Monday, 17 January 2011

Crouch End Festival Chorus at the Barbican

Crouch End Festival Chorus are celebrating their 25th anniversary this year. Their first concert in an exciting year saw them performing at the Barbican Centre on Saturday 15th January. Under their founder conductor David Temple and accompanied by the London Orchestra da Camera, they performed and exciting and challenging programme consisting of John Adams's Harmonium and Roberto Gerhard's The Plague.

Harmonium was one of Adams's first major works for chorus and orchestra and, with Shaker Loops, is an important work in Adams's minimalist period. Though Adams has always had his own firm view of his musical development and Harmonium is a distinctively personal take on minimalism. The title comes from a collection of poetry by Wallace Stevens, though in fact Adams did not set any of the poetry, choosing instead poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. And here we must come to one of my problems with this work, why worry about exactly what poems you are going to set if you set them in a such a way as to render the text inaudible. Despite the choir's brave efforts, only the text of the middle movement was audible.

Adams musical background in California was in electronic music and much of his music for orchestra and choir is influence by this, in fact much of his symphonic output is expected to be performed modulated by an electronic sound control. So, the orchestra really needs to be able to play the music with precision, turning on a pin. Though the London Orchestra da Camera were capable, they failed to give the important orchestra part the crisp definition it need.

The chorus, though they worked hard with a will, were fighting the rather unfortunate Barbican acoustic, which is less than ideal for large scale choral pieces. So that much of the choir's hard work and enthusiasm seemed to go for nothing as detail was obscured, or never made it over the orchestra. This was especially true of the final movement, a setting of Dickinson's poem Wild Nights, where the energy of the chorus did not completely cross the foot-lights.

After the interval, things could not have been more different. Gerhard's The Plague is not strictly a choral work. Commissioned by the BBC in 1964, it is written for chorus, orchestra and narrator. Gerhard set an English text taken from Albert Camus's La Peste, the story of the African town of Oran suffering from the bubonic plague in the 1940's; a story which can be taken literally or read as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France. Gerhard uses the chorus to represent the people of Oran, with a chorus part which moves from spoken effects, to fully sung lines.

The work is a melodrama, with the spoken part being the character of the doctor who is involved in treating the plague. Paul McGann, dress in period costume and sat at a table with period doctor's bag, performed the narration with in a laid back, dead pan manner which suited the understated nature of the part.

But the main protagonist in the work is really the orchestra, which underpins the narrations and provides interludes which illustrate and point up the text. Gerhard's music is uncompromisingly 2nd Viennese school in tone, which exactly matches to taxing nature of Camus's narrative. Here the orchestra were on fine form in Gerhard's taxing music and the chorus provided vividly atmospheric interjections with some profoundly poignant singing.

The Plague is not an easy work, not only for the difficulty of Gerhard's writing. But also because of the harrowing nature of the spoken text, particularly in the long scene where Camus describes the death of the young boy; a scene which was handled in a nicely understated manner by McGann.

The result was a powerful and moving performance which did full justice to Gerhard's unusual and difficult work.

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