International Women’s Day: BBC Singers

I am the World
Choral and Organ Music for International Women’s Day

BBC Singers, Grace Rossiter, Anna Lapwood
Live from Temple Church and on BBC Radio 3 and iPlayer. 8 March 2022

As part of a series of events to mark International Women’s Day, the BBC Singers, directed by Grace Rossiter, presented a live broadcast of music by leading 21st Century women composers from the Temple Church in London. It included four world premieres, one of which was commissioned by the BBC for the occasion. Alongside the vocal works were pieces played by the organist Anna Lapwood from her own new anthology of commissioned organ pieces by female composers, aimed at younger organists.

The opening Gregorian chant Alleluia: Vidimus Stellam, was followed by the Star Fantasy for organ by Kristina Arakelyan (b1994). The meditative opening led to a powerful crescendo of volume and texture. The first of the world premieres was June Nixon‘s five-verse 2021 Alleluias, a piece conjuring up a vast chorus of angels circling the earth. The tiny ppp after the powerful final organ chord was a nice touch. Nixon was born in 1942, and was apparently listening to the live broadcast from her home in Australia. In Hear my prayer (2021) by Kerensa Briggs (b1991), the single line of the psalm text was repeated as the texture intensified before dying away in a mood of hope, or perhaps resignation. The Trio on Attende Domine for organ (2022) by Sarah MacDonald (b1968) threaded the chant theme within the three voices, an organ texture that Bach made his own.

The BBC commissioned world premiere was I am the world by Australian-American composer Melissa Dunphy (b1980). The ten verses of the Irish poet Dora Sigerson Shorter’s poem were treated in a variety of ways in the four-part a capella piece. The powerful conclusion returned to the second verse, ending with the title phrase. The sprightly opening of Veni Creator by Cecilia McDowall (b1951), another of the pieces from Anna Lapwood’s anthology, built to a powerful climax. It was followed by Ave Virgo Sanctissima (2011) by Judith Bingham (b1952), based on text from an old Spanish Antiphon for the Nativity of St. John the Baptist.

The final two pieces were composed by organist-composer Ghislaine Reece-Trapp (b1992), co-chair of the Society of Women Organists. Her four-part unaccompanied Mass for the Mystery of Faith received its world premiere. It was influenced by Mass settings of Renaissance composers but was in a modern but user-friendly harmonic idiom within the constraints of formal Renaissance imitative style. This is one of the foundations of The Royal College of Organists examinations, but this was very far from an academic student exercise. Extracts of the score (and of June Nixon’s Alleluias) are available online here. The opening of the Gloria has the indication ‘Bright and dancelike’. It ended with a powerful unison Amen. If this was a real Renaissance vocal work, I would have criticised the excessive vibrato of some of the BBC singers. It was followed by Ghislaine Reece-Trapp’s gently evocative In Paradisum for organ, the shimmering strings of the Temple organ leading to more lively passagework in a range of textures, ending with a high held note and delightful upwards twiddle.

The whole concert is available for up to 30 days from the first broadcast on iPlayer here. The programme for the concert can be accessed here.