Birmingham: Archbishop Longley meets New English Orchestra

  • NEO

 Archbishop Longley with Nigel Swinford, Mrs Carolyn Swinford, Mgr Mark Crisp, and Julie Fry,  NEO Administrator. Picture: Peter Jennings

Archbishop Longley with Nigel Swinford, Mrs Carolyn Swinford, Mgr Mark Crisp, and Julie Fry, NEO Administrator. Picture: Peter Jennings

Archbishop Bernard Longley, the new Archbishop of Birmingham, and Mgr Mark Crisp, Rector of St Mary’s College, Oscott, were special guests of the New English Orchestra and Singers when they performed a two-hour Recreatio, described in the programme as “a kaleidoscope of music to refresh and inspire”, at Birmingham Town Hall, on Saturday.

It was also most 34 years to the day since the NEO, founded by Nigel Swinford its inspirational Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, gave their inaugural concert in the famous old Town Hall on 2 January 1976.

Mr Swinford, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music, and formerly Head of Composition at what is now Salford University music department, formed the NEO with the express purpose of drawing together Christian singers and professional musicians to specialize in a wide variety of spiritual music. The NEO is ecumenical and works across all denominations.

During the Recreatio Nigel Swinford gave personal, and sometimes humorous insights into the background of some of the 18 separate pieces that allowed, particularly the soloists - all members of the orchestra and singers - to display their outstanding musical gifts to the glory and praise of God.   

This was the first time that Archbishop Bernard Longley, a former student at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester and a member of the choir at New College, Oxford, had experienced musical hospitality from the NEO.

During the performance wrote in his programme: “The NEO and Singers’ varied and uplifting concert with Nigel Swinford reminded me of a fundamental Christian belief: that we are made in the image and likeness of God. 

“In this beautiful music the achievements of composers and today’s musicians reflect God’s creativity and generosity. His benevolent love for humanity shone through this concert,  which was full of joy and faith.

“As at the recent National Gallery exhibition, “The Sacred Made Real”, these musical offerings were presented by Nigel Swinford not first as works of art, but more as works of devotion and expressions of faith.”

Archbishop Longley added: “It was very evident to an appreciative audience that all the singers and musicians were united by a generosity of spirit – this brought warmth and brightness to a thoroughly professional performance.  Anyone coming in search of beautiful music would have found that, but also something more: faith celebrated confidently and joyfully.”

The programme was opened by Byrd’s Earl of Oxford March.  Handel’s Water Music might have been more appropriate because it was extremely wet and miserable outside, just as it was at the NEO concert at the same venue in January 2009.  Inside the Town Hall the inclement weather was soon forgotten by the enthusiastic audience, many of whom came from churches of varying traditions throughout the Midlands.

The first half included music by Vivaldi; Mozart - the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei from the Missa Brevis; Telemann; Simon Jeffes’ “Giles Farnaby’s Dream”; and ended with the great Beethoven Hallelujah Chorus from the “Mount of Olives”.

The second half incorporated a wide variety of classical and modern music including the Vivaldi Concerto in G minor for Violin and orchestra, four Scottish reels, and several Christian songs, among them: “African Holy Holy”; Joyful are the People; “There is a Balm in Gilead”; and Jesus is the Answer”.

The evening concluded with “Dona Nobis Pacem” from the B Minor Mass by J S Bach.  At the climax a great crescendo of joyful sound filled the Birmingham Town Hall, scene of many famous performances during its long and distinguished history.

It is worth recalling in this year, when Cardinal Newman is likely to be beatified in the Archdiocese of Birmingham during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI to Great Britain during September 2010, that his poem The Dream of Gerontius, set to music as an oratorio by Sir Edward Elgar, was first performed in Birmingham Town Hall on 3 October 1900.

Since the summer of 1976 the NEO and Singers have been regular visitors to Salzburg during the Music Festival.

In September 2009 the NEO gave a series of memorable Recreatios in the world-famous Roman Pantheon, and the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the titular church of the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. At the invitation of His Excellency Francis Campbell, the British Ambassador to the Holy See, the NEO gave a special concert during an evening reception at the British Embassy.

In October 2009 a small group of players and singers conducted by Nigel Swinford gave three Recreatios at the Venerable English College in Rome as part of the celebrations to mark the opening of the refurbished church. The NEO also gave a concert in the Basilica of St John Lateran, the Pope’s Cathedral in Rome.
The NEO and Singers will be making a fourth visit to Rome during August 2010.  The programme, which will include a series of Recreatios in the Pantheon and the Basilica of St John Lateran, is in the process of being finalised.

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