choral

Symphony Hall, Birmingham: Jonathan Harvey – Weltethos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, Jonathan Harvey‘s large-scale new work for choir and orchestra, Weltethos, was given its first UK performance. The opening event of Birmingham’s London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, when one considers the legacy and reputation of Harvey together with the combined forces of over 300 performers—the CBSO joined by their full choral complement of Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus, plus two conductors (Edward Gardner and Michael Seal) and a speaker in the form of renowned actor Samuel West—in a work of 80 minutes’ duration, it’s hardly surprising that the superlatives and hyperbole had started to fly before even a note had been sounded. Expectations could hardly have been greater, nor hopes higher. To my amazement, they were all emphatically quashed.

Weltethos certainly doesn’t fail in terms of scope or ambition, setting a lengthy text by theologian Hans Küng that seeks to draw on common values from six of the world’s great faiths and philosophies, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Speaking of these values, Küng says that “[they] need not be invented anew, but people need to be made aware of them again; they must be lived out and handed on.” Yet the problems with Weltethos begin right here. The six values—1) humanity, 2) the so-called ‘golden rule’, that we don’t do to others what we wouldn’t want done to us, 3) non-violence, 4) justice, 5) truth and 6) love—are all deeply significant and important aspects of our interactions one with another, but Küng frames them in such a pallid, dry way that they feel entirely theoretical, one step removed from anything approaching genuine emotion and feeling. Brief paragraphs from each religion’s sacred texts are used to allude to the six values, but in a flat, narrative fashion that seems entirely self-defeating; surely Küng was aiming at a kind of moral/ethical rally cry, but what he’s produced is as motivating as a party political broadcast. Read more

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Apologies; and forthcoming

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Apologies, one and all, for the lengthy hiatus here on 5:4. In a break with convention, i’ve been finishing off two or three new compositions and then—entirely in keeping with recent convention—fighting off a rather stubborn virus. Before service resumes properly, then, let me flag up a couple of performances of these new pieces that are happening next month, both at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

The first is nolite facere dicunt enim, a work for 12 voices written for the vocal group Icarus, based at the Conservatoire. The group, which changes membership each year, is the brainchild of Chi Hoe Mak, one of the most wonderfully effervescent conductors i’ve ever met. It’s not a piece i want to say anything about at this stage, but you can take a look at the full score below. The first performance will be taking place on Wednesday 6 June; the concert starts at 7.30pm and tickets (undoubtedly very cheap) will be available on the door. Do come along and be shocked, appalled, enriched and/or entertained by it if you can.

EDIT: Due to a variety of unfortunate circumstances, this performance has been postponed.

Second is a work for voice and five players called the octave of the grief of the clone that leapt to the remainder of night sky; that title is taken from the writings of one of my ongoing inspirations, Kenji Siratori, as is the sung text, which uses Siratori’s poem Foolish/Moon. It’s not possible to show a score for this piece, as there isn’t one; the five players—clarinet, bassoon, viola, double bass and guitar—are all independent of each other and of the vocalist, although a couple of the players interact and affect the ensemble in different ways. This piece was written for the soprano Ruth Hopkins, who will be performing the piece with members of the ensemble Thumb, also based at the Conservatoire. The concert is on Monday 11 June, starting at 8pm; there may be a performance in Camden later in the year, but more about that as and when. Again, if you’re in the area, do come along.

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Bernat Vivancos – El davallament de la creu (World Première)

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Having spent two days with Italian music, to mark Good Friday i’m turning to Spain, and the music of Bernat Vivancos. Vivancos was born in Barcelona in 1973 and studied composition at the Paris Conservatoire and in Oslo; having returned to Spain, for the last five years he has been musical director of the Montserrat Boys Choir. In Holy Week last year, at a live concert broadcast from the Montserrat Basilica, Vivancos’ new work El davallament de la creu (The Descent from the Cross) was premièred, and it’s not only an interesting addition to the vast repertoire of Good Friday music, but one of the most visceral examples that i know of.

Vivancos creates the work from two kinds of material, utterly different. One of the organs (two are used) is like a force of nature, solely occupied with vast, violent fortissimo plunges from extremely high to deep rumbling clusters; these deep clusters are frequently repeated, like immense blows to the chest. Not so much against this but alongside it, the choir, mysteriously unaffected, move in the opposite direction, making a gradual ascent from an initial low register. Read more

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Carlo Gesualdo – Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday

