Saturday 11 July 2020

Heroic Handel: I chat to Chris Parsons, artistic director of Eboracum Baroque, about the group's plans including a large-scale on-line concert

Chris Parsons conducting Eboracum Baroque in Handel's Messiah at the Senate House, Cambridge
Chris Parsons conducting Eboracum Baroque in Handel's Messiah at the Senate House, Cambridge
Much of the music making that has been happening during lockdown has, inevitably, been quite small scale. But Eboracum Baroque has decided to create something on a bigger scale, and on Saturday 18 July 2020 will be presenting their Heroic Handel concert on-line, comprising a mixture of opera, coronation anthems and more. I caught up with Eboracum Baroque's artistic director, Chris Parsons, to find out about the ensemble's plans under lockdown.

Eboracum Baroque is a flexible period ensemble, comprising singers and instrumentalists, founded in York in 2012, as its name suggests (Eboracum is the name of the Roman fort on the site of present-day York), whilst artistic director Chris Parsons was at York University. The ensemble does perform in London, but it has also generated quite a presence for itself outside the metropolis, with regular concerts in York and in Cambridge, as well as performing at National Trust properties in programmes which reflect the musical history of each property, and the group's 2015 disc of the music of 18th century composer Thomas Tudway was recorded at Wimpole Hall where Tudway worked from 1714 to 1726.

Since Lockdown, the group has been active on-line, giving a regular series of coffee concerts of solo repertoire on Zoom. But, as Chris Parsons explained when we chatted recently over Zoom, the group has been 'chomping at the bit' to do something larger scale. They had a live concert planned for July 2020, so as this was cancelled the group decided to do something similar, on-line. Thus, Eboracum Baroque's Heroic Handel concert was born, to be streamed on YouTube and Facebook on Saturday 18 July 2020 at 7pm.
As well as giving the musicians a chance to perform, the concert represents an opportunity to provide them with some welcome financial support, as well as keeping the audience engaged. Chris points out that it is important not to forget that people are waiting to come to concerts. The group's virtual coffee concerts, which happen every couple of weeks, have enabled the musicians to maintain links with regular supporters in the UK but also to develop an audience from all over the world. The virtual concerts arose partly out of an idea that they had had already, to do concerts which placed individual Baroque instruments in the spotlight, and this has happened albeit in on-line rather than live. Chris admits that there is a personal element, too, in the move to larger-scale repertoire; his own instrument is the trumpet and there is not too much Baroque repertoire for just trumpet and continuo.

Eboracum Baroque performing Vivaldi in York
Eboracum Baroque performing Vivaldi in York
The logistics of presenting larger-scale repertoire on-line have been significant, and it has been a real learning curve. Thankfully one of Chris' friends is something of a tech whizz, but it has required Chris to mark up the music in a detailed fashion, something he would not normally need to do, so that they could create click tracks with all the tempo variations. And then there was getting used to the strangeness of playing along to just a click track. In fact, they recorded the cello and harpsichord continuo first, layering everyone else over the top. But it has given Chris and the other musicians in the group a big project to be working on, particularly as the planned concert will have about 60 minutes of music.

The repertoire for the concert, all by Handel, celebrates all the different aspects to Eboracum Baroque's performances, with the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest, arias from Rinaldo and Giulio Cesare, a chorus from Acis and Galatea, a trio sonata and a recorder sonata, all starting with a March from Rinaldo. Chris describes it as a real mixed bag, and there is deliberately something for everyone.

The group is hoping to create, as close as is possible, a concert ambience, even suggesting that audience members dress up for the occasion, and there will be an interval during which York Gin will talk about the history of gin, and be making a virtual cocktail!

The group is also working on further virtual concerts to make up for the continuing enforced live silence. Their next recording project was going to be the recorder version of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, something that Chris describes as mind boggling. This has been delayed, and they hope it might kick off later this year or early next year.

Eboracum Baroque at the Stamford Georgian Festival
Eboracum Baroque at the Stamford Georgian Festival
They are also thinking about Christmas 2020. For a small group, Christmas is an important part of the calendar; the income from performances such as Messiah in Cambridge with an audience of around 600 people effectively makes the group's other work possible. Without such large-scale performances, they are looking at other ideas, such as streaming.

