Monday 13 January 2020

Songs from the Soil - Theatre of Voices launches Kings Place's Nature Unwrapped season

Songs from the Soil - Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, Christopher Bowers Broadbent - Kings Place (Photo Viktor Erik Emanuel/Kings Place)
Songs from the Soil - Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier, Christopher Bowers Broadbent - Kings Place
(Photo Viktor Erik Emanuel/Kings Place)
Arvo Pärt, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Michael Gordon; Theatre of Voices, Paul Hillier; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 January 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
King Place's Nature Unwrapped launched by Theatre of Voices with a trio of striking contemporary works

Having Unwrapped Venus in spectacular fashion during 2019, providing a remarkable amount of striking music by women, Kings Place launched its 2020 series, Nature Unwrapped on Saturday 11 January 2020 with a concert from the iconic Theatre of Voices, conducted by its founder Paul Hillier, featuring music by Arvo Pärt as accompaniment to Phie Ambo’s film, Songs from the Soil, Jóhann Jóhannsson's Orphic Hymn and the UK premiere of Michael Gordon's A Western.

Before the concert started there was a chance to further explore Theatre of Voices' work with film maker Phie Ambo, as there was a screening of Ambo's poetic film Good Things Await, exploring a bio-dynamic farm in Denmark and using music by Jóhann Jóhannsson on the sound-track, performed by Theatre of Voices. And as we entered Hall One for the concert there was a further layer to the presentation in that a sound installation by Chris Watson, No Man's Land, which was based on a recording of the incoming tide on The Wash; one of a number of installations commissioned by Kings Place from Watson for this year.

Theatre of Voices consisted of six voices (Else Turp & Kate Macoboy sopranos, Laura Lamph alto, Paul Bentley-Angell & Jakob Skjoldborg tenors, William Gaunt bass) with organist Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, conducted by Paul Hillier.
Phie Ambo is a Danish director of documentary films. Her film Songs from the Soil is a silent, poetic meditation on the seasons as seen at the Danish bio-dynamic farm which featured in her documentary Good Things Await. Songs from the Soil is plot-less and simply follows the seasons round. The film was accompanied by a sequence of pieces by Arvo Pärt, not written for the film but chosen because they were felt to fit the situation My Heart's in the Highlands (solo soprano and organ), extracts from Sarah Was Ninety Years Old (soprano duet and organ, tenor, bass and organ), Cantate Domino (choir), I am the true Vine (choir), and Spiegel im Spiegel (organ).

The film was certainly poetic, consisting of a great many highly photogenic images, often close-ups and rather Instagram-worthy. What it avoided was any of the grit that farming involves, so that in Winter we had attractive images of cows wandering through the snow without any sense of hardship, nor was there really any sense of what the seasons actually meant to the farm and the farmer, the film was about the images that the film-maker discovered. The music made a very significant contribution, as there was no narrative, particularly in