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Shrewsbury Abbey

Hayley Westenra in Concert at the Abbey


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Having written well over forty reviews about Hayley, is there anything left to say?  Well yes, there is because the event in Shrewsbury last night was possibly the best ever, and for a very unusual and unexpected reason.

Simon and his wife Shirley, Dave, Peter and I approached the Abbey well before the concert was due to begin but, already, a lengthy queue was forming.  As was the case throughout most of the current tour, tickets only permitted entry but seats were unallocated, hence the need to queue early in the hope of getting a good one or, in our case, five!

Although we were fortunate enough to be on the guestlist, I feared that by the time our names had been checked, most of the best seats would have been taken.  Unbeknown to us, that seemingly inevitable situation was never going to happen….

“Hi Roger, I’ve been looking for you”, came Steve’s ever-friendly voice!  He then explained that the front two rows had been reserved for us.  That seemed more than generous, we being only five in number!

We had met Claire, one of the security team, at previous concerts during the tour.  Within minutes, she checked our names against the list and led us to the side door, much to the possible consternation of the assembling masses only I didn’t dare look!

Once inside, we made our way to the front seats and spent the next two hours sitting on the “Reserved” signs that had been left there.

Hayley’s backing musicians for the evening were the Helen Fitzgerald Trio, comprising Al (piano), Fiona (violin) and Helen (cello).  In case you were wondering, no, it was not Fiona Pears who by now has returned to New Zealand.

As is so often the case, Hayley opened the concert with ‘Pokarekare Ana’ and, within seconds, it was evident that the sound system and the acoustics of the Abbey were absolutely perfect for the occasion.  Together with Hayley’s magnificent performance throughout, this made it the most wonderful musical experience of all the occasions that I have seen her.

Cacchini’s ‘Ave Maria’ sounded beautiful in the Abbey.  Incidentally, the building is over nine hundred years old and was originally a Benedictine monastery.  During its history, it has also been used as a hospital and a prison!  There were no prisoners last night.  Many of us would have volunteered to endure a lengthy sentence just as long as Hayley was providing the entertainment!

The programme then changed from the one that Hayley had given during the tour so far, mainly because this was a return visit to Shrewsbury within a month.  The second concert had been arranged because the first had sold out so quickly.  And so, for the first time ever, we heard ‘The Mists of Islay’ performed live.  Absolutely lovely.

Hayley left the stage and Helen laid down her cello, replacing it with a descant recorder on which she played the central movement from Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’, perhaps better known to many Hayley fans as ‘River of Dreams’.  Such a small instrument; such a magnificent building; such a glorious sound.  This was accompanied by Al on the piano.

Fiona then played a very familiar work, the title of which I regret I cannot recall.  Sorry!

Hayley returned and concluded the first half as she had concluded all concerts in the tour so far – ‘Bridal Ballad’, ‘May It Be’ and ‘Amazing Grace’.  They all sounded wonderful but the last song especially so.  As soon as it was over, I commented to Dave that there seemed to be just a little more echo than usual and it sounded better for it.  Unbeknown to me at the time, Dave checked with the sound engineer during the interval and he confirmed that he had indeed turned up the ‘decay’ very slightly, so I was almost right!

If anyone present can remind me of the events of the interval, I would be grateful.  Such was the height of my emotions that I don’t remember a minute of it!

The second half was begun with another recorder and piano instrumental from Helen and Al.  This was the delightfully lyrical Faure’s ‘Pavane’.  Again accompanied by the piano, Fiona then gave a rendition of the ever-impressive Monti’s Czardas.  WOW!

Throughout the first half, Hayley had been wearing a three-quarter length crimson dress which, under the lights, looked like velvet.  When she appeared for the second half, she wore a full-length sparkling emerald green gown with a silvery lace open-fronted top.  Well, how am I supposed to know what it’s called?!  She stood there looking lovely and we awaited the next song.  It didn’t happen immediately.  Instead, referring to her costume, Hayley said, “I’m going for the ‘Best Christmas Tree’ award!”  This was highly appropriate as you will see when the photographs appear and the Abbey was suddenly filled with laughter.

The next five songs, all performed superbly, were ‘Prayer’, ‘Never Saw Blue’, ‘In Trutina’, Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ and ‘Hine e Hine’ which just gets better and better every time I hear it.

Hayley and her three musicians left the stage.  Then they came back again.  Somehow, we thought they might!

Hayley said, “I have not sung this song for quite some time”.  How intriguing!  What would it be?  One or two possibilities raced through my mind but I would have needed several more guesses before I came up with ‘Gabriel’s Message’.  This song appears on her second album entitled ‘My Gift To You’.  I certainly never expected to hear that one live.  I am so thankful that I did for Hayley’s a cappella rendition was quite exquisite.

The concert reached its conclusion with, very significantly in view of the venue and the season, ‘Silent Night’.  This happens to be the very first song I ever heard Hayley sing live.  That was just over two years ago.  How I wish I could live those two years again for, filled with Hayley’s gorgeous music, they have been absolutely magical.

The concert may have been over but the evening, most certainly, was not.

Yet again, Hayley gave a signing session and the queue before she appeared ran two or three deep along the entire length of the abbey.  While we waited, we all had a great time talking to our special friends Jill and Steve.  Eventually our turn came….

Suddenly, Simon started wielding his camcorder about and asked Hayley if she would care to say a few words to everybody here at HWI.  Hayley, bless her beautiful heart, did rather more than that.  A lot more!  Hopefully, the video will be available on the main site soon.  Te-he, you wait till you see it – you might get rather more than you bargained for! LOL

Almost before I knew what was happening, Hayley was singing ‘Silent Night’ accompanied by Jill, Steve, Shirley, Dave and me!!  I was especially delighted that Jill and Steve joined in.  Somehow, we got through it and Hayley then gave a lovely Christmas message to everyone at HWI together with a special message for Keith.

During the two years that I have known Hayley, there have been many highlights but, for me, to be able to say I have sung with her has to be among the best.

Once again, my enormous thanks go to everyone who made this truly beautiful evening possible.

And so the five of us stood in the cold night air outside the Abbey which is where we bid Peter farewell.  Dave and I then said goodnight to Shirley and Simon.  Then, during those few steps to Dave’s car, the realisation of what had just been captured on video suddenly hit me and my emotions were sky high.  The whole thing was surreal, almost crazy, yet very beautiful – a memory I shall treasure for the rest of my life.  So thanks for the lift home, Dave but more than that, thanks for not noticing that I was in tears when I got in the car.

Roger Mansbridge



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