Saturday, 17 May 2014

Chamber Choir Ireland at Vale of Glamorgan Music Festival

Chamber Choir Ireland
Chamber Choir Ireland
Lang, Tavener, Martland, Williamson, Fennessy: Chamber Choir Ireland, Paul Hillier: Vale of Glamorgan Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 16 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Wide range of contemporary short pieces in this imaginative programme from Ireland's premiere chamber choir

The second of Paul Hillier and Chamber Choir Ireland's concerts at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival took place at lunchtime on 16 May, in the light and bright modernised gothic interior of All Saints Church, Penarth. The choir performed a programme of contemporary works by David Lang, John Tavener, Steve Martland, Michael Williamson and David Fennessy.

In a spoken introduction , Paul Hillier explained how he had planned the concert over a year ago, to include music by Steve Martland and John Tavener. In the intervening period both composers died, thus turning a tribute into a memorial.

The concert started with David Lang's when we were children (2013). American composer Lang is best known for his little match girl passion (which was commissioned for Paul Hillier's ensemble Theatre of Voices). For when we were children, Lang took the Biblical text When I was a child, I spake as a child, but formed his text from al the different English translations that he could find. These were sung to a repeating folk-influenced, chant-like figure against which Lang put progressively more complex musical material as accompaniement. The result was hypnotic in its repetition, with a lovely warmth and focus to the choral tone. This was the work's UK premiere.

John Tavener's The Lamb (1982) is more familiar, but Chamber Choir Ireland using 16 voices (four of each voice including two counter-tenors) brought a lovely caress to their phrasing and created a kind of magic.

Paul Hillier commissioned Steve Martland's Sea Songs (2011) for his ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen. Martland used two traditional songs, Dance to your Daddy and Fire Down Below. Dance to your Daddy used the simple melody almost unharmonised, but Martland allocated it in fragments across the choir like a hockett. In Chamber Choir Ireland's vigorous performance, the result was very effective and very exciting. It ran directly into Fire Down Below which explored a rhythmic stylisation of the song including a striking use of silence. Though Martland used repetition in both songs, they were anything but minimal.

The choir followed Sea Songs with Jenny Jones from Martland's Street Songs (1997), an earlier work written for the Kings Singers to which Sea Songs is very much a companion piece. Martland used fragments of the melody over a drone accompaniment, creating a slow texture that was rather hypnotic, but with a gradual built of tension with the choir showing great control.

Malcolm Williamson's The Musicians of Bremen (1972) was sung by six men from the choir (two counter-tenors, two tenors and two basses), it was another work which was premiered by the Kings Singers. It sets a tale by the Brothers Grimm, about a rooster, a cat, a dog, a donkey and two robbers. Each character was played by one of the singers, with Williamsons creating imaginative vocal accompaniements for the solo passages. It was a highly engaging mini-opera given a vivid,  if slightly dead-pan performance.

David Fennessy is a young (born 1976) Irish composer who studied with James MacMillan. His Letter to Michael (2014) was inspired by an early 20th centiury woman committed to an asylum with schizophrenia, who wrote obsessively to her husband, writing words over and over again thus creating striking dense visual images in her letters. Fennessy used dense harmony and rhythmic passages to evoke the look of the letters. There was no melody and little harmonic material, simply dense dark textures and a rhythmic fascination. At one point there was a real cry of anguish, then the textures thinned and evaporated. This was the work's UK premiere.

Finally, John Tavener's Song for Athene (1993) with a lovely hushed blend to the sound and a thrilling yet controlled climax.

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