Thursday 17 July 2014

The Yonghy Bongy Bo

Giles Swayne
Giles Swayne
Photo credit Alice Williamson

Swayne, McCabe, Handel; Mousai Singers, Simon Hogan, Daniel Cook, Sky Ingram, Rebecca Afonwy-Evans, Ashley Catling, Giles Underwood; JAM at the City of London Festival, St Bride's Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 16 2014
Star rating: 4.0

English premiere of Giles Swayne's Lear setting from this dynamic young choir

The final concert in JAM's season at the City of London Festival included a new commission and a revisiting of an older one. At St. Bride's Church, Fleet Street on Wednesday 16 July 2014, the Mousai Singers, Onyx Brass, organist Simon Hogan, soprano Sky Ingram, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, tenor Ashley Catling and baritone Giles Underwood with conductor Daniel Cook gave the first English performance of Giles Swayne's The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo (the same performers had premiered the work in St. David's), along with John McCabe's Songs of the Garden (a JAM commission from 2004) and Handel's Coronation Anthems. Both Giles Swayne and John McCabe were present, and the performance of Songs of the Garden was dedicated to McCabe whose 75th birthday it is this year.

Proceedings opened with a crisp performance of Handel's The King Shall Rejoice, with the choir performing with admirable firmness and discreet brilliance. The Mousai Singers are a group of young singers at the start of their professional career, most have been choristers in cathedrals and are now studying. They make a bright, forward and admirably focussed sound. They gave Handel's anthem a sense of sober rejoicing, along with some nicely firm and even passagework.

Edward Lear's The Courtship of the Yonghy-BonghyBo
Edward Lear's The Courtship of the Yonghy-BonghyBo
Giles Swayne's The Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo sets Edward Lear's poem The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo which was published in 1877 in Lear's collection Laughable Lyrics. Swayne has set the work for soprano and baritone solos (Sky Ingram and Giles Underwood), choir, organ, brass group and percussion. The soloists sing the words of the two major protagonists, the Yonghy-Bongy-Bo and Lady Jingly Jones and the choir delivers the rest of the narrative, comments on things as well as providing worldess accompaniment and atmospherics.

The work opened wordlessly with a highly atmospheric texture, one which underpinned the whole of the setting and seemed, from the rhythms played by the brass group, to have an element of calypso about it. Swayne's writing was not dense but his textures were quite detailed and elaborate. The plot proceeded with admirable clarity (much of the choral writing was designed to facilitate hearing the words) and Swayne takes Lear's poem seriously, in the programme note he described it as one of the most tragic and beautiful poems in the English language'. His writing for the soloists was admirably direct, using lyrical vocal writing with nearly-tunes. Giles Underwood was wonderfully hang-dog and pleading in the title role, whilst Sky Ingram was a delight as a Lady Jingly Jones whom we heard initially clucking to her hens!

The lively acoustics of St Bride's Church did rather defeat Swayne's writing at times. Despite their best efforts, words had a tendency to disappear even though the textures of the music were quite fabulous. More worryingly the scoring seemed to rather favour the brass. From where we were sitting, Giles Underwood's baritone was frequently dominated by the brass accompaniment (it cannot have helped that he had the tuba virtually next to him), though I understand this sounded different it other parts of the church. But for me, there were just too many places where the brass over dominated the texture and I suspect that a final version of the piece might require a degree of re-scoring.

How you react to Swayne's work might also depend on how important Lear's poem is to you. Whilst Swayne takes the poem seriously, his setting does not quite relish the ridiculous which is part of Lear's make-up; the nonsense words are almost taken seriously and Lear's ti-ti-Tum-ti-Tum-ti-Tum-ti metre rather disappeared.

I have nothing but praise for the performers, all of whom gave a committed performance and brought out the fascination and delight of the work, all under the admirable eye (and hands) of Daniel Cook.

The first half finished with a nicely pointed and shaped performance of Handel's Let Thy Hand Be Strenghtened, with a lovely perky accompaniment from Simon Hogan. The middle section was beautifully sober and expressive.

The second half opened with the next Coronation Anthem, My Heart Is Inditing to which the singers gave a nicely considered performance with admirable firmness of tone and shapeliness of line.

