Friday, 14 June 2013

JAM - onwards and upwards

John Armitage Memorial
The last year has been something of a rollercoaster for JAM (John Armitage Memorial). The failure to secure a grant for their 2012 season in Scotland last year put the concerts in jeopardy, made a rather significant hole in the organisation's budgets and made it unlikely that the organisation will, in the short term, return to Scotland. But they have bounced back renewed this year with a season of concerts in London and in Wales, along with concerts and education projects in Kent, all aimed at promoting contemporary music as a living, vibrant part of life. I met up with Ed Armitage of JAM to talk about the charity's recent concerts and future plans.

Innovation seems to be one of JAM's keyword's this year. So that their education project, A Sporting Chance, which involves five schools in the Romney Marsh area will take an inventive approach to the problem of transport. Needing to get pupils from the various schools to Hythe for the event, JAM has involved the area's most distinctive transport system, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway which will be transporting both children and parents to the event. More than 500 school children will work with Onyx Brass on the concert, which involves a performance of Bob Chilcott's A Sporting Chance. But around 2000 children in total will experience the work, as the introductory sessions involve the whole school, including year one who are able to experience a taster, whetting their appetite for further involvement in future projects.

JAM has just unveiled its latest commission, Paul Mealor's The Farthest Shore which was premiered in St David's as part of the St. David's Festival and which will receive its English premiere on 2 July at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street as part of the City of London Festival. The concert in St. Bride's involves the BBC Singers and St David's Cathedral Choir, both of whom sang in the work's premiere, alongside Onyx Brass with soloists Claire Seaton and Giles Underwood, conducted by Nicholas Cleobury.

There is a childrens' chorus involved too, and here JAM has taken an open approach with half of the children from the St. David's performance coming to London, joined by children from London schools. Then when the work is performed in Hythe, Kent on 6 July, the London children will be joined by children from Hythe.

Mealor's work represents the culmination of his involvement with JAM, as well as a striking new step for the composer. Mealor first submitted music to JAM's annual call for music in 2002/3 and as a result was commissioned to write Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal in 2010, with discussions for the new work following on from this. In the meantime, Mealor's  Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal was transformed into the setting Ubi Caritas  which was sung at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Armitage is greatly enthusiastic about The Farthest Shore, calling it a classical music folk-tale. For him it represents a significant step for Mealor as a composer, very different to Mealor's smaller scale anthems for which he is best known.

The Farthest Shore is the first work in a programme which also includes Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb and James MacMillan's Cantos Sagrados. Armitage has always wanted to programme Cantos Sagrados but this is the first time he has been able to do so. A strong and powerful work, it is perhaps a little daring to finish the concert with it but in St David's Armitage found that the piece generated a very strong and very positive reaction.

In many way's, this typifies Armitage's ethos with JAM. He is concerned to promote contemporary music but he dislikes the sense that some groups talk down to the audience with middle of the road music. Armitage is concerned to support well written and strongly emotive contemporary music and has found that, if you can get the audience into the concert then they will react in the most surprising ways to challenging music.

Their summer season displays a canny mix of the familiar and the challenging. It involves eight concerts in seven venues in London and Kent, along with education projects. In addition to the Paul Mealor work (being performed in London and Hythe), Onyx Brass are giving a concert of their own in Rye, the Mousai Singers are performing in London and Lydd and there is a programme of music for strings, oboe and tenor at St Mary in the Marsh.

Onyx Brass have a long history of involvement with JAM, but this is the first time that they have given a concert in their own right. The programme is eclectic, ranging from Gabrieli through Handel and Bach to Gershwin.

Mousai Singers is a group of 12 young singers, all currently at University having previously gone through the cathedral choir system, conducted by Daniel Cook. They are performing in St Bride's Church, Fleet Street (11 July) and All Saints Church, Lydd (12 July) with a programme that combines Faure's Requiem with music by Kenneth Leighton, William Matthias and Arnold Bax along with Danny Saleeb's Magnificat. Saleeb submitted music to the most recent JAM call for pieces and is just one example of the way JAM takes up composers and supports them.

Daniel Cook, who takes up a post of sub-organist at Westminster Abbey in September 2012, is just one of a group of conductors and organists who have worked with JAM since they were young and who are now taking the JAM brand, with its ethos of supporting contemporary music, to a wider audience.

Armitage admits that the current season, with the concerts in Kent, is about building links with arts organisations like the Rye Festival. His ambition for 2014 is to combine with arts organisations in the area to put on a festival in the lovely churches in the Romney Marsh area.

The final event of this summer's concerts sees JAM working with students from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. The oboist Michal Rogalski will be giving a concert with tenor Adam Sullivan and the Heron Quartet, made up of students from the Guildhall School of Music in St Mary in the Marsh on 13 July 2013. The concert displays JAM's familiar mix of contemporary with classical, and also rings the changes with the instrumental forces involved in each piece in a very appealing way. So that that concert includes Mozart's Oboe Quartet, Beethoven's String Trio, Britten's Fantasy Quartet, Vaughan Williams Blake Songs for voice and oboe, Holst's Four Songs for voice and strings, and Judith Bingham's The Island of Patmos for solo oboe.

All these concerts reflect a singular concern to attract audiences to listen to contemporary music, mainly by mixing contemporary with more established pieces. The last year has been an eventful one for JAM, but Armitage remains firm in his belief in contemporary music and in its ability to move audiences. He is keen to inculcate strong reactions in his listeners, you feel that he views anything as better than indifferent.  Armitage and JAM, which was founded in memory of his father, are evangelical in their exposition of contemporary music and Armitage's enthusiasm is certainly contagious. Find out more about the JAM summer season at their website.
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