Wednesday 4 February 2015

Going wild in East London with the NLCC

New London Chamber Choir - photo credit Andrew Moss
New London Chamber Choir - photo credit Andrew Moss
Judith Bingham, Giles Swayne, Roberto Sierra, Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Meredith Monk; New London Chamber Choir, Matthew Hamilton; Wilton's Music Hall
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jan 30 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Bringing the jungle to life in contemporary choral music

Animals! The latest exploration by the New London Chamber Choir conducted by their new director Matthew Hamilton brought the jungle to life in the wonderful faded grandeur of Wilton's Music Hall. Birds, tigers, elephants all vied for room with bats and other animals.

On tonight's performance the NLCC is arguably one of the best amateur choirs in London. Founded in 1981 the NLCC attacks the music other choral groups might shy away from – actively seeking out the avant garde and commissioning new works. As recognition of this Pierre Boulez has been their patron from the mid 80's. They can often be heard on radio 3 and have appeared at the Proms.


The concert began with Judith Bingham's (1952-) setting of a fragment of W. H. Auden's 'The arrival of a few summer migrants' (1991) which uses the opening line as a chorus to verses containing lists of birds. 'Unpredictable but providential' was described by Hamilton as “the joy and celebration of the untamed [...] combining that with the opportunity to be onomatopoeic.” Here a chorus of birds chirped, trilled and clucked in a light-hearted and humorous way with a definite nod to the 16th century composer Clément Janequin.
New London Chamber Choir and Matthew Hamilton in rehearsal - photo credit Andrew Moss
New London Chamber Choir and Matthew Hamilton in rehearsal
photo credit Andrew Moss
Hot on the tail of the birds was Giles Swayne's (1956-) 'The tiger' based on the legendary poem by William Blake. Composed in 1995, Swayne painted the sounds of the jungle, sometimes threatening, sometimes spooky, replete with frogs and monkeys. Interspersed in amongst the English were translations in French, Italian, German and Spanish – this was particularly effective in the repetition of the word 'fire, fuego and so on... Towards the end the breath of the wind through the jungle was replaced by stomping and clicking of fingers – very tricky for those whose vocal line did not rhythmically match the dancing. But nevertheless very effective.

Roberto Sierra's (1953-) 'Cantos populares' was written for the NLCC in 1983 and represents the composers childhood home of Puerto Rico. In this representation of villages and the jungle he incorporated folk and popular dance music. A drone from the men was layered with vocal castanets and scrapers, and the sighing of a breeze. Tight dissonance expanded into clusters in the second section with ascending scales all at different speeds. Finally the multi-rhythm of Caribbean party percussion became parrots and frogs as the fiesta moved off into the jungle.

Dropping back in time to the 16th century a small group assembled to sing three humorous madrigals by Adriano Banchieri (1568-1634). Part of a larger narrative set these three songs describe a nightingale, a dog, cat, cuckoo and owl, then finally the animals themselves 'sing' – barking, meowing, and birds calls. Very silly stuff – sung well, although they did look a little embarrassed.

The UK premiere of Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's (1932-) 'Four madrigals from the natural world' continued the animal theme. Gudmundsen-Holmgreen was inspired by the poems of Australian Les Murray and his animals were brought to life not just by their calls but also describing their movements – the elephants ponderous and trumpeting, the bats fluttering through the air. The use of a drone sounding at times like a bullroarer or a didgeridoo added to the atmosphere. The final song was about a comet whose trailing tail of 'ahs' followed the woman walking into the sun.

The concert finished with 'Panda chant II' by Meredith Monk (1942-). Written in 1965 as part of a science fiction opera the repetition of the word Panda with its ritualistic stamping and clapping was a way for the people in the opera to joyously remember the world before the apocalypse. A clever programming choice, the dance elements harked back to 'The tiger' and the repetition of the word 'panda' was stylistically reminiscent of the bird names in the Bingham. A final scream – and the concert was over.

Billed as being only an hour long, the concert overran, despite one piece ('Le chant des oiseaux' by Clément Janequin) being cut from the programme. However since Bingham's birds overtly referenced Janequin's chirping and warbling perhaps this did not matter.

Currently you can hear an excerpt from the Gudmundsen-Holmgreen on the BBC radio 3 In tune (at 01:05:57) and then a conversation with Hamilton and more singing (Sierra and more Gudmundsen-Holmgreen from 01:17:30).
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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