Small – most certainly. Trivial – not a bit of it. The pairing of Berwick Church and the Sussex Song Makers was an embrace of nigh celestial proportions.
The tiny, handsome St Michael and All Angels Church is renowned internationally for its murals painted during WWII by Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell who lived nearby at Charleston.
Those same murals have begun to flake, and the Song Makers, an eight-strong, Eastbourne-based singing group stepped up to the plate to give a fitting and entertaining performance last Saturday evening at the 12th century church in aid of the murals restoration fund.
The group, led by musical director Elizabeth Muir-Lewis, presented a selection of choral, solo and duet pieces ranging from early music to recent times, beginning with the ardent Come Again, Sweet Love by English Renaissance composer John Dowland.
After two more ensemble songs, soloist Shirlene Billenness gave a melancholy but gorgeous rendition of Ah, Belinda from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. This was followed by a stirring duet Sound the Trumpet, also by the baroque master, and sung by Julia McBain (soprano) and Mary Reilly (alto) to an enthusiastic response.
Among other offerings in the first half was Mozart’s almost unbearably beautiful Ave Verum Corpus, imbued with an added anguish embroidered for listeners aware that it was composed fewer than six months before his demise.
And death itself was not distant from the Song Makers’ performance: one of their members, Margaret Whitehead, died only last month, and Saturday’s concert was dedicated to her memory. Margaret was also a fine poet and one of her verses, Nightscape, a blackly humorous item, was spoken by Susan Winge.
There were other poems, too, read by Nicolas Chisholm, interspersed throughout. Rather cheekily, he climbed the steps and delivered, as it were, from the pulpit, his eyes conveying a knowing twinkle as he recited works by Dowland, Shakespeare, Eliot – and, not least, Betjeman’s The Church Mouse in which the verminous antics of the rodent in question are likened to human churchgoers.
The second half, including pieces of a more diverse nature, was also much enjoyed by the audience, including, appropriately, that well-known psalm The Lord is my Shepherd, set to music by Schubert. And all rounded off by a cheering Sleepy Time Bach, arranged by Bennett Williams, the indispensible link between the 17th century and the “Dooby dooby doo” of jazz.
By Bill MacFarlane