St Paul's Cathedral


Getting from Moscow (see previous post) to the National Service of Thanksgiving for the Queen’s 90th birthday at St Paul’s Cathedral involved a 2.30 am departure. Gracious Residency staff were on hand to usher me safely onto the street where a taxi drew up; with dawn already faintly visible beyond St Basil’s Cathedral, the driver established via Siri “I am Uzbek, I don’t speak Russian, 2000 Rubles?” From there on my journey was flawlessly fast, and aboard the Heathrow Express I changed into the ladies’ equivalent of ‘morning dress’, arriving in my seat at St Paul’s in excellent time. To the concern of the congregation however, the Queen and the Duke were significantly late. We later learned that heavy traffic on the Embankment had forced them to double back and make an unforeseen state visit to South London on their way to Blackfriars Bridge – a rare honour for Stamford Street and the Waterloo Roundabout. Meanwhile, the continuity of the service, with two thousand people sitting waiting and millions more listening, rested in the hands of Cathedral organist Simon Johnson. Most organists can manage to lengthen out a cadence to give the vicar a few more moments to get in place on Sunday morning, but for Simon this unexpected gap lasted a quarter of an hour. I’ll treasure the memory of his thoughtful impromptu ‘meditation’, with melody and harmony seamlessly extending itself – to be able to do this, especially with everyone listening, is a musical superpower.

My next musical hero of the morning was pianist Martin James Bartlett, an RCM student who had been the winner of 2014’s BBC Young Musician. I imagined his surprise, after agreeing to perform, that it was going to be ‘Burlesque’ by Sir Arnold Bax. “???” During the service, and extended wait beforehand, I sat one seat along from Martin. Just to make it really scary, we sat staring at the open keyboard of the Steinway he was going to play on two hours later. “It will allow me to work out where Middle C is”, he suavely remarked. His performance, of this tricky piece was so poised and elegant – a refreshing draught after a lot of choral and brass sound which could not avoid being big and boomy at times.

My own contribution to the service was a new anthem, I love all beauteous things, to a brief text by Robert Bridges, suggested by the Cathedral’s Precentor Michael Hampel (there is already a – very different – Howells setting.) A major delight for me was to work with the Cathedral Choir’s director Andrew Carwood – a true singer’s conductor – and to hear the unusually plush sound of the tenor and basses, not something you can always count on in church music.

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JUDITH WEIR

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© Judith Weir, 2020