The Cutty Sark has always captured the public imagination and one can see why. For one, it is the world’s only surviving extreme clipper. It still is an impressive sight at its dry dock in Greenwich, with its three raking masts, intricate rigging, and elegant, stream-lined hull, which, in its time, cut through the waves at speed.
The 152-year-old Clipper has survived rough seas, extensive voyages, fires, its owners’ bankruptcies. A miracle really that it has made it thus far. In 2016, when the old Tea Clipper got damaged by fire, donations flooded in from all over the world.
No surprise therefore that Oliver Zeffman, conductor, and creator of Music x Museums, a concert series which has played out in London’s best-loved museums, decided to use this hugely popular historic ship as a venue for his four-part musical project.
The music for the evening fittingly had a maritime theme. Elgar, Vaughan Williams, and Welsh woman composer, Grace Williams were on the programme, in which Zefferman conducted the Philharmonia orchestra and mezzo soprano, Dame Sarah Connolly
On the evening of the performance we descended the stairs leading into the bowels of the museum. There we were presented with an astonishing view of Cutty Sark’s golden hull running all along the glass-filled exhibition space. The hull is in fact produced of copper and zinc. It is a confusing experience for some, as you have to remind yourself that you are not in the Cutty Sark itself but in the glass construct which supports it!
Grace Williams was an interesting choice to open the proceedings as not only was she a woman composer (they were thin on the ground in the 1940s), but she has studied composition under Vaughan Williams. She composed Sea Sketches in 1944, in London, when she was at a low ebb. The five-movement work she conceived in a period of great adversity, is nothing short of stunning. Performed by the Philharmonia strings, it was a revelation.
It is an intensely romantic work with luxuriant melodies. High Wind opens with a flurry of middle strings. Tremendous descents of cellos and reprise of flurries in the upper strings, together with an urgent tremolo in the lower strings, mimic a terrific storm. Sailing Song was intriguing and mysterious with the melody played by the upper strings and the ensemble replying with dissonance, suggesting not only the navigation of stormy waters, but the composer’s own internal turmoil. The vigorous and speedy tempo in Breakers calmed eventually to produce an exquisite passage of interwoven melodies expressed across different corners of the orchestra. Calm Sea was, as you would expect, luminous, awe-inspiring, almost a transcendental listening experience.
Dame Sarah Connolly regally took up position in her sequined dress to perform five songs by Elgar. I loved her thoughtful, delicate rendering of Sea-Slumber Song and her powerful mezzo with full Philharmonia orchestral moments in Sabbath Morning at Sea. To get a sense of the beauty of her performance, here is another recording of Elgar’s, Sea Pictures with her singing https://bit.ly/3uGHbqM.
Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia, inspired by Thomas Tallis’s 16th century devotional music, was a performance which will remain engraved in my memory. Right from the suspenseful opening with the sustained high strings and medieval-sounding liturgical phrases, I was magically transported to a distant time, not as far back as the renaissance where the music is rooted, but to an industrial, sea-faring era, when the marvellous ship above our heads, had skimmed the waves. The music has a mystic core, but with Williams’ romantic layering and lush, romantic gestures, the result is mind-blowing. Zeffman skilfully reined in his strings, creating tension and excitement, up until the finale, when he raised his arms and let them loose. The violins swelled in volume on my side of the room, ricocheted off the hull above our heads and filled the space with their high cries to thrilling effect.
N.B. The Cutty Sark concert will be released as an audio visual album and film later this year. The full-length film will be available to stream on Apple Music and the audio albums streaming on all music platforms.
A similar concert with Oliver Zeffman filmed at Victoria and Albert Musuem in 2021, ‘Live at the V&A’ – where Zeffman conducted Academy of St Martin in the Fields with violinist Viktoria Mullova – is already available on Apple Music with music by Bach, Mozart, Honeggar and Arvo Pärt.
The Music x Museums – previous concerts took place at the British Library, Victoria and Albert and Science Museum in April/May 2022