First Night: Turn-of-the-century `has-beens' make a come-back

Broadheath Singers and Windsor Sinfonia The Great Hall, Eton College
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The Independent Online
ONE BLESSING of the Arts Council is its willingness to pour taxpayers' money into new work by older and younger composers. The chief bugbear is that the policy has led to neglect of others deemed past their "sell- by" date.

The freedom of post-modern musical idioms seems to be encouraging a rethink. The BBC has partially addressed this with Nicholas Kenyon's "Fairest Isle" and George Benjamin's "Sounding the Century" theory. Yet the Arts Council contributes precious little to these neglected areas of our musical heritage.

Spare a thought for the Broadheath Singers, under their capable conductor, Robert Tucker, who have just mounted, in Eton's College Hall, a programme of veritable turn-of-the-century musical has-beens.

Montague Phillips's The Death of Admiral Blake (Cromwell's scourge of Royalist, Dutch and Spaniards), despite its admirable re-orchestration by William Llewellyn, remains essentially an "oompah" piece, underlined by Sir Henry Newbolt's parodiable dactylic verse and the thud-thud of a trigger-happy tuba, somewhat over-obsessive in the clipped Eton acoustic.

But Frederic Austin's overture The Sea Venturers was a curtain-raiser well worth the hearing; and Parry's elegiac wartime cantata The Chivalry of the Sea is a compact late masterpiece to be ranked alongside Blest Pair of Sirens. Coleridge-Taylor's 1902 dramatic cantata Meg Blane, composed after his Hiawatha trilogy, is a gorgeous melodrama straight out of Scott or Tennyson (in fact by the Scottish poet Robert Buchanan), a humdinger of a narrative about shipwreck, every ounce as heart-wrenching as The Cruel Sea, and easily rivalling those magnificent early Elgar cantatas. Coleridge-Taylor's father hailed from Sierra Leone: even in 1900 a black composer could cut a triumphant swathe through the English establishment. Take heart, Brixton and New Cross.

What other choral society has the nerve to mount concerts of this daring?

The performances weren't quite impeccable but Tucker directed with intelligence and insight.

Down with the Arts Council's wretched, hackneyed "criteria". It is time this kind of important "revival" received the support it deserves.