Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Sir John Tavener, a County Council commission




In 2008 Richard Hickox died he was a champion of English Choral music. I wrote the following posting then which recorded my involvement with commissioning a choral work from John Tavener for the Chester Festival. Yesterday Sir John died. I heard him on Monday on Radio 4 with Andrew Marr discussing the poetry of George Herbert. After a prolonged period of illness he had started composing again and new works including settings of some Shakespeare sonnets and poems by Herbert are scheduled for performance. Last night Patricia Rosario was on Newsnight recalling Sir John. She was also involved in the performance at Chester Cathedral 21 years ago. Here is he posting from November 2008;

There was a period in the early 90's when I was spokesman on Arts on Cheshire County Council. This period coincided with the 900th anniversary of the Cathedral. We received various requests to help fund the celebrations. I must admit I was less than enthusiastic when the Dean suggested that the county council should buy new chairs for the cathedral. I soon got to the point when I was prepared to walk away from the whole project. It was that at that point the 'arts officer' sidled up to me for a confidential word. What he had in mind was that the County Council should commission a work for the Chester festival which would receive it's first performance at the cathedral. He explained that he knew John Taverner was composing a work for which he was looking for a commission. This was early in Taverner's 'Orthodox' phase and soon after he had released his 'Protecting Veil ' the sales of which outstripped all other classical music for some time.

I was very interested and the proposal was worked up. The politics were quite complex. The left of the Labour Party wanted nothing to do with a religious work and the Tories wanted to hear the work before they decided if they were to pay for it! (The Tories were an odd mix of new 'Thatcherite' estate agent types and some formidable censorious women) I had a little trouble with one of my colleagues Bill Leathwood, a staunch Methodist, who wanted to know whether this would be something that the choirs of Cheshire could sing. Eventually a coalition was put together and the worked performed in 1992 at the cathedral and then a week later at the Proms.


I went to the small 'after show' party at the Grosvenor Hotel in Chester and met John Taverner and Richard Hickox who conducted the work. I took my brother along who spent most of the evening talking to the soprano Patrica Rosario. The CD is still available. I know that for both of us (and everyone else who I spoke to who attended the performance that evening) we were profoundly moved and above all other performances I have been to it is the one that stands out in my memory.

Tavener composed a Requiem that had its premier at the Cathedral of Christ the King Liverpool, I did have a ticket but was unable to go because a council meeting. The requiem marked a development in Tavener's music and thinking. He moved towards a universal understand of religions and away from the explicitly christian emphasis. In time he came to regret the pictures of him surrounded by icons like the one on the front of the CD of the Cheshire County Council commission.

His music touch a generation. I witnessed both at the premier of 'We shall see Him as he is' and when Steven Isserlis played the' Protecting Veil' at Chester that he could move an audience to silence

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