The past two weeks have been a more than usually musical fortnight. It began with the world premiere of Michael Maxwell Steer’s Romantic Variations for Alto Saxophone and Piano (the present writer playing the latter instrument) and culminated in an event at which
Sir James MacMillan and I were “In Conversation”, as part of his 60th birthday celebrations.
I struggle to think of any Catholic in the arts who has done as much for the Faith as has Sir James over the past 30 years. What an unalloyed pleasure it was for me, therefore, to play a small part in lauding this greatest of living composers, this exceptional man. How lucky we are to call him our own.
Last weekend, I had the vanishingly rare pleasure of hearing Busoni’s gargantuan, bombastic, rhapsodic and altogether astonishing Piano Concerto performed live at St John’s, Smith Square, with Karl Lutchmayer as the soloist. It was, according to the programme note, only the second such concert London has heard in 30 years.
The concerto is in five movements lasting around 80 minutes, and requires a male voice choir in the final movement, which is often given as justification for its rarity in performance. Yet many of Mahler’s symphonies require vastly greater forces and are performed each season without fail. There is no dearth of musical quality in the Busoni, so one must conclude that, as is so sigh-inducingly familiar, promoters’ timorousness is to blame.
I encounter this often, whether as a concert organiser, performer or critic. However vigorously one makes the argument that audiences, comprising for the most part sensitive, intelligent, questing minds, relish the unfamiliar, the deadweight of commercial certainty smothers it at expression.
Here’s a thought for anyone with a performance space and a desire to be different: instigate an annual festival of rarities, covering the whole of musical history and lasting for a fortnight. I am convinced the reviewers would rave and the audiences applaud you to the rafters.
The middle of my musical fortnight was marked by this magazine’s inaugural Christmas carol service. Held in the Gothic fastness of St James’s, Spanish Place, aided by that church’s impressive choir, it was an hour of serenity amid the unceasing cacophony of that modern malignancy, Christmas songs. I will go 10 rounds with anyone who prefers the latter to the former. Carols are, au fond, a simple expression of Christian devotion, of joy at the coming of Our Lord. They bring us together in an act of communal music-making, peculiar in its concentration to this time of year, reassuring in its familiarity of using the same, centuries-old carols in the same order, often on the same date.
Christmas songs, by contrast, are mere aural advertising for a commercial event bearing no relation to the birth of Christ. Beginning around Guy Fawkes Night, they assault one in every shop, on every non-classical radio station, in every television break. If ever there were a movement to recover the true spirit of Christmas, it should begin by campaigning against the Christmas song. Then would come the main battle: no decorations before Christmas Eve. I fear I’d be alone in the vanguard of that one.
Did you know that the Vatican has its own cricket team? Nor did I, until I was given the happy task of designing the team’s tie and having it made.
St Peter’s CC, whose players are all seminarians or in Holy Orders, plays matches both home and away, thus the need for a tie to present to tourists. In the course of having it made, I’ve tried all the usual Jermyn Street suspects. None, however, has come up with the goods to a sufficiently Petrine standard.
A challenge, then, for haberdashers Catholic and non: using the colours of the papacy and its customary symbols, design something fit to adorn a cricketing cardinal’s neck.
Bonus points will be given for the best Latin translation of St Peter’s Cricket Club. Submissions via the Herald or directly to me on Twitter (at @david_oldbolt), please.
From the same source as the tie commission, another job came my way: to curate an exhibition of St John Henry Newman’s life and work. Having gulped hard at the scale of this labour, I accepted. Should all go to plan, the exhibition will begin in London next spring, then make its way around the country.
Building on the increased interest in Newman since his canonisation, we intend to make this the most important display on him yet. To do this, we need to show that which has never before been seen.
My final appeal to readers, then, is this: if you or your family have any items which belonged to Newman personally – books from his library given as gifts, vestments, academic gowns or furniture, for instance – and which would aid general understanding of his life and work, the organisers would be thrilled were you to consider lending them. They would be treated with the utmost reverence and your contribution would be noted in the catalogue.
David Oldroyd-Bolt is a writer, pianist and communications consultant
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