An International Festival of Music has been held at West Malling annually since 2011. In the spring of 2015 we were asked if we would be willing to host three dinnertime concerts in our church. They would be 'cello recitals. Little did we know what a treat lay in store for us.
We agreed to this and we were told that the committee would be responsible for all arrangements including the seating on the actual days. A young cellist of international renown, Richard Harwood, would present the complete Bach Cello Suites, playing two suites each day, on Monday 21st, Tuesday 22nd and Wednesday, 23rd of September, at 1.00pm.
When the first day came the organisers decided that they would use the benches from the guest chapel and duly moved about eight of them to accommodate an audience of 50 or so. It became clear by 12.45pm that not enough seating had been provided so the rest of the benches were hastily moved into the church, but people kept on arriving so chairs were fetched from the community room and refectory and the church was full with the back seat of the sanctuary being used too.
Richard Harwood was brilliant. He entered so simply, took his seat and began to play Suite No.1 in G, playing the whole thing by memory, the glorious music filling the church. We sat spellbound, not a sound was heard. He then proceeded to play Suite No.2 in the same way. The applause he received was truly heartfelt and tremendous.
Afterwards he came and joined us in the church where we were standing and chatting. He showed us his beautiful cello made in 1682, on being asked he said he called it Francesca. He asked if we had ever had concerts in our church before and we told him that Madame Aimée Van de Wiele, after seeing our newly consecrated church in 1966, had been inspired to give us a concert of Harpsichord music. And that later Thomas Kemp with Chamber Domaine had played for us in 1990 and in the Millennium.
The second concert on the Tuesday, had a smaller audience but it was equally appreciative and enthusiastic and his magnificent performance of Suite No.3 in C and Suite No.4 in Eb received a long and appreciative applause - he had to return twice to receive it!
On the Wednesday, the last day, the church was packed to overflowing! Richard's playing of the Suite No. 5 in C and Suite No. 6 in D was superb and he fully deserved the standing ovation we gave him. He motioned us into silence and told us how much he had enjoyed playing in our church to such an appreciative audience, he realised that 1.00pm was not an easy time for a concert and he was aware that some had attended all three recitals. He ended by saying he thought Bach would have approved.
He told one sister, who went to congratulate him, that that day had been a real marathon! It had been the first performance of the 5th and the first of the 6th by memory! Up to that point he had used music, but he had thought it would be a comedown to resort to music for the last performance so he had worked to commit it to memory, he then remarked that when practising he had repeatedly made a mistake but - he didn't make a mistake in the performance!! He then asked if he could give her an envelope, she said she would fetch Mother Abbess so that he could give it to her in person. Needless to say Mother had disappeared from the face of the earth only to reappear from the guest chapel laden with chairs! but was duly fetched and Richard gave her the envelope, which later we found contained a card expressing his thanks and gratitude for playing in 'your wonderful church with its incredible acoustics!' this had given him an occasion which he would always remember.
Turning to Mother he asked if he could ask a question, and hastened to add that if he was asking wrongly he would quite understand, please would it be permissible to have a photograph taken with the sisters? Mother readily agreed and one of the guests took his camera and took two or three photos. He was interested in our community and asked quite a lot about our life. Reluctantly we said 'goodbye' with many lovely memories to cherish.
We were then given another treat when we were offered free tickets for the concert at the Barn Chapel on Friday. This was a performance by the Chamber Domaine of three works from 1914-1918 including the two sonatas of Debussy and Ravel's masterpiece, Le Tombeau de Couperin written in memory of friends who had died in the First World War.
The first was Debussy's Cello Sonata played by Adrian Bradbury with Sophia Rahman at the piano. Again we listened in utter stillness to another brilliant cello performance of quite a different kind. This was followed by Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin on the piano a no less brilliant performance by Sophia Rahman. The last piece, a Debussy Violin Sonata, beautifully played by Thomas Kemp.