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Review: Lichfield Festival comes to a fizzing end

The 40th Lichfield Festival fizzed to its conclusion with more magnificent concerts and - reviving a tradition after many years - a spectacular firework display.

Soulful singer and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson
Soulful singer and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson

The firework display was staged in Beacon Park, following a stimulating concert in the nearby cathedral by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, under the baton of Ryan Bancroft.

The festival’s celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams continued with the orchestra performing one of his finest shorter works, Fantasia On A Theme By Thomas Tallis. More popular English music followed: Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes From Peter Grimes, before concluding with Schumann’s majestic Symphony No 2, performed in tremendously dynamic style.

A substantial section of the audience applauded at the end of each movement in the Schumann symphony, against the convention of reserving appreciation until the end of the whole work. Classical purists may sneer, but I believe it proves that the festival is doing its job of introducing great classical music to a wider audience. I think that’s wonderful.

Earlier in the week there were plenty of musical fireworks from many artists, notably the soulful singer and cellist Ayanna Witter-Johnson, who appeared at the cathedral with her trio on Wednesday. She is a skilled performer and I would like to have heard more of her cello soloing in the concert, but her song Four Walls - inspired by the story of a prisoner on death row - was immensely powerful, using space and rhythmic drama quite brilliantly.

The previous evening, a concert by the National Youth Jazz Orchestra was greatly enhanced by the unscheduled presence of the brilliant drummer Sebastiaan de Krom as both musical director and drumming powerhouse. The band’s regular young drummer had fallen ill, and Sebastiaan stepped in at short notice. He is one of the finest and most experienced UK drummers, and boy did he make the music fly, with sizzling versions of classics including Duke Ellington’s Rockin’ In Rhythm and Charles Mingus’s Boogie Stop Shuffle.

More fine jazz came on Friday from pianist James Pearson and his band, featuring violinist and singer Lizzie Ball, though the bass-heavy amplified sound in the cathedral boomed horribly, wrecking rhythmic cohesion. However, Lizzie’s vocal on the ballad Miss Otis Regrets was a delight, as was Pearson’s splendid small group arrangement of the George Gershwin orchestral work Rhapsody In Blue.

Much more gentle music had been heard earlier in the week from the superb young duo Flutes And Frets at St Michael’s Church, with flautist Beth Stone and lutenist Daniel Murphy. Beth displayed extraordinary skill and lovely expression, using in turn baroque, Renaissance and more modern concert flutes, while Daniel blended beautifully on lutes, guitar, and the theorbo, the long-necked lute-like instrument with added bass strings. The plaintive Flow My Tears, by Elizabethan lutenist John Dowland, was sweetly captivating.

By John Watson

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