Saturday 25 March 2017

Music in our time: from a 70th birthday to young composers

The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge
The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge
Willis, Gotham, Bowler, Gorb, Patterson, Oades, LaVoy, Davies, Chan; Choir of Selwyn College, Dingle Yandell, Onyx Brass, Simon Hogan, Chloe Allison, Michael Bawtree; JAM at St Bride's Church
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 23 2017
Star rating: 4.0

A remarkable range of contemporary music in JAM's annual survey

JAM (the John Armitage Memorial) returned to St Bride's Church, Fleet Street on 23 March 2017 for Music in our Time, its annual concert of contemporary music. The programme featured JAM's 2007 commission, Adam Gorb's Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall, and the London premiere of JAM's 2016 commission, Thomas LaVoy's O Great Beyond, as well as celebrating composer Paul Patterson's 70th birthday with a performance of his When Music Sounds. Also featured in the programme were six works selected from JAM's most recent call for works, Dawn. Brussels. October 12th 1915 by Alison Willis, Fother-Jiggen by Mark Bowler, Laudate Dominum by David Ho-Yi Chan, Tiny Sonata by Max Charles Davies, Isomorphic Fantasy by Mark Gotham and Hear Me When I Call by Jack Oades. The performers were The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, Onyx Brass, Simon Hogan (organ), Chloe Allison (alto), Dingle Yandell (bass) and Michael Bawtree (conductor).

Alison Willis's Dawn. Brussels. October 12th 1915 for choir, organ (Simon Hogan), solo alto (Chloe Allison), and trumpet, set poetry by Chloe Stopa-Hunt which combined words spoken by Edith Cavell (including a quotation from the hymn Abide with me), and words by Dr Alfred Zimmerman, the German Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. The result was a multi-layered piece with overlapping lines from the double choir and soloist, supported by note clusters on the organ and an off-stage trumpet (mainly echoing the Last Post), an intriguing mix with some lovely choral textures.

Mark Gotham's Isomorphic Fantasy for organ (Simon Hogan) used for its inspiration a study about the equivalence between scale and rhythmic patterns (the longer the duration between notes, the bigger the pitch interval). Gotham's writing was full of hockets creating a striking fantasia where the constraint of the underlying theory was hardly detectable.

Mark Bowler's Fother-Jiggen, Downey, Full-Score was inspired by Bowler's discovery that the West Country had an archaic sheep-counting rhyme similar to the one Bowler knew from his native Teesdale. The result is the tongue-twister starting 'Hant, tant, tother, fothery, fant' and ending 'fother-jiggen, full-score'. Bowler created from this a tongue twisting musical work appealingly full of vibrant rhythms.

Adam Gorb's Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall for bass solo (Dingle Yandell), soprano solo, brass quintet (Onyx Brass), barbershop quartet (Grettel Killing, Lisa Olivant, James Bradshaw, Simon Dums), choir, and organ (Simon Horgan) set a text which explored the experiences of John McCarthy as a prisoner in Lebanese jails between 1986 and 1991. The work used a combination of McCarthy's words (sung by bass soloist Dingle Yandell) and words by Ben Kaye. These interleaved the choir (placed off-stage at first) echoing the conscience of the world, and the more worldly advertising jingle responses of the barbershop quartet. These latter were counter-pointed effectively by a soprano soloist who echoed the barbershop words but placed a far different emphasis on them.

This was a large-scale and striking work which created a very complex, multilayered effect with the choir providing a gentle back-wash until the closing section where they come on stage and add to the general feeling of rapture. John McCarthy's words were set as dramatic declamation with a vigorous brass accompaniment. Yandell has a commanding presence and fine bass voice, but here he seemed to be rather too score bound and the fact that he rarely looked at the audience rather blunted the effect of the music. The barbershop quartet had their contrasting style nicely to a tee, accompanied in lively and almost zany fashion by a solo tuba. The counterpoint soprano solo was beautifully sung though I would have liked a greater element of anguish and intensity in her performance to emphasise the sense of irony and poignancy. All concerned gave a committed, strong performance of a striking piece, though I was not certain that the individual elements quite coalesced into a whole.

Paul Patterson's When the Music Sounds, setting words by Walter de la Mare, was written in 2014 for Finchley Chamber Choir. It is a lyrical, well-made part-song in which the lyric beauty of the music was contrasted with some interesting twists and turns the harmony.

Jack Oades Hear me when I call sets a verse from Psalm Four, for bass soloist (Dingle Yandell), two trumpets & one horn (Onyx Brass) and organ (Simon Horgan). Using a lot of suspensions, the piece created a striking texture with the brass and organ weaving lines around the lyrically expressive vocal line.

Thomas LaVoy's O Great Beyond sets three passages from Rabindranath Tagore's The Gardener for choir and soprano solo. An opening section for soprano and chorus was highly evocative, and the sound-world or the music was tonal but of a very particular and distinct voice. The middle section was more passionate, with a lovely sense of changing textures from the highly mobile vocal lines, whilst the closing section returned to the mood of the opening. Throughout, the choir made a lovely clear sound, bringing out the composer's intriguing textures.

Max Charles Davies' Tiny Sonata for trumpet and organ is one of sequence of short works written for his young son. In four movements, each small but perfectly formed, we could hear Davies strikingly personal voice with fine performances from both soloists.

The final work in the programme was David Ho-Yi Chan's Laudate Dominum for choir and organ. This started with a highly Walton-esque prelude for the organ. Throughout the work, Chan contrasted the sober strength of the choral part with the vigorously busy organ writing. This was a confidently written piece, though given the subject matter I would have liked more joie de vivre in the vocal writing.

Throughout Michael Bawtree conducted with aplomb, displaying admirable control over a wide variety of different configurations of performers and drawing strong performances from all concerned.

This was an admirable chance to hear a wide range of contemporary choral music and, with the pieces selected from the call for works, a chance to hear some striking new voices.

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  1. Thanks for the review, and glad you enjoyed the concert. Just to say in Jack Oades' Hear Me When I Call, there were 2 trumpets and 1 horn. He hasn't been removed quite yet!

    1. Thanks, couldn't quite see properly and had to guess!


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