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MyShrewsReviews: A Shropshire Lass
18 Oct 2022

Shropshire-born writer Mary Webb provided the inspiration for “A Shropshire Lass” an evening of song and verse from The Marches Songbook featuring soprano Holly Teague (pictured) and tenor William Smith - reviewed here by Andrew Petch

Shropshire-born Mary Webb, famous for her poetry ad prose, provided the inspiration for A Shropshire Lass at Shrewsbury School's Maidment Building at the weekend.

This was an evening of song and verse by Webb herself or inspired by her, presented by The Marches Songbook - an assembly of poets, composers, singers, two pianists, a violinist and a guitarist who, between them, have a formidable range of experience. 

To pull the evening together and provide context ,The Mary Webb Society had provided an attractive exhibition about their heroine and her work.      

Poet Jean Atkin opened the programme. Jean has a beautiful speaking voice and her respect and love for Mary Webb’s work was clear from the beginning; her own verse captured the wild intensity of Mary’s writing. 'The crossing keeper of Eardington' was delicate, sensitive and looked back to the Shropshire so loved by Mary Webb. 'Here be elephants', on the other hand, was hilarious - but also recaptured a Shropshire moment when the circus came to town!

Tenor William Smith, accompanied by pianist Simon Bate, provided the first music, entitled 'Sky' - a poem  by Andrew Rudd, set to music by Paul Henley. This was an excellent choice for an opener for the text captured perfectly the eerie feeling of Mary Webb’s  writing. The collaboration of Mr. Smith’s controlled, expressive singing and Mr. Bate’s sensitive piano playing set the standard for an evening of superb music making.

Patrick Larley is a multi instrumentalist and composer. His sonata for violin and piano is a finely crafted work whose three movements were played separately throughout the evening. Violinist Marianne Haynes, with Patrick Larley at the piano, gave a sublime performance of a work which was so appropriate for the programme.

The central, lengthy work was 'Shropshire Lass', Martin Hussey’s compositions for nine poems by Mary Webb sung by soprano Holly Teague (pictured above) who received superb accompaniment from Michael Matthews on guitar (below).

soprano Holly Teague and Michael on guitar

The poems are exquisite, often melancholy, always atmospheric, always highly original in their choice of vocabulary. 'August 1914' is a welcome alternative to the poetry of the first world war whereas 'Swallows' swoops and turns before the line, “We sing our song in beauty’s fading tree".

Such glorious words and Holly’s beautiful soprano, with a little semi-staging, gave wonderful expression to them. At times, having music written for the upper reaches of the soprano voice gave her a real challenge, but the overall effect was absolutely mesmerising.

This was an evening of sheer delight, given by a group of hugely talented and enthusiastic performers supported by equally talented composers. Hopefully we will hear more from the Marches Songbook in our Border County.

The evening was promoted by The Shropshire Music Trust and supported by the Mary Webb Society. There will be two further performances of A Shropshire Lass in St Oswald’s Church, Malpas on October 22 and in St Mary’s Church, Nantwich on November 19 - see www.themarchessongbook.co.uk

To find out more about The Shropshire Music Trust current season - and the upcoming concert by The European Union Chamber Orchestra (EUCO) this weekend, at the United Reformed Church, English Bridge, Shrewsbury (Saturday, October 22, 7.30pm) visit www.shropshiremusictrust.co.uk

The EUCO – directed by Darragh Morgan – make a welcome return to Shropshire with a programme that will also celebrate Vaughan Williams in this, the 150th anniversary of his birth.