Michael Apichella enjoys the sounds of The C Strings, an ensemble with a difference
While enjoying coffee and cake at The Apex with my mother-in-law recently, we were surprised to hear a lively jig being played above us on the first-floor mezzanine. Like a couple of kids responding to the Pied Piper, we gravitated toward the cheerful sound. To our delight, we found a musical trio called The C Strings playing everything from Bach to Van Morrison. Not a bad trick. The instrumentalists are Patrick Crooke, Wendy Gudgin and Jean Hudson.
A former military bandsman, Patrick is the only string player to have been awarded RAF Soloist of the Year following his service in the first Gulf War in 1992. A versatile musician, he plays baroque violin, viola and a rare instrument, the Violoncello Da Spalla, a shoulder-held cello difficult to master.
In the early part of the 17th century, there were two types of cello. One was the large instrument held between the knees that we’re familiar with today. The other was the Violoncello Da Spalla, held by a strap from the shoulder and thus an instrument that a violinist or violist would be well adapted to take up.
“The Da Spalla lost ground to its larger and louder relative and fell into disuse,” says Patrick. In recent years, Dmitry Badiarov, a brilliant musician living in the Hague, reintroduced this instrument after its near extinction. Today, Patrick’s the sole exponent of the Violoncello Da Spalla in the UK.
First Viola player Wendy Gudgin went to King Edward’s School in Bury St Edmunds. She made meteoric progress resulting in her winning a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music.
“My lifelong love of music and the fact I went on to study at the Academy was entirely the ‘fault’ of our inspirational music teacher at school,” she told me.
“At that time, the school had a vibrant music department, strongly encouraged by the headmaster David Pullen and enthusiastically led by Ian Cobb. We played all sorts of grand orchestral and choral music – far too difficult for us, but nevertheless very inspiring.”
Jean Hudson, second viola, is also a music graduate who has retired after a distinguished career in classroom music teaching. A highly gifted and prolific arranger, she’s responsible for arranging all the music The C Stings play, encompassing a wide range of music suitable for any occasion – classical, contemporary covers, jazz, folk.
“We aim for a varied repertoire that appeals to all ages and musical tastes. As classically-trained musicians, we are very versatile and can skilfully adapt most pieces of music to suit the special sound made by our unique combination of instruments.”
An example of their remarkable virtuosity occurs in concerts as Patrick switches between taking the bass line on his Da Spalla and the top line on a highly unusual five-string viola. “Having the fifth string enables me to encompass the range of both a violin and a viola,” he says.
The friends have performed together since last summer. Wendy and Jean play on beautiful antique violas. According to Patrick:“It’s indisputable that the tone of any stringed instrument benefits from a few months of being ‘played in’ by a good player.”
Beethoven believed music was more powerful than philosophy and as strong as medical science. He had point. Wendy’s 78-year-old mum suffers from dementia, and she notices the therapeutic effect music has on her mum’s outlook. “We know that the auditory system of the brain is the first to fully function at 16 weeks, which means that you are musically receptive long before anything else. So it’s a case of first in, last out when it comes to a dementia-type breakdown of memory.
“I think we respond to music on a much more primeval level than speech – it’s a language that all can communicate with.”
For these reasons many Bury-area care homes include musical programmes for elderly guests like Wendy’s mum. “So far I’ve been very impressed at the variety of activities North Court Care Home offer. I have boundless respect for folk that can work in these difficult environments and still remain so kind and positive.”
So are The C-Strings just three friends who enjoy playing gigs together or is it strictly business? Yes and yes says Patrick. “We get on very well and greatly enjoy working together. In terms of The C Strings as a business, we share the load, and are fortunate to have highly complementary skills. Jean is responsible for the excellent music arrangements, Wendy for client liaison, and I look after marketing and the website.”
They advertise to do parities, weddings, and other performances in concerts, weddings, celebrations and other events. The C Strings are embarking on their third season of concert performances across the region, building an enthusiastic following and returning to favourite venues such as the Church of St John’s in
Bury St Edmunds, St Mary’s Halesworth, St Andrew’s Norwich and St Mary’s in Diss. According to Patrick: “Thanks to Jean’s prolific and excellent arrangements our repertoire is constantly being added to at the rate of a couple of pieces a week, which often include clients’ special requests.”
The 2018 concert season is currently being finalised and up-to-date information is available at thecstrings.com
To see Patrick Crooke playing the violoncello da spalla log on to: youtu.be/ULqf18cGiac i. Prelude; youtu.be/PmRNZPi3erY ii. Allemande; and youtu.be/U9_B6VrCTPE iii. Courante.