BY NICHOLAS WHITE
In 1982, when I was 15 years old, I first heard The Lamb by John Tavener. This second-ever performance of the carol was included in the Christmas Eve radio broadcast of Nine Lessons and Carols, live from King’s College, Cambridge. A much smaller audience had heard the very first performance of this newly-composed work at Winchester Cathedral two days earlier. I remember feeling that I had just experienced something radically different from any other carol I had heard before. The truth was that several million listeners across the world had just had the same experience, and the reputation of the composer, in the space of three minutes, had been propelled to a whole new level of renown. The music was stark, yet gentle; dissonant, yet comforting; simple, yet haunting. I think I made my decision shortly after that to pursue an organ scholarship at Cambridge University, which had me living, literally, in the shadow of King’s College Chapel for the three years of my undergraduate career. As it happens, I had followed in the footsteps of one of Tavener’s school friends and fellow composers, John Rutter, who had studied music at Clare College twenty years before me.
When John Tavener died, just a little over a year ago, I began thinking of how we might pay tribute to him with The Boston Cecilia. I had been aware of a series of commissions that Tavener had written around 2005, which resulted in a sequence of carols entitled Ex Maria Virgine. This sequence had been recorded by Tim Brown and the Choir of Clare College, Cambridge in 2008. As I listened to the recording, made in the grand surroundings of the Chapel of St. John’s College, Cambridge, I decided that it would provide the ideal challenge for The Boston Cecilia and a great way of celebrating the life of John Tavener at our December concerts. The luxurious acoustics of The Church of the Advent and All Saints, Brookline, along with their fine organs, would create an ideal vehicle for this eccentric music.
Also on my mind at this time was Richard Rodney Bennett, whose music had captured my interest at a very early age when I learned several of his compositions for piano. Later on in life, we ended up as neighbors on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and I was fortunate in getting to know Richard, talking about his film scores, and discussing choral music, occasionally over dinner at a local restaurant. In the year 2000 I had conducted the New York premiere of his large-scale work for choir and organ, The Glory and the Dream, and the organist for the performance was none other than Barbara Bruns, for whom Richard had the highest praise. Richard died on Christmas Eve of 2012. As I had long been familiar with his Christmas carols, I instantly thought that these would provide a perfect complement to Tavener’s works, so I went about assembling the program that will be performed by The Boston Cecilia on December 5th and 7th, 2014.
According to Tavener, The Lamb was written in an afternoon and is built on a simple melodic idea and its inversion. Tavener’s tempo direction for the piece is explicit and simple: “With extreme tenderness – flexible – always guided by the words.” For those of us who are devoted to the art of choral singing, there is surely no better way of conducting ourselves.