Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Paul Mealor premiere

Paul Mealor, The Farthest Shore
For their concert at this year's City of London Festival, JAM presented a fascinating trio of choral works at St Bride's Church, Fleet Street on 2 July 2012. JAM (the John Armitage Memorial) supports the development of new music and the concert included the English premiere Paul Mealor's new dramatic cantata, commissioned jointly by JAM, the St. David's Festival and the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union. Written for choir, children's choir, soloists, brass and organ, the work was performed by the BBC Singers, Cumnor House School Choristers, St David's Cathedral Choir, soprano Claire Seaton, bass Giles Underwood, Onyx Brass and organist Daniel Cook conducted by Nicholas Cleobury, substantially the same forces which premiered the work at the St. David's Festival. The other works in the programme were Benjamin Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb, his cantata setting texts by the 18th century poet Christopher Smart, and James MacMillan's Cantos Sagrados, his fusion of sacred and secular texts dealing with political repression in Latin America.


Paul Mealor is perhaps best known for his shorter works. Previously JAM had commissioned Mealor's madrigal cycle Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, the first movement of which was adapted as the sacred anthem Ubi Caritas which found fame at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Mealor's new work for JAM represents something of a new step. Setting a text by Ben Kaye, the substantial dramatic cantata tells a modern re-working of a traditional Anglesey folktale, the heeler. The story is simple, a mystical strange boy is washed up on the shores of Anglesey during a storm, he looks different and can't speak the language. The villagers take against him but the matriarch offers mercy and he is allowed to live amongst them. Some years later a similar storm brings an outbreak of plague, and the villagers take against the stranger again and mean to kill him. But the children struck down by the plague seem to have been healed by the stranger. He, however, has disappeared and is never seen again.

Kaye's text started and finished with an old man, one of the children who was healed and now grown old, still wandering in search of the stranger. Mealor set the opening for just the baritone soloist, Giles Underwood, with brass and off-stage choruses making sea noises. The adult chorus (BBC Singers) came on-stage at the end of this section. The whole piece made full use of the whole of St. Bride's Church as the organ is in a chamber at the rear of the church, so that the music seemed to be unfolding around us.

The second movement started with a very folk-like melody for the children's chorus which developed into profound violence in the middle section as the adults of the village want to cast the stranger back to hell. Mealor's writing was essentially tonal, but he developed some fascinatingly complex textures using his varied forces and though based on tunes, the work is neither obvious nor straightforward. The lively acoustic in St Bride's did rather defeat the baritone, Giles Underwood, whose narration at this point rather got covered by all the other musical activity.

Further violence erupted in the next movement as the villagers wish to cast the strange into the sea, because of the plague. Then in the fourth movement came the revelation (brought by a treble soloist), that the stranger has healed the children. The final movement paired the baritone narrator with his younger self, returning to the material of the opening and thus giving the work a strong, arched structure.

The whole piece is narrative driven, Mealor doesn't allow the big set pieces to run on unnecessarily, everything is structured according to the drama with great economy of means. Much of Mealor's writing, for chorus and for soloists, involved the use of recitation on a monotone (or around a monotone) which was then often surrounded by highly complex musical material from brass and organ. He was highly sympathetic to writing for the children's choir, keeping their accompaniments low and using drones from the adult choir quite a lot.

Much of the material was based on ostinatos, with a great deal of rhythmic interest and it was using these that Mealor whipped up the exciting violence in the middle movements. Mealor is known for his melodic talents (after all he has had discs in both the classical and the pop charts), and he used them to good effect here. I felt that the underlying melodic interest in the baritone's narration at the opening and closing was a little weak and, given that it was effectively unaccompanied, did not quite sustain the drama the way it should. But in the violent moments in the second and third movements Mealor built his structures from some very memorable motifs. Then in the fourth movement, the revelation of the stranger's healing ability, we had a big tune introduced first by the girl soprano soloist Abigail Ingram  (deputy head chorister of the St. David's Cathedral Choir). This was an unashamed big tune and Mealor used it generously as the basis for a powerful movement. The concluding movement returned to the material of the opening, with children's chorus off stage and adult chorus singing drones to accompany them (sounds far duller than it was), mixed in with the narrator paired now with his younger self (the girl soprano soloist), coming to a quietly evocative conclusion.

This is a work that manages to be both practical and popular and will, I think, have a long life. The work is exciting to listen to and, I suspect, to sing. Though the main choir was the BBC Singers, at the Edinburgh performance the choir will be the amateur Edinburgh Royal Choral Union and I imagine that they will have a lot of fun performing the work.

Claire Smeaton was the soprano soloist, bringing full rich tones to her musical material but somewhat underused. Giles Underwood was a confident and evocative baritone narrator, joined at the end by the lovely treble solo from Abigail Ingram. There were also two fine soloists from the BBC Singers, Rebecca Lodge and Edward Goater, with Goater playing the important role of the father of the young child..

All the choirs, BBC Singers, St. David's Choristers and Cumnor House School Choristers impressed, Onyx Brass were superb and Daniel Cook played the organ part with great aplomb. Nicholas Cleobury conducted, part traffic policemen, but also inspiring a fine performance.

After the interval we had Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb and James MacMillan's Cantos Sagrados,sung by the BBC Singers accompanied by Daniel Cook, conducted by Nicholas Cleobury.

The Britten received a finely crafted performance, in which the words were given full weight, you hardly needed to refer to the programme. The BBC Singers displayed wonderful dexterity in the second movement, and great menace and power in the seventh. The soloists all came from the choir and each brought great character to their solo. The glorious ninth movement, For the instruments are by their rhimes, was well done with great words combined with musical power and accuracy. But I found that there was something missing, the performance lacked a certain joie-de-vivre, that certain edge of joy which the work needs.

The evening concluded with a truly terrifying performance of James MacMillan's visceral Cantos Sagrados. If the BBC Singers had not seemed to quite engage with the Britten in the way that, perhaps, an amateur group would, they more than made up for it in their terrific performance of the MacMillan. In the three movements, MacMillan mixes settings of poems by Ariel Dorfman and Ana Maria Mendoza mixed with extracts of texts from the Latin mass. MacMillan wrote the work in the 1980's and it is inspired by the Latin American liberation theology, here combining the eternal of the Latin mass with the poems by Dorman and Mendoza about political repression and the disappeared. It has the potential to be a devastating work and was so her, with the BBC Singers combining power and accuracy, and hammering home the texts. The organ accompaniment was superbly handled by Daniel Cook.

The MacMillan was a rather daring way to conclude the programme, but the result was highly satisfying and demonstrated JAM's faith in the power of contemporary choral music to speak to an audience in a variety of different ways.
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