The most ambitious of this year’s Proms premières took place yesterday afternoon: Bob Chilcott‘s 45-minute ‘environmental cantata’ The Angry Planet. Teaming up with poet Charles Bennett, Chilcott’s work was performed by the vast combined forces of three children’s choirs (from the London boroughs of Harrow, Kensington, and Chelsea and Westminster) alongside the BBC Singers, the Bach Choir and the National Youth Choir, plus soprano Laurie Ashworth—no fewer than 540 singers in all. The work falls into four movements, each of which contains several anthems; overall, the words move from dusk to dawn, exploring themes associated with environmental damage.
Although not the most imaginative, Chilcott is undoubtedly one of the UK’s best living composers of choral music, and this was abundantly apparent in The Angry Planet. The second and third movements, in particular, featured some very telling music indeed; ‘Remember’, an exquisite anthem with mellifluous writing that parallels its watery text, was followed by ‘9pm’, in which lilting chords move back and forth while mentions of a wildcat are delivered with more aggression; its closing stanza, referencing “dark tears”, was one of the work’s strongest moments. Likewise, both ‘Midnight’ and ‘3am’ brought real vividness to their texts, the former using onomatopoeia in a subtle way, the latter drawing on the words from the Latin Requiem Mass to underpin their message. But not everything was so strong; semi-spoken passages felt dry, preaching without passion, while the anthems written for the children’s choirs didn’t gel sufficiently with their more serious neighbours; and there were several times when Chilcott’s relentless use of mostly homophonic choral writing caused the piece to feel coagulated and turgid, and in desperate need of some air.
Yet arguably the biggest problem with The Angry Planet is similar to that which confronted Jonathan Harvey in his recent work Weltethos – a text that is often too infantile for its own good, giving the piece the air of a parable told in Sunday School parlance. It presents a one-sided, at times trivialised engagement with the issues it’s concerned about – flowers=good, concrete=bad – which keeps even sympathetic listeners (of which i count myself) at a distance, unable to enter meaningfully into its argument. Ultimately, however, neither the words nor the music deliver a clear sense of progression or development; instead, it comes across like a scrapbook of sentiment(s), in which the final shift to a positive outlook, lacking obvious preparation, feels musically contrived and goes no way to demonstrate how things should be changed, instead asking only the blandest of obvious questions – “can we learn how to live with this world?” – and advancing nothing more than an off-the-peg pseudo-utopian vision of New Arcadia. It sounds like such a nice place to live, but The Angry Planet offers precisely no insights as to how we might get there.