Thursday 2 February 2017

Vivid theatricality and stunning singing: Suzi Digby and Ora at the Cutty Sark

Suzi Digby and Ora at the Cutty Sark
Suzi Digby and Ora at the Cutty Sark
Tallis, Clemens non Papa, Esquivel, Victoria, Harry Escott, Richard Allain, Frank Ferko, Kerry Andrew, Ken Burton, John Barber, Frances Grier, Jonathan Dove, Gabriel Jackson, Alec Roth; Ora, Suzi Digby; Cutty Sark, Greenwich
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 1 2017
Star rating: 4.0

Stunning singing in an evening of new pieces and the old which inspired them, in the atmospheric if tricky surrounds of the Cutty Sark.

For their latest concert, Suzi Digby and her choir Ora presented the latest in the ensemble's ambitious commissioning project aimed at creating 100 new works of choral music. As before, the new pieces were all themed around reflections of older composers, with Thomas Tallis being the main focus. Perhaps picking up on the Tallis connection, the concert on Wednesday 1 February 2017 took place at the Cutty Sark in Greenwich. We heard six of Tallis's psalms from Archbishop Parker's Psalter, plus If you love me, O nata lux, Videte miraculum and Loquebantur, alongside works directly inspired by the Tallis by Harry Escott, Richard Allain, Frank Ferko, Kerry Andrew and Ken Burton. There was also music by Clemens non Papa, Juan Esquivel and Tomas Luis de Victoria alongside new pieces by John Barber, Frances Grier, Jonathan Dove, Gabriel Jackson and Alec Roth.

The performance took place in the hall beneath the suspended hull of the Cutty Sark, a rather surreal and slightly intractable space. Long and narrow, it had attractively resonant acoustic but poor sight-lines, so the choir performed in three different areas thus enabling everyone to have some moments close to the performers, but this entailed a great deal of walking around though extra pieces of chant were inserted to cover most of it. The presence of a designer in the project, Anna Bonomelli, a costume designer, Annina Pfuel, and lighting designer, Petr Vocka, mean that the event had a very theatrical feel to it.

Lighting levels were generally low and atmospheric creating some stunning theatrical settings for the music, but entirely preventing you reading the programme (some people had recourse to lights from their phones), so that you had to sit and absorb the music passively with little foreknowledge of the composers intentions. Frankly, if I hadn't been scribbling notes (writing in the dark being an essential skill of any classical critic), the works in the programme would have merged into one.

The Tallis was all performed in the first half, and the vision of Thomas Tallis presented was as the writer of relatively straightforward but perfect gems, and his more complex textures were largely absent.
We heard six of Archbishop Parker's tunes (perhaps too many), the completely magical If ye love me and O nata lux, with Videte miraculum being the most complex Tallis piece presented. It was a shame that we did not hear Te lucis ante terminum; Alec Roth's reflection on this was used as an encore.

There were eighteen singers, and all were experienced choral professionals with many familiar faces in the ensemble. The choir makes a strong, vibrant sound and you would not mistake it for another groups. The Tallis psalms were all sung with firm tone, with the first three performed without conductor by smaller groups; something that occurred throughout the programme, adding to the variety of textures and demonstrating the singers' versatility. O nata lux, the first piece sung by the full ensemble with Suzi Digby conducting, was giving a strong, sculptural sound with richly vibrant middle and lower parts (another Ora trademark, this is not a soprano-led choir).

Suzi Digby and Ora at the Cutty Sark
Suzi Digby and Ora at the Cutty Sark
Harry Escott's O light of light (a reflection on Tallis's O nata lux) used slowly building chords and richly textured moving parts to create a series of vibrant choral builds. Not for the last time in the evening, I wondered at Ora's insistence on composers 'reflecting' on a pre-existing work and wondered whether individual composers found it restricting or limiting. What was noticeable in the evening was how many had reacted with pieces which explored pure texture, though perhaps that was a reflection too of the resonant acoustics. Most of the new pieces were at the more tonal end of the spectrum, and I felt that addition of a little grit would not have come amiss.

Tallis's Videte miraculum was again vibrant, with strong lower parts, though Suzi Digby's speeds were remarkably brisk and I thought that the interpretation missed the piece's magical poise. It was also very loud at times. Then a solo voice sang a plainchant Alma redemptoris mater as the choir moved to the steps at the very end of the space, so they could utilise the full acoustic for Richard Allain's Videte miraculum. Here Allain had reacted to the respond stricture by creating three different textures, each separated by the plainchant. Allain too fragments of the Tallis and created magical cascades of sound, using a few moving parts (often sopranos and altos) over slower moving lower parts. It was completely mesmerising and meditative, and made the very best use of the choir and the space. There was however a sense of stasis about the work, with no feeling of development.

