Preparing Psalm 23 for performance

Marlene Becker and Elizabeth Hanmore

Preparing Psalm 23 for performance - Marlene Becker and Elizabeth Hanmore As members of the Worthing Symphony Society, and also of the Worthing Philharmonic Choir, it was our thrill and privilege to sing in the recent performance of Havergal Brian’s Psalm 23 at the Assembly Hall, Worthing on 15th May [1988], under the highly competent baton of Jan Cervenka, with the professional Worthing Symphony Orchestra.

Our first sight of the work was whilst we were waiting for the music for our 1987 Christmas Concert to arrive — and as we had already received copies of the Psalm, Jan decided to run through it. As sight reading it proved to be a formidable challenge, especially when we reached page 23 — the start of the ‘For evers’; that evening we stopped on page 25! The following week, Jan took up where we had left off and we persevered to the end of the piece. The initial reaction from the choir was mixed, but most of us realised from the beginning that here was a composer with a real understanding of vocal ranges. From then on, every rehearsal was difficult but enjoyable.

Obviously, with a Christmas Carol Concert, a concert performance of Bizet’s Carmen in February and the Verdi Requiem in April, we had a few months when the Psalm was not rehearsed, but with Carmen completed, we continued work on it with vigour.

During rehearsals under Jan Cervenka we were accompanied by Donovan Brown, our assistant choir master, but on the Sunday morning rehearsal prior to the 3 o’clock concert we had our first experience of singing it with the full orchestra. As both of us sing second alto, the experience of being onstage amidst such tumultuous mound, coupled with our close proximity to the brass, timpani and percussion, led to feelings of overwhelming excitement. We did, however, have one small concern — where was our tenor soloist, David Maxwell Anderson? We had almost reached the solo section and he was not there! Suddenly, with eight bars to spare, due to traffic problems, he arrived to sing ‘Thou shalt prepare a table’, and proved himself one of the best tenor soloists that we had heard for a long time.

The concert itself provoked mixed emotions. On the one hand, we were longing to sing the work we had been rehearsing for weeks, but on the other we were not looking forward to ending our association with Psalm 23. With the Cockaigne Overture finished, it was up to us to do our very best — especially as we knew there were aficionados of HB’s work in the audience; no more panicking over the ‘For evers’, this was it! With Jan’s instructions to ‘think dynamics’ in our heads, we launched into Psalm 23 and 16 minutes later that was it! A wonderful work completed.

From Elizabeth’s point of view, an added bonus was meeting Havergal Brian’s daughter, Jean Furnivall, who until recently lived just around the corner from Eric and herself on Shoreham Beach, especially as it was Jean who first played the pioneering CBS recording of Psalm 23 to them.

On a personal note from Marlene, it was a pleasure to meet the faces behind the names of the HBS Committee, as well as some of the Opus Club members.

Finally, the Worthing Symphony Society would like to take this opportunity to say a very big thank-you for the generous sponsorship that was given by the Havergal Brian Society, which went a long way towards staging this most successful concert.