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Remembering John Tavener

Three years have passed since John Tavener’s death, and with a typically Tavener time-effect, that day seems both very recent and a long while ago. It was certainly the moment for a measured contemplation of his life and work, so I joined a pilgrimage of his family, friends, associates and enthusiasts at Winchester Cathedral. This is where his funeral took place in 2013, and where his religious music was first nurtured in the mid-1970s by the then music director, Martin Neary. It seems that Winchester will continue to be the place to go, with the recent establishment of a Tavener Centre at Winchester University.

The evening’s events began with Evensong, in which all the music except the concluding Bach organ voluntary was by Tavener. It wasn’t a surprise that the service moved at a serene, very slow pace. The variety of music though was interesting. The ‘early’ Magnificat setting (1986) seemed on the verge of over-decoration, with two complex tiers of music piled on top of each other, like a wedding cake. Whereas extracts from the all-night Veil of the Temple, warmly sung by Patricia Rozario to accompaniment of only gamba drones and a duduk, seemed dangerously simple; dangerously because only John could make such minimal material sound gripping and intentional.

After the service, the large congregation moved slowly into the very spacious ‘backstage’ behind the altar, which we learned is called the Retroquire. This part of the festivities was, I’m glad to say, accompanied by an unquenchable champagne bar in the far corner; the loud popping of corks during some fairly extended Orthodox chanting provoked happy thoughts about John himself. A commemorative glass sculpture, with a beautifully carved inscription below, was unveiled by Lady Maryanna Tavener. There followed a joyous co-mingling and exchange of memories amongst the very numerous party, which is what the event had become. Clearly, this is a composer whose work, and memory, will endure for a long time, and is in no need of ‘revival’.

[Thanks to Suzanne Jansen for this photo of Winchester Cathedral under the soon-to-be Supermoon]




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