A lovely performance of Tallis's If ye love me by eight men (tenors and basses), created a striking effect and led into Frank Ferko's Reflection on Thomas Tallis' If ye love me which kept the outline of Tallis' piece but used phrases to build note clusters, and added layers of richness and complication including a solo quartet. A finely constructed piece, but I dearly wanted Ferko to go off on his own at some point and leave Tallis behind.

Three further psalms from Archbishop Parker's Psalter led to Kerry Andrew's Archbishop Parker's psalme 150, a vibrant and rhythmic setting where impetuous homophony led to a concluding section full of dancing rhythms. A very appealing piece indeed.

Finally, we heard Tallis' Loquebantur variis linguis in a strong performance at quite a brisk tempo, though thanks to the acoustic a lot of the details of the music got lost. I felt the music could have done with relaxing somewhat and allowing Tallis' lines to develop in the space. The final work in the first half was Ken Burton's Many are the wonders, inspired by the Tallis. Ken Burton works mainly in gospel and spirituals and his piece was a fascinating engagement between two choral styles. A solo tenor had gospel-like phrases which were answered by the ensemble, but Burton used these to create a series of brilliant contrasts. It was given a very vibrant performance, and was very loud.

The first half had fifteen named items, plus a couple of interstitial pieces of chant, with Tallis' psalms for Archbishop Parker taking the palm. The result was a little unbalanced and I am not sure that some of the new pieces benefited from being performed in such a busy programme, where styles rather jostled with each other. You felt that, superb though the performances were, the whole did not quite at up.

Things calmed down in the second half. we had only seven larger scale pieces, and thankfully Suzi Digby's tempos relaxed in the older works as she really did allow the polyphony some space. The Song of Solomon was something of a theme running through many of the works. We opened with John Barber's Sicut lilium, written for Ora's Song of Songs recording and reflection on a piece by Brumel (which we did not hear). Barber's work created a very seductive texture, with solo voices combining with choral responses to create note clusters, then Barber developed the textures into waves of sound, relishing the clusters and suspensions.

Clemens non Papa's Ego flos campi though far earlier, produced a similar series of luscious textures. Frances Grier's Dilectus meus mihi started with a solo voice and choral response using flexible chant-like melodies and drones to create a structure which developed in complexity, becoming quite gritty at times, with rich layers of harmony.

Juan Esquivel's Surge propera amica me was sung by just six voices, in a nicely intimate, fluid performance, and this was followed by five different voices performing Gabriel Jackson's I am the rose of Sharon, a rather lovely piece in which the old and new merge with slow moving textures enlivened by florid passages.

The whole choir returned for the final two items. Victoria's Vadam et circuibo was nicely relaxed with lovely flowing lines. The poised beauty of the piece creating a mesmerising performance. It was followed by Jonathan Dove's reflection on it, Vadam et circuibo. Dove created a series of moving chant-like lines over drones, repeating the short phrases to develop a structure which increased in complexity and intensity. Dove used the repetitions to create a growing sense of passion and perhaps desperation, leading to a dramatic climax.

For an encore we heard Alec Roth's profoundly beautiful Night prayer, a reflection on Tallis' Te lucis ante terminum I.

Inevitably diction suffered somewhat in the acoustic, and it was frequently difficult to pick up the words. The choir were on stunning form throughout, and constantly impressed with the sense of control and power. Ora has now developed a very clear sense of identity, and Suzi Digby gets a powerfully focused performance from her singers. Ora's commissioning project remains a striking example of confidence in the contemporary composers, and I would certainly love to hear the new works again but this time in a less theatrical presentation where I could study the pieces and the words more easily.

Elsewhere on this blog:

  • Dark doings in the basement: Menotti's The Medium from Magnetic Opera - opera review
  • Music of a forgotten master: Daniel Grimwood in piano music by Adolf von Henselt - CD review
  • Muhly, Argento & Schumann: Alice Coote and Julius Drake at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • New ideas round the edges: I chat to Samir Savant, new Festival Director of the London Handel Festival - interview
  • Striking but contrasting 20th century works: Vladimir Jurowski and the LPO in Kancheli, Martinu and RVW - concert review
  • Getting beyond the music history: Rossi's Hebrew Psalms from Profeti della Quinta - CD review
  • Poetic exploration: Dresden Festival Orchestra in Schumann with Ivor Bolton and Jan Vogler - CD review
  • Intense abandon: Christine Rice in Poulenc's La voix humaine - concert review
  • Flute, viola and harp: Trio Anima in Debussy at Conway Hall - Concert review
  • Completely entrancing: CPE Bach cello concertos from Nicolas Alstaedt and Arcangelo - CD review
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