Wednesday 16 October 2013

Stunning versatility - the BBC Singers at Milton Court

David Hill conducts the BBC Singers and Endymion in Steve Reich’s The Desert Music at Milton Court Concert Hall - Copyright: BBC/ Sarah Jeynes
David Hill conducts the BBC Singers and Endymion
in Steve Reich’s The Desert Music at Milton Court Concert Hall
Copyright: BBC/ Sarah Jeynes
The BBC Singers opened their 2013/14 season with a concert in the new concert hall at the Guildhall School of Music's Milton Court. David Hill conducted the choir in a programme of 20th century American works. They were joined by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston for Copland's In The Beginning, then the choir sang Eric Whitacre's Three Songs of Faith, Water Night and Sleep, finally the choir was joined by the instrumental ensemble Endymion for Steve Reich's The Desert Music.

The hall is a classic shoebox style venue, clad mainly in warm wood but with some striking 1950's style plasterwork decoration on the side walls. In fact, there is something rather 1950's about the whole of the styling of the hall. The ceiling of the hall is strikingly high and there are wooden reflectors suspended from it, adjustable to provide for differences in acoustic. The main body of the hall is not very steeply raked and I was sure about sight lines.

For the first half of the concert the BBC Singers performed half hidden behind a forest of microphones and empty music stands, set out for the instrumental ensemble for the second half of the performance. This was understandable, the stage setup for The Desert Music was too complex to be achieved in the 20 minute interval, but it left us rather distant from the choir and it is a testament to their and David Hill's achievement that the music came over as well as it did.

Aaron Copland (1900 - 1990) wrote In The Beginning in 1947, setting the opening of the Book of Genesis. Copland was initially thinking of setting the text in Hebrew but rather fell in love with the King James version and it is this that he set, completely uncut. The result is a highly narrative piece, with Copland's distinctive finger-print in the cast of the vocal lines and the open intervals of the harmonies. Johnston made a highly affecting narrator, singing with firm bright tone and clear words, involving us from the very opening words. The part has its tricky moments, especially with Copland's extensive use of modulation, but Johnston made it all sound natural and, where needed, rose effortlessly above the choir.

The choir gets to sing the more descriptive passages and the BBC Singers gave us some lovely moments such as the undulating movement in the dividing of the waters, the infectious rhythms when God makes the light and perhaps my favourite moment in the piece 'God created great whales'. The singers brought a sense of line and clarity to the piece which is important for Copland's writing, but they also exhibited remarkable control and power with some stunning climaxes. The more modernist aspect to Copland's music was brought out in the rather spiky chorus when God creates man in his own image. This was a performance which was, at times, very loud.

Throughout, both Johnston and the choir gave full weight to the words, you certainly did not need to look at the programme. In The Beginning is not strictly a religious work. Hill and the BBC Singers gave it a tremendous performance which was highly involving and technically strong, but there were moments when I would have like the sense that the words meant something, that they were more than just a story. Only at the end did we get a feel of something special happening, the concluding sections was simply magical in their combination of quite tone and clarity of texture.

Eric Whitacre's (born 1970) Three Songs of Faith date from 1999 and all set poems by E.E. Cummings (1894 - 1962). I will wade out opened with a hypnotic sense of repetition in the voices, with Whitacre using different choral textures to colour the words. There was a sense, however, that he responded to the sense of Cumming's words rather than Cummings rather distinctive othography and metre. The first movement elided smoothly into the second, hope, faith, life, love. Cummings' poem is simply a haiku-like list of words and Whitacre uses these on which to hand a series of textures changing from austere to rich bluesy chords. The performance was profoundly beautiful and something of a tour-de-force from Hill and the BBC Singers but rather left me wondering, as the music seemed to go nowhere. I thank You God for most this amazing day opened with the rich harmonies familiar from Whitacre's choral language. The setting was very American in its directness with a lack of irony in both music and text, but it was beautifully done with some magical moments and a fine solo from soprano Olivia Robinson.

Whitacre's Octavio Paz (1914-1998) setting Water Night similarly was full of lovely shimmering textures, which the BBC Singers made seem effortless. David Hill seemed to clearly respond to Whitacre's music. Again I sensed the way Whitacre used different textures to paint the words, with the singers bringing a varied palate of colours to the piece. Finally, one of Whitacre's best known pieces Sleep setting a poem by Charles Anthony Silvestri (born 1965) written to fit some pre-existing music which Whitacre wrote to a text that was still in copyright. We started from a hushed shimmering and the third verse was magical, but there was also a remarkable range of dynamics and of intensity, finishing with the hypnotic end.

After the interval we had Steve Reich's (born 1936) The Desert Music, his 1983 setting of William Carlos Williams (1883 - 1963) poems for chorus and instrumental ensemble. The BBC Singers were joined by the instrumental ensemble Endymion. Though this was billed as Reich's chamber version, there were still plenty of people on stage with 29 singers, four flutes, two timpani, seven percussion players, four piano/synthesizer players and 14 strings. Everyone had their own microphone and it was clear from the sound, that the singers were amplified.

The piece is written in an arch, with the second movement having the same text as the fourth, the central third movement is itself an arch with the outer slow sections both using the same text. Reich uses musical repetition too so that the piece seems to go back on itself, albeit with a feeling of change and reflection.

The first movement opened with a steady pulse from the tuned percussion and it was this pulse, in many forms, which came to dominate the piece. Initially the chorus were not discernible, simply being part of the texture, when they started singing Williams' words there was a feeling that the sense of the words was less important than the way each sounded when sung. Throughout there was the constant feeling of pulse and of suppressed excitement.

The second movement had rather a sparer feel with untuned percussion more to the fore, contrasting with the rather lyric vocal line and catchy instrumental rhythms. Though you could follow Williams' words, the voices were simply part of the orchestra, this is not a choral work in the conventional sense of an orchestra accompanying (being subservient to) a chorus.

For the first section of the third movement, we again got a long orchestral introduction with the voices simply as part of the mix, before the setting of Williams' words, the most sober ones in the whole setting. Reich' s setting highlighted the words by having such a contrast between voices and instruments, with the tuned percussion pulse to the fore. Throughout the piece there was lots of moving around of personnel as the exact configuration of instruments changed. The middle section of the third piece is the central part of the arch, with the women only and wooden xylophones to the fore. The high frequencies on the piccolos in this section did rather catch the acoustic of the hall and penetrate a bit. From here on the work simply reverses, with Reich re-visiting the material of each section. It says a lot for the control the David Hill exerted over his forces that he created such a sense of excitement as the music seemed to reverse. The end was simply stunning.

Throughout the percussion players, particular those on marimba, showed a stunning sense of control providing fast even repeated notes. Reich's writing for the instruments seems to owe a lot to the way you might play the music on a synthesizer, and there seemed something slightly perverse in writing for the marimbas and other tuned percussion in a way which, ultimately, made them sound like a synthesizer.

I have to confess that, whilst I admired the stunning technical feat from Hill and his singers and players, by the end of the 45 minutes my interest was beginning to tire. There was something about the sheer expansiveness of the piece and with Reich's determination not to let anything happen too quickly that began to be tiresome. Also Reich writes for his singers in a very instrumental way, using blocks of colour and harmony. You are never led along, there are no lines leading onward into the complex textures of the music, you are simply presented with blocks of harmony.

The concert presented music by three very different composers, linked by little more than a sense that they were all American. It says something about the versatility of the BBC Singers that they were able to bring of each piece, getting to the essence of each particular composer's style. But quite whether the works made up a satisfying piece of programming, I am not sure.

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