Sunday, 18 March 2018

Peterborough’s Neeeeeen

Yesterday found me braving the snow and heading up to Peterborough for the final performance of Nene. It was a magical and very special day.

The journey up was far less complicated than I’d imagined. There was a good covering of snow on the car when I started my journey. It’s that rather strange icy snow which has been falling lately: the sort of powdery snow which gets everywhere, yet doesn’t seem to make anything particularly wet. It simply brushes off surfaces. I used an Enya CD to scrape it off all the windows and then went on my merry way, listening to Em on the car stereo. It sounded good. I felt excited.

By the time I’d reached Peterborough there was no sign of this second Beast from the East. In fact it was sunny. Freezing cold, but sunny. 

The parents had booked us all into a hotel in the centre of the city, and we had a light lunch in the bar before heading out for a stroll. Peterborough, it turns out, is a rather lovely place. My only real experience of it in the past was waiting for trains at the rather uninspiring station and going there for shopping-cum-skating fun as a teenager. For some reason it was my form at school’s preferred away day, and we never ventured further than the soulless shopping complex.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find that the city has a medieval square, quite a lot of which is intact. And the cathedral is something else! It’s quite low-level and French-looking. There’s no massive spire or tower, but it’s profoundly beautiful. The ceilings are exquisite, carved from stone and wood. I don’t really know why it’s not better known. I don’t think there are many people in this country who would think to list Peterborough Cathedral alongside York, Canterbury and Lincoln. I’m not even sure that most people know that Peterborough even HAS a cathedral. 

It’s actually the burial site of Catherine of Aragon. My Mum had popped in the previous day and stumbled upon a woman at her tomb, weeping and wailing. It’s astounding how figures from the past can generate such hysteria.

The cathedral also once housed the body of Mary Queen of Scots, which felt rather appropriate as one of the sequences in Nene is a setting of a poem that Mary wrote in Fotheringhey, shortly before her execution.

I met some of the young people who were going to be singing. The music school has been hugely careful about sharing out which school does which concert, and this performance favoured schools from the north of the county, Rutland and Cambridgeshire, but I was a little sad not to have my posse from Higham Ferrers junior school there. They sent me a card after the Albert Hall production with a picture of them all. It sits proudly on my mantle piece.

Nemo, the bath-tub water sculpture, which has become something of a talisman for the piece, wasn’t actually being featured in this performance, but had come to the cathedral to keep us company. It was lovely to see him again.

Brother Edward and Sascha arrived and we had a little walk around the city. Edward bought himself a “healthy” smoothie with grains and soya milk and all sorts of horrors inside. It tasted like the mushy relic of a Weetabix bowl and sawdust, and it had the aftertaste of raisins. Literally ghastly. It also caused an unpleasant row in our hotel bar when we were asked to lose the drink or leave. Charming for residents, we thought...

The concert itself has imbedded itself in my mind as a series of little snap shot.

There was a queue when we arrived which snaked out of the cathedral all the way into the market square. I didn’t feel grand enough to skip it, so, because it was cold, I walked up and down to see who was there. Little Michelle and Ben, Debbie, Tash, two of the Angelas I went to school with... it was a joy to see them all. 

Seating was unreserved, so there was a bun fight going on. I was more than a little relieved that four seats at the front had been set aside for me. Enough for my guests Debbie, her husband Chris, and my Mum. Sitting on the front row is always a bit of a double-edged sword. You feel rather on display!

The first half included a contemporary dance piece performed by a group from Peterborough, which I found noble and impressive, yet a little bewildering. I wasn’t sure what expression to wear on my face. 

The County Youth Choir, on the other hand, were extraordinary. Debbie, Brother Edward and I were all founding members of the group in 1990, and all three of us oscillated between being hugely moved and highly proud. They performed Sleep by Eric Whittaker with almost breathtaking precision. Sitting in the front row, was a surround-sound experience. It was like we were wearing the choir as a warm cloak!

There was a disconcerting, giant bronze Jesus on a cross hanging above our heads. The cross was red, which meant the holes in Jesus’ eyes were glowing like some sort of devil. I kept looking up and wondering if anyone else had noticed this particular fact, or whether the sculptor had meant it to be like that!

I was a little disappointed to see so few lads in the performances. None of the dancers were boys, girls far outweighed boys in the massed choir, and even the percussion ensemble had more girls than boys. This, in an era where much is being made of the need to have more women in music.

There was a tremendous moment at the start of the concert when Peter Smalley, who was presenting, told the children in the mass choir that they could wave at their families in the audience. I turned around to look down the nave of the cathedral at the audience - all seven hundred of them - to witness a sea of waving hands. I don’t know why I found the sight so moving. Perhaps because it meant that I’d brought families together through my music and given them memories to cherish.

I was interviewed before the performance of Nene. I don’t actually remember what I said. I had wanted to suggest that Peterborough be re-annexed by Northamptonshire. It was, after all, part of the county until 1974. I’m not sure that would have gone down any better than my insistence that Nene be pronounced Nen, the Northampton way, rather than Neen, the Peterborough way!

The performance itself was really wonderful. I think the orchestra played it better than ever before, and, of course, that booming cathedral acoustic was generous. Some sequences really landed. Mary Queen of Scots’ poem reverberated around the space like something sent from heaven. The sequence about the ghostly hunt was also suitably chilling. It actually describes a haunting in the cathedral itself and I told the choir before that if they sang it really loudly, we might encourage the ghosts to come back! 

It’s a curious space which doesn’t exactly lend itself to performance. The choir and orchestra were a good thirty meters away from the front row of the audience, and we could only just see the conductor and a few bows moving about. There were screens in the space which showed us close-ups of the action, but, it wasn’t quite the visceral experience of Derngate or the Albert Hall. It was more wistful. Distant. Which sort of worked. I hope the audience towards the back of the space were able to hear enough of what was going on.

After the piece finished, I was engulfed by lovely people wanting to shake my hand and have their programmes signed. People were incredibly kind about the piece. Most used words like inspiring, filmic, epic...

It was probably the performers themselves coming up to me afterwards which was most gratifying. Many wanted to tell me the chord progressions they’d loved most. One lad said there was a passage which always made him smile no matter what sort of mood he was in. And many thanked me for including the sequence with a lad singing about his love for another lad. I think the section genuinely spoke to many of them and, for that alone, I felt hugely proud. One had a six coloured rainbow on the back of his phone which he told me his parents didn’t approve of. I felt sad.

The evening ended back at the hotel with Tash, Debbie, Chris, Anthony and the family. A wonderful night.

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