Contributed by Martin Widden
Prompted by the refugee crisis across the Mediterranean, the programme for the recital given on 5th March by the twelve-strong a capella choir Stile Antico was focused on John Dowland’s set of pavans for voice and lute, Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares. (According to Dowland’s contemporary Thomas Morley, a pavan was ‘a kind of staid music, ordained for grave dancing’.) Although dating from the early 17th century, these pavans seem completely appropriate to the tragedies being played out in the 21st, before our eyes as it were: indeed, the first pavan, which opens with the words ‘Flow my tears, fall from your springs! Exiled for ever let me mourn’, could have been composed for the recent Syrian crisis.
Only one of the seven pavans, the first, had a text; the remaining six were purely instrumental pieces, although all were melancholy in flavour. However, Stile Antico commissioned the poet Peter Oswald to provide texts for the remaining six pavans, highlighting contemporary issues of displacement and exile through the prism of Dowland’s music. These pieces were performed in the Great Hall recital on 5th March, alongside the superb Lamentations by Robert White, a contemporary of Dowland. The verses of these Lamentations describe the grief and desolation of the Israelites exiled in Babylon, but they will have had extra significance for White: being almost certainly a Catholic in Elizabethan England, he may well have felt like an exile himself.
Also on the programme was a series of pieces for oud (a form of lute from the Middle East), played by Rihab Azar, a Syrian oud player.
The final piece in the recital was a new work Bodrum Beach, commissioned by Stile Antico from the composer Giles Swayne, which was first performed at the 2019 Brighton Festival. This takes as its starting point the poem Dover Beach, by Matthew Arnold, but the piece was animated by the press photographs of the dead body of a three-year-old boy face down on a Turkish beach opposite the island of Kos – another refugee tragedy.
This piece closed what had been a very well rounded programme, illuminated by excellent programme notes, and brilliantly performed by the singers of Stile Antico.
It also closed the season of Great Hall concerts, since the final concert unfortunately had to be cancelled owing to the COVID-19 emergency.