Review by Peter Lewis, Hexham Courant, December 18th 2009

Choral Society hits the perfect note for Christmas

"When it comes to the weeks before Christmas I am decidedly a Scrooge... the unreformed bah humbug one you understand, not the kindly thawed out character of the final chapters of A Christmas Carol.

I know when it comes to December 24th I will be as dewy-eyed as the next softy: it's the long tinselly run-in that depresses me.

So I won't succumb to turkey lunches before the day itself and I've become a bore about the difference between Advent carols which are appropriate to sing throughout December and Christmas carols which are not.  It takes a lot to squeeze the cultural grouch out of my soul.

But I was persuaded to go to Ryton Choral Society's Christmas Celebration and I have to admit, grudgingly, that it cheered me up enormously.  Bring on festivity.

It was, to use that old adjective - joyous - and a great night of entertainment and involvement.  Of course, anything masterminded by David Murray and Eileen Bown is never going to be less than excellent and meticulously planned.

The concert itself was like those old-fashioned selection boxes of my childhood - sweets with hard centres, soft centres or positively gooey ones. It started with the familiar strains of the Christmas music from Handel's Messiah plus the obligatory Hallelujah Chorus.

The social historian in me was interested to note that the youngest children obeyed custom and speedily stood, while the rest of the audience, mostly in our second or third chidhoods, remained rooted.   The choir themselves, mostly of an age, were in good voice indeed.  Like most amateur choirs, the women outnumbered the men more than two to one.  Tenors are becoming an endangered species basses only less so (I put this down to a side effect of global warmimg) but the Ryton brigade of choral gents were strong, confident and on note throughout the night.

After the familiarity of the Handel we were treated to something completely different, a coup for Ryton.  We heard the world premiere performance of a selection of pieces from the Northumbrian-born composer Michael J Smith's musical homage to Wordsworth's The Prelude.

The work has been 14 years in the making and is clearly a labour of love.  Wordsworth, who started to write the poem when he was 28, described the work as being about 'the growth of my own mind'.  It was only published after his death at the age of 80 and is the most personal of his works.  Many of his many other poems are songlike, as the title of many of them as 'lyrical ballads' suggests.

The Prelude, written in blank verse, has its own rhythms which I think are better spoken than sung as recitative.  That said, much of the orchestral setting behind the words was plangent and evocative.  The relationship between William as a boy and later in maturity was beautifully evoked and the singing of the treble Ian Wright and Bishopwearmouth Young Singers was moving.  Mark Anyan, the tenor, coped well with the depths of the more philosophical pieces.

One problem for me - and perhaps for me alone - was the intrusion of Dorothy Wordsworth into the settings. I do know that the composer did so because of what he describes as their mutual understanding.  But The Prelude is pre-eminently autobiographical and to set as a duet so private a piece as 'for only then, when memory is hushed, am I at rest' is a mistake.  This worry aside the work is clearly significant.  The audience listened with close attention and were clearly appreciative.

Like an old-fashioned chapel tea party, the first part was the staple bread and butter of the feast.  Once we had dutifully eaten we were in the second half let loose on the jelly and cakes.

How spectacular these proved to be.  Martin Hughes with his colleagues in the Chamber Orchestra took us on a ride through Vivaldi's Winter piece from The Four Seasons, complete with the composer's own comments on the inspiration for the music.  It was virtuoso fiddling at its very best and the applause bounced off the walls of the hall of Ryton Comprehensive School.

The soprano Katherine Moore sang Michael Head's The Little Road to Bethlehem and the late Victorian ballad The Star of Bethlehem by Stephen Adams, both of which stirred memories of chapel solos long past, with their extremes of tremulous sentiment.  Mark Anyan, the tenor, sang Cappeau's O Holy Night, which by some geriatric memory, I believe lays claim to be the first music broadcast live on the radio.  He then did a passable crooning version of Mel Torme's Have Yourself a Very Merry Christmas.  The choir, by comparison, gave us modern adaptations by Bob Chilcott of four traditional carols, including the percussive Gaudete.

And then, right at the end, along came the less than a dozen young singers from Bishopwearmouth who, conducted and coaxed by Eileen Bown, totally charmed us all with their clear and lucid singing.  There was not  a dry eye in the house or a palm not sore from enthusiastic clapping. 

And, as for me, I was so moved that I joined in Once in Royal David's City and O Come All Ye Faithful , even though the pedant in me knew it was still Advent! Thank you Ryton for a really great evening of song and sociability.

Sadly we have to report that the composer, Michael Smith, died at his home in Holland shortly after this performance.  This obituary appeared in the Hexham Courant:

 

Talented Dilston-born musician dies (68)

DILSTON-born composer Michael Jon Smith has died, just weeks after one of his compositions was premiered by Ryton Choral Society.

Mr Smith made the journey from his home in the Netherlands to the North-East to hear his work, a setting of Wordsworth's Prelude, sung by the choir, where his sister is a member.

But he died suddenly and peacefully at home in Den Bosse in the Netherlands, just two weeks later, aged 68.

Mr Smith was educated at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle, at Leeds University and the Royal College of Music.

He studied violin from the age of seven and moved to Holland in 1963 where he played in the Amsterdam Philharmonic Orchestra and the Noord Hollands Philharmonisch Orkest.

He came back to Britain for eight years to play with the Scottish National Orchestra, including tours to Stornaway and the Shetland Isles, and a tour to Germany, along with Jacqueline du Pre and Janet Baker.

Back in Holland in 1977, he switched to the viola and led the section until retirement in 2004.

During his 39-year career, as well as playing most of the time, he produced a steady stream of compositions including violin quartets, pieces for string orchestra, piano, violin and viola, numerous arrangements for viola ensembles and, of course, The Prelude - a 14 year labour of love.

The composer was only two thirds of the way through orchestrating his setting of The Prelude, some of which is still scored only for two pianos and choir/soloists.

Now his family would love to know of anyone who might be interested in finishing the task.

His sister Susan said: "Although Michael did not live in England in latter years, everyone who met him here when he regularly visited us was impressed by his inspirational musicianship and by the determination with which he fought a long battle with bipolar disorder."

During his trips to the North-East, Mr Smith often visited and played at Dilston Mencap College, where he was born in 1941 in Dilston's time as a maternity hospital.

His sister added: "He had a great capacity for friendship, and, ultimately, a joyous attitude to everything he came in contact with.

"He was thrilled with the reception his work received two weeks ago at the choral society concert and, if anyone is interested in seeing or hearing more of The Prelude, I would be happy to hear from them on 07841 349164."

Michael leaves two sons, Christopher and Robin. He was buried in Den Bosse in Brabant, the Netherlands on Tuesday, December 29, when his fellow musicians there played a splendid concert for him.

In the summer, his family will scatter his ashes near Grasmere, in Cumbria.