John McCabe - Photograph copyright © 2012 Gareth Arnold
John McCabe - Photograph copyright © 2012 Gareth Arnold
John McCabe's Songs of the Garden was a JAM commission from 2004. Inspired by a book of Japanese illustrations, Picture Book of Selected Insects, McCabe set a selection of poetry which describes the flowers, birds and insects in a garden. Writing for four soloists soprano Sky Ingram, mezzo-soprano Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, tenor Ashley Catling and baritone Giles Underwood, choir, organ and brass quintet, McCabe set the work in 10 movements which almost ran into each other.

After a lively brass and organ prelude, joyful fanfare-ish figures accompanied the choral setting of John Clare from Nature's Hymn to the Deity. Here, and elsewhere in the piece, it was noticeable how much care McCabe had taken with writing for his forces. When the brass accompanied the choir, the writing for choir was relatively straightforward and direct in texture (homophonic and canonic), so that there was clarity and projection to what they were singing. This was how the setting of both the first movement and the second, John Clare's The Swallow proceeded. But having said that the choral writing had relatively straightforward textures, this does not mean it was simple and there were some lovely expressive moments.

Elsewhere in the work, McCabe restricted his brass players to the ends of vocal lines, punctuating the textures so that they commented and seemed to add clarity. Textures were admirably varied throughout the work, with McCabe selecting elements from his palate and varying and combining them. So that Robert Herrick's To Daffodils was sung by the four soloists, initially a lovely soprano solo from Sky Ingram and then all four as a semi-chorus, the second verse repeated this except with a tenor soloists.

The anonymous 14th century text The lily-white roes had a chorus which was sung by the men, in a rather effective quasi-planchant/organum manner, with the verses taken by the soloists in pairs over a simple drone; the soprano-mezzo duet over a low organ drone, the tenor-bass duet over a high drone.

It was very noticeable that the poems seemed to function in pairs. So that after daffodils and the lily-white rose we had John Clare's The Hedge Sparrow followed by John Skelton's A curse on the Cat. After a pause for Thomas Hardy's An August Midnight, Walt Whitman's A noiseless patient spider was followed by William Blake's The Fly.

Clare's sparrow was delightfully perky with lively attentive performance from the female chorus, almost unaccompanied except for brass punctuations. Skelton's cat was a highly vivid baritone solo with Underwood clearly relishing the descriptive writing, again with punctuations from brass and comments from chorus.

Thomas Hardy's An August Midnight, which involves a group of insects on the writer's page, was a lovely subtle duet for soprano and mezzo soloists, the voices of Sky Ingram and Rebecca Afonwy-Jones intertwining beautifully.

Whitman's spider saw Rebecca Afonwy-Jones giving us a lovely poised solo, with great feel for the words and a lovely sense inner stillness. McCabe's accompaniment on organ and brass was full of lovely evocative spidery creeping figures. Blake's fly was a fabulous chorus number, just with organ interruption, giving us a chance to really appreciate the young singers' feel for McCabe's music.

Finally Whitman's Halcyon Days followed by more from Clare's Nature's Hymn to the Deity, with the soloists taking it in turns, line by line, in the Whitman and imbuing the piece with a sense of quiet rapture. The fanfares returned as Clare's poetry led us to a rapturous close.

I have been familiar with John McCabe's music since hearing it in Manchester as a student (not long after the Halle premiered his Chagall Windows), and have subsequently sung some of his choral music. As with much else in his repertoire, Songs of the Garden had a subtly and coherence which was impressive. His writing for his chosen forces had clarity throughout and a sense of admirable security in what was being done. You felt that, unlike in the Swayne, there were no moments of awkward balance or tricky texture. There is a sober, unshowiness about McCabe's writing, but it is always highly expressive and I think that Songs of the Garden is a work I could come to love.

The concert ended with the final Coronation Anthem, Handel's Zadok the Priest. Handel's string figures in the introduction do not work ideally on the organ, but Simon Hogan worked wonders and once the chorus came in choir and organ were joined by the brass quintet for a performance which was suitably rousing, but also subtle and finely shaped.

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