It was my pleasure to be in attendance at The Halls last week for the UEA Symphony Orchestra & Choir’s first performance since 2019. As with all performers, the Covid-19 pandemic had curtailed their opportunities to come together to make music for well over a year – in their case, approaching two. The emotional significance of the moment was tangible from the off, with the Director of Music forgoing all but the barest introduction and instead choosing to get right into the business at hand, itching to strike those first chords as soon as possible.
The very existence of the Orchestra & Choir is due to the commitment of the UEA’s Music Centre. The University itself offers no Music courses after it’s controversial closure in 2014, but the benefit of providing a musical outlet for its students (and staff) is a recognised need and so the multiple choirs and ensembles continue. What’s more, the Symphony Orchestra, UEA Choir, Chamber Choir and Community Choir are open to all – students, staff, former students and the wider community. As such, they are an an asset to Norwich and their return to live performance is a thing to be celebrated.
Their programme choices are varied and interesting. Last week, the Orchestra treated us to three of Dvořák’s Slavonic dances and William Grant Still’s 4th Symphony. Dvořák is a familiar name, of course, but Still is less so. An African-American composer, Still was the first African-American composer to have an opera performed by the New York City Opera, the first to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, the first to have a symphony performed by a major US orchestra and the first to have an opera broadcast on national television. Despite being such a groundbreaking musician, I think it’s fair to say that he is far from being a household name, certainly in this country. For his 4th Symphony, Autochthonous, to be given an airing is laudible, though, not only for its provenance but also its quality, as it is a wonderful piece of music. You can here it being performed by the Fort Smith Symphony Orchestra here, and read about other composers of colour here.
The UEA Choir, for their part, provided a stellar performance of A German Requiem by Brahms. In order to allow the choir space to distance as much as possible, they performed not with the orchestra but with piano accompaniment, from an arrangement by Brahms himself. Brahms’ approach to the piece was fairly unorthodox, diverging from the tradition latin of the Roman Catholic Requiem Mass but instead making his own choice of passages from the German Lutheran Bible. He also avoided using any passages that contained any Christian dogma, such as those referring to the ‘redeeming death of the Lord’, as he wanted the piece to be able to resonate to people of all faiths and of none.
It is a beautiful piece, and I say that as someone whose preference doesn’t lean to choral music. On this occasion, I have it on good authority that the conductor was moved to tears approaching the climax of the 70-minute piece. I don’t doubt the power of the music, or the UEA Choir’s performance, to be able to do this. To come full circle from where I started, though, I wonder if also the occasion of being able to stand up and lead the Choir in a public performance again, after so long an absence, played its own part in the emotion of the moment.
We have a rich cultural heritage in this city. The UEA Choir and Symphony Orchestra are part of that (incidentally, their traditional Christmas Carol Concert is on 15th December) and the opportunity to enjoy and participate in that is at the heart of our own Sistema Project. Who knows what chances our students may get in the future to move others with their own performances?