Other projects which have been hit by lockdown included the ensemble's education work. In May 2020, they were due to be doing a schools' projects on Vivaldi's Four Seasons at the National Centre for Early Music in York. Instead, they are looking videos and on-line sessions to replace these, and hope to be releasing something in the Autumn.

Eboracum Baroque in fact began as a choir, in 2012, when Chris was studying music at York University, and it then morphed into a mixed group which performs everything from chamber music, orchestral music and opera. It is very much a group of friends, most now in their mid- to late-20s. Chris sees the group as providing a musical platform for young musicians, performing great repertoire and valuable income for young freelance musicians. Now that that musicians are slightly older, many are also working in some of the major Early Music ensembles.

Around five or six years ago, the group was doing a free concert at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge when Chris was approached by someone from the National Trust. They were interested in the composer Thomas Tudway (before 1650-1726), who had worked at the National Trust's Cambridgeshire property Wimpole Hall. Chris did some research and found that there seemed to be a great deal to Tudway. The upshot was a disc of Tudway's music, recorded in the chapel at Wimpole Hall and funded by the National Trust and Arts Council England.

Chris would like to be able to return to Tudway as he feels that a lot of Tudway's music is good; there is a piece for full orchestra which Tudway wrote for his graduation at Cambridge and which intrigues. Chris finds Tudway an amazing and interesting person but thinks that perhaps he was too outspoken for his own good; Tudway was organist at King's College, Cambridge for over 50 years but never managed to get a post in London.

One of the things that Chris enjoys doing with Eboracum Baroque is finding composers who need a platform. Another instance of this is the mid-18th century Suffolk composer, Joseph Gibbs (1699-1788) who was as celebrated as Handel in his native Ipswich. A lot of Gibbs' music does not survive, and we only have his violin sonatas, but Eboracum Baroque has recorded some of them on a disc entitled Sounds of Suffolk, alongside music by Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747), Gottfried Finger (1655-1730) and Charles Dieupart (1667-1740), all composers with links to Suffolk. Bononcini has links with Ickworth House (also now a National Trust property) where he worked for the Hervey family, whilst Charles Dieupart taught the Hervey children.

Another regional music making project involves looking at large-scale odes for St Cecilia's Day with Bryan White of Leeds University (who has written a book about music for St Cecilia across the British Isles in the 17th and 18th Centuries), with music by George Holmes (1680-1720), organist of Lincoln Cathedral and Vaughan Richardson (died 1729), organist of Winchester Cathedral, again lesser known names which deserve more of a platform. Eboracum Baroque has already performed some of this repertoire with Bryan White conducting the Leeds University Chamber Choir, and there are plans in the works for a CD.

Eboracum Baroque has only been part of Chris' life; as well as freelancing on the trumpet (mainly Baroque), he also spends two days a week teaching, and he is lucky that this has continued via Zoom. He lives just outside Ely, and this has led him to develop local connections. He conducts two amateur orchestras and a choir in the area, and really enjoys working with them. Continuing rehearsing under lockdown has involved Chris in conducting rehearsals on-line and making virtual recordings; he describes this as an eye-opening process.

He has found that rehearsing via Zoom is good for talking about details, marking up the music and making sure that performers understand, and the orchestras have worked a lot to backing tracks. An important part of this process is that it ensures that individual players and singers are not left alone, they have something to perform along with. And the last half-hour of each session has a different member each week presenting their own version of Desert Island Discs.  Whilst the process has been limiting in some ways, Chris sees it as opening up new doors, but it will be amazing when they can meet up again.

Heroic Handel - Saturday 18 July 2020, 7pm
Eboracum Baroque
  • March from Rinaldo, HWV 7
  • 'O The Pleasure of the Plains' from Acis and Galatea, HWV 49
  • 'Sibilar gli annui d’Aletto' from Rinaldo, HWV 7 (with John Holland Avery, baritone)
  • Sonata in B Minor, Op.2 No.1: Andante and Allegro, HWV 386
  • 'V’adoro, pupille' from Giulio Cesare, HWV 17 (Charlotte Bowden. soprano)
  • Recorder Sonata in F Major, HWV 369
  • Zadok the Priest: Coronation Anthem for George II, HWV 258
Available on YouTube and Facebook

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