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Vive la France

VIVE LA FRANCE CONCERT – SHREWSBURY ABBEY Saturday 1st September 2018

For a couple of hours on Saturday evening Shrewsbury Abbey was transformed into l’abbaye de Shrewsbury for a charity concert of exclusively French music, entitled VIVE LA FRANCE, promoted jointly by the Abbey and The Shrewsbury Drapers’ Company. The Tricolor and the Union Flag proudly flanked the orchestra whose players’ music stands also each sported a small tricolor flag, as choir and capacity audience raised the roof in ‘La Marseillaise’ to get the evening off to a festive start.

The Midland Festival Orchestra, under its conductor Ian Ward, well-known in Shropshire music circles but now a French resident, opened with the rarely heard Cinq-Mars overture of Charles Gounod. This was followed by a sensitive performance of the teenage Gabriel Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine sung with the orchestra by the choir of the Abbey Church. This choir, undoubtedly now singing to cathedral standards under its Director of Music, Peter Smith, then gave a memorable performance of Louis Vierne’s great Messe Solennelle, which they had recently sung to great acclaim on their recent tour of northern France. Originally scored to be accompanied by the two organs of Saint-Sulpice church in Paris, this version, for one organ, was skilfully played by Nigel Pursey, the Abbey’s organist.

Nigel was then again in the aural spotlight for evening’s highlight, the towering first organ concerto of  Alexandre Guilmant. This was a truly brilliant performance by both soloist and orchestra of a tremendous work, deserving to be heard more often. The evening ended light-heartedly with a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s Can-Can, with the audience invited to sing along to the well-known theme tune.

French sparkling wine served in the interval, together with the presence of The Master Draper and her husband, and of our Lord Lieutenant, of the Mayor and especially of M. Robert Mille, the French Honorary Consul from Birmingham and their wives helped to make this a truly gala charity occasion. The concert was very generously sponsored by Shropshire businesses and all proceeds will be divided between two restoration funds: for the Abbey organ, virtually untouched for over 60 years and now in a parlous state (the organ builder was in the audience in case of breakdowns during the performance!) and for the beautiful Victorian gothic revival Holy Cross Hospital almshouses in Abbey Foregate now run by the Drapers, whose residents attended this unforgettable ‘French’ celebration in their abbaye!

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