Baroque concert aims to lift the roof for historic Abbey

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13 February 2017 4:20PM

WHAT has Dad’s Army got to do with a Baroque music concert coming to Hexham Abbey?

Well, it’s a bit tenuous, but the musical maestro behind it happens to be a protege of Captain Mainwaring’s father-in-law.

The Abbey’s former director of music, John Green, who was born and brought up in Hexham, was taught to play the church organ by one Dr Reginald Cooper.

“Dr Cooper was quite interesting – his daughter was an actress and was married to Arthur Lowe,” John recalled.

“The organ then was an extremely decrepit, butchered-about instrument rebuilt in 1905 by the Norwich company Norman and Beard. It was replaced in 1974 by the Phelps we have today.”

It’s 60 years since John’s mother first packed him off to have piano lessons – an investment that has paid a lifetime of dividends through an illustrious musical career that has taken him all over the world.

Thanks to Dr Cooper’s early tutelage, he went on to read music at Nottingham University where he developed a passion for historical performance.

He was director of music at Dame Allan’s School in Newcastle and, between 1985 and 2000, also at the Abbey. He has also played with the Northern Sinfonia for more than three decades.

More recently John, who lives in Langley-on-Tyne, has travelled the world as an examiner for the Royal Schools of Music and remains committed to bringing on new talent.

This commitment, and his lifelong association with the Abbey, is what lay behind his decision to stage a special concert in aid of the Hexham Abbey Roof Appeal on Saturday, March 4.

It will be the precursor of the launch of a media appeal which aims to raise £1m to repair the ancient Abbey’s roof and safeguard the beautiful 7th century building for future generations.

Titled Phantasticus, the programme really is a fantastic journey through the Baroque genre and will be performed in the Great Hall, somewhere John has never had the opportunity of playing before.

“When I was director of music here the Great Hall was still the magistrates’ court.

“I could see it through the window on a winter’s afternoon, but that was about it.”

Now that the Great Hall has once again become part of the Abbey, John is delighted to be able to capitalise on its acoustics.

“I saw Magdalena (Loth-Hill, who will be playing violin in Phantasticus) in the young musicians’ platform at Hexham Abbey Festival last year and hearing her play so brilliantly, I was struck by the marvellous acoustic and ambience of the splendidly-restored hall.”

Magdalena is a British-Polish violinist who learned locally in Cumbria, and she will join John on the harpsichord and Sam Stadlen on the cello.

“Much of the music in this concert is by the Danish-German organist Dietrich Buxtehude, and I have only every touched on it once when I was visiting a German recorder-playing friend in Boston, Massachussets.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this venue is the best for this kind of music, not only in Hexham but in the whole of the North-East.

“The aesthetic of it suits the music so well. I am really looking forward to exploring with them some wonderful and rarely-performed music.”

The title Phantasticus derives from the early Baroque form of music called ‘stylus phantasticus’ which is improvisational and characterised by the use of short contrasting episodes and a free form, just like a classical fantasia, said John.

“I like the authenticity of Baroque, although it’s a bit of an illusion, as we’ll be in a centrally heated hall with electric lights,” John added.

“But I like the idea of using period instruments and twentieth century scholarship to revive music that would once have been heard in rooms such as this.”

l For more information about Phantasticus and the Hexham Abbey Roof Appeal, visit the Abbey website at hexham-abbey.org.uk

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