Nocturnes, which echoes the quartets of Bartók to the extent that the composer György Kurtág called it ‘Bartók’s seventh string quartet”. Having just re-watched Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining for about the fourteenth time, Jack Nicholson limping through the snow with an axe in his hand and a snarl on his face, sound-tracked by Ligeti and Bartók, loomed in my imagination. The pieces were seamlessly glued together by interludes or Vignettes composed by Paul Clark, to make a cohesive whole.

The baleful barking of a lonely dog outside in the empty Salford night punctuated the first half of the concert; at one point I was convinced it was barking in perfect time with the music. A curious incident of a dog in the night time.

The second half began with Rakhi introducing The Centre is Everywhere, a new piece for strings by Edmund Finnis. She said we would need to listen intently to the sounds that Finnis conjures from the strings, starting with almost white noise. It’s a remarkable piece, with scurrying strings above more slow-moving themes, like the wind disturbing the surface of the ocean.

Then came Metamorphosen by Richard Strauss, introduced by a quote from his diary, written as he sat in the ruins of Munich at the end of WWII,

The most terrible period of human history is at an end, the twelve-year reign of bestiality, ignorance and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany’s 2000 years of cultural evolution met its doom.

Originally written as a piece for 23 solo strings, it metamorphosed into something entirely different in this version for seven solo strings. The post-Romantic, smeared, almost surreal blur of the original became at times as limpid as a Haydn string quartet, every line sparklingly clear. A revelation.

Bach Selected Chorales
Clark Vignettes
Ligeti Métamorphoses nocturnes
Vivaldi Four Seasons
Finnis The Centre is Everywhere
Strauss Metamorphosen

Rakhi Singh Solo Violin

Violin Steve Proctor, Caroline Pether, Helena Buckie, Will Newell, Will McGahon
Viola Ruth Gibson, Kimi Makino, Kay Stephen
Cello Peggy Nolan, Will Hewer
Bass Sam Becker

Sir Stephen Cleobury, my Father and the Meaning of Christmas

When I think of Sir Stephen Cleobury who has just died my image of him is conducting the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge on Christmas Eve.

© Kevin Leighton/King’s College, Cambridge

The festival of Christmas was central to my relationship with my Father who died twenty-five years ago.  I always used to listen to the Nine Lessons with him.

I wrote this piece some years ago but I haven’t published it until now…

A Child’s Christmas

It’s Christmas Eve and Durham cathedral is full. We got there early for the carol service but we’re still stuck behind the widest pillar.  We can’t see the choir singing the carols but it doesn’t matter. The lights go out and the choir comes in with candles. The sweet solo voice sings the first verse of Once in Royal David’s City, just as in the opening of the service of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College Cambridge.

The years roll back and I am with my Father again.

He always insisted we call him Father, not dad. We once played cricket with him in the park and two young urchins came to join our game. Cheekily, they called him Father Dear Father, mocking my use of the word. I hadn’t realised until then that his title was archaic. Later, when I was away at university, he wrote me letters and notes always signed just F, short for Father.

When I started to sign my letter simply with a letter N for Nick, my friends complained that this felt cold. Couldn’t I be bothered to sign my full name? But the simple F at the end of my father’s letters always seemed warm to me, a private, intimate code.

To others, he signed himself JCH, short for John Charles Holmes. He was the choir master of the local church and I was in his choir. The choir boys bought him a leather music case engraved with his initials. He carried it with him to every choir rehearsal. It got more and more battered, but you could still see the black letters JCH engraved on it.

I remember my Father walking home from church with me, carrying his music case as we discussed our visit to the local maternity hospital to sing Christmas carols. We went every year, to sing a carol service in the hospital small chapel. Then we came back to church to put away the robes we had worn for the carol service.

The choir vestry was a cellar beneath the church. We unloaded the robes from ancient suit cases and hung them up on long rails. We climbed back up the stone steps to the side door of the church and locked it with a heavy key. Then a shortcut across the grass to vault over a low wall, checking first that the Reverend Canon Ronald James Birchett – RJB – wasn’t watching.

RJB had been an army captain and took a dim view of civilians who took shortcuts across his churchyard. My father was in awe of RJB but they shared a deep belief in the true meaning of Christmas.

RJB is central to my childhood memories of Christmas Eve. He was tall, broad, proudly strong. His voice was deep and his face was sculpted from granite. So when this proud man went down on his knees to utter the words which marked the birth of Christ, the packed church was silenced by his humility before God.

After that, we choirboys could relax a little. We knew Jesus was about to be born and so Christmas presents were on their way. Midnight Mass actually started at 11:30 at night so there was a silent countdown until midnight came. Christ’s birth on the dot of midnight was marked by choirboys grinning and cheering silently across the choir stalls, always making sure RJB couldn’t see our celebrations.

So the service ended for another Christmas Eve, and my father greeted each choirboy with a cheerful happy Christmas and a box of chocolates.

Christmas Day itself almost seemed less important to him. Christ had been born, so the pagan rituals of exchanging presents, eating turkey and watching the Queen’s speech meant little to him. One year, he even forgot to buy me a Christmas present until my mother reminded him and he ran to the shops to buy something before they closed.

My father died 25 years ago and I don’t think about him every day now, although at the time I vowed I would. But he is still a part of me and at Christmas I feel particularly close to him. I said this to my wife as we were coming out of Durham Cathedral on Christmas Eve. She replied it was natural for me to remember him more at Christmas, because it was his time of year.


Leo Hussain @conductorleo wrote the following tweet about Stephen Cleobury on 23 November 2019, but it also perfectly describes my Father

He wasn’t affectionate, but you knew he cared deeply about you. As a musician, he was rigorous, disciplined, loving, had huge integrity and the highest standards. I couldn’t do what I do now without him.