Artistic Director and Orlando Consort member Angus Smith, reflects on the Mantra concert in Sheffield

An Open Letter

Six years ago I started out on the process of devising a project for my group, the Orlando Consort, that was very different from anything that we had attempted before. This was not to be a standard presentation of a concert of medieval and renaissance music, even though it was from that glorious repertoire that the idea stemmed. It was more than that. This was to be the telling of a story of a remarkable musical encounter that took place some 500 years ago and relating it to the modern world.

Last week the project, ‘Mantra’, was presented at Sheffield Cathedral. In the concert we told (and sang) of how Portuguese missionaries went to India – specifically to Goa – and invited local musicians to make music with them in the newly-built churches. Accounts survive of the joyous sounds that were created by ‘the instruments of the land’ and the voices of all present. From that starting point we transported the music to the present, incorporating elements of Bhangra and Bollywood. For our Sheffield version we were joined by our regular partners, Kuljit Bhamra (tabla), Jonathan Mayer (sitar) and singer Shahid Khan, and by students from Fir Vale School, Tapton School, and an invited choir of local adult singers. It is no exaggeration to say even after having done more than 25 performances of this project all around the world, this was the most inspiring performance that I and my colleagues in the Consort have yet experienced.

Yes, it was an excellent and spirited rendition of the music by all involved, and it was wonderful to introduce people of all ages to our western and eastern musical traditions. But there were so many other moments within the Consort’s visit to Sheffield that, when combined, served to capture so perfectly all the elements of what we had aspired to achieve when we set out six years ago. They are too numerous to mention all of them here but I would like to share a few of them. The pupils of Fir Vale School being so tolerant of my attempt to speak Punjabi texts, the girl from Tapton School who stood up in the concert to dance on stage with Shahid, and the energy and exuberance of our adult volunteer choir – the usual image of formal and restrained British choirs seemed a million miles away at that moment!

But if there was a single episode that encapsulated ‘the whole’, it would be Shahid speaking to the pupils shortly before the concert, having been encouraged by Kuljit to tell them what the project means to him. Shahid is a Muslim who was brought up in Brentford, West London, and he has had a very formal and traditional classical training in Indian music. He spoke movingly of how he has come to value the opportunity to work with and learn from musicians from other traditions, and of how he has been able to observe at first-hand how musical respect carries over into all areas of life. Suffice to say that for these words and, of course, for his singing and dancing, Shahid is now something of a hero for these Fir Vale and Tapton students.

It has been wonderful to have had the support of our adult participants, Sheffield Cathedral, the schools (especially the staff) and, crucially, the parents in presenting this work. And I will also admit to feeling proud that I am part of two organisations, the Orlando Consort and Music in the Round, that share my views of the universality of music and which allow me present work that I feel is not only enjoyable for audiences but which is also hugely important for the message contained within. This is, therefore, my thank you letter to every single person who has made this possible.

Angus Smith

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