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i noted yesterday Sciarrino’s interest in Carlo Gesualdo, and so today, as Holy Week moves into the Triduum, here is a complete recording of Gesualdo’s setting of the Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday. Tenebrae is a remarkable service that’s rarely used today; it was created by combining the morning offices of Matins and Lauds, and then celebrating them in the late evening of the day before, so Tenebrae for Maundy Thursday would conventionally have taken place on Wednesday evening. It was a service with considerable ceremonial drama, with an elaborate candlestick—known as a ‘tenebrae hearse’—at its epicentre; throughout the service these candles would be gradually extinguished until only one remained (back in 2009 i posted a complete service of Tenebrae from Westminster Cathedral, which you can find here). Gesualdo’s music sets the nine responsories from the Matins part of Tenebrae (Lauds is primarily made up of psalms and antiphons). They fall into three ‘nocturns’, each containing three responsories; the first nocturn focuses on Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, the second switches attention to Judas, and the third widens the scope to show how pretty much everyone played their part in Jesus’ betrayal. Read more

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Salvatore Sciarrino – Responsorio delle Tenebre

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In recent times, one of the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino‘s significant interests has been the life and music of his compatriot Carlo Gesualdo. Sciarrino’s opera Luci mie traditrici, composed in 2003, explored the events surrounding Gesualdo’s murder of his wife and her lover, and two years earlier he wrote a small choral work in response to the composer’s much-lauded setting of the Tenebrae services.

However, Sciarrino’s Responsorio delle Tenebre does not, in fact, draw on the texts used in Tenebrae (or indeed Gesualdo’s music), but is a setting of Psalm 54. The text, uttered in the midst of “strangers” and “enemies”, is a rather desperate plea for vindication and rescue, and Sciarrino’s approach is simultaneously robust and vulnerable. Each of the seven verses is sung twice (in the order 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5-6-4-5-6-7-7), oscillating between a stark, bold delivery using plainchant and a quavering collection of overlapping wails and sobs, focused on and around a single note. Read more

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Thomas Adès – The Fayrfax Carol

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In many of the hymns and carols sung throughout the Christmas season, alongside the idyllic, intimate nocturnal depictions of stables and shepherds can be found pointed references to the bleak fate of the child lying in the manger. Sometimes, these are sung again during Passiontide, making for a particularly painful connection: “see the child” becomes “behold the man”. With that in mind, then, the next piece in my Lent series is Thomas Adès’ setting of the anonymous 15th century ‘Fayrfax Carol’. Adès wrote the piece in 1997, as that year’s commissioned work for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. From the perspective of Christmas music, you’d be hard pushed to find a piece of more anguished character.

The text describes a dream featuring the Holy Family. The recurring refrain, as spoken by Mary, is a touching lullaby to her son, but this is interspersed with some terse comments between Mary and Joseph. Mary’s feelings are ambivalent—“She sang lullay / And sore did wepe”—and she seems to find the context in which her son (no less than “a Kyng / That made all thyng”) has been brought into the world to be unfitting of his status. Yet the infant himself intercedes, imploring his mother to “Amend your chere”, explaining that not only is it his Father’s will, but that he is destined for very much worse, remarkably described as “Derision, / Gret passion / Infynytly, infynytely”. The child’s words end with clarification, that his dreadful end will achieve something utterly triumphant: “Man to restore”. Read more

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James MacMillan – St John Passion

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The next piece in my Lent series i’m including more as a curiosity than as a work i deeply admire. James MacMillan‘s St John Passion was composed in 2007 and premièred in April the following year. MacMillan structures the work in 10 movements, grouped into two parts; the first (movements I to IV) documents Christ’s arrest and trial, the second (movements V to X) his Crucifixion and death. Two movements break from the unfolding narrative; VIII is a setting of the Reproaches and the final movement is an instrumental epilogue.

Taken as a whole the work is, to be frank, downright weird — which is perhaps reason enough to find it at least interesting. Whatever else may be true of this piece, though, insincerity is not one of its faults; indeed, i’m not sure i’ve ever heard a composer try harder to produce something that compellingly lives up both to their own and others’ expectations, in addition to the not inconsiderable weight of tradition (and religious tradition at that). But in striving to create something utterly worthy, MacMillan ends up aggrandising every word of the text, resulting in an eccentric kind of melodrama, the protagonists of which too often become a clutch of musical ham actors (imagine Brendan Fraser attempting to convince in a film by Cecil B. DeMille). Everybody struts about, shouting and striking wildly exaggerated postures; the ‘baddies’ of the piece are obvious to the point of absurdity—Pilate could almost be twirling his moustache while sporting a maniacal grin. It’s exacerbated by MacMillan’s musical language, which on this occasion frequently sounds like a Walton/Turnage mashup with some John Stainer moments thrown in: “The Crucifixion of the Three Screaming Belshazzars” – or something like that. The attempts at grotesquery, liberally distributed throughout the work, are largely restricted to copious amounts of glissandi and wildly dissonant, ludicrously LOUD tutti eruptions, which can only be effective for so long, their returns diminishing rapidly; by the sixth movement (‘Christ’s garments divided’), the repeated downward glissandi in the choir seem irritating and awkwardly comic. Read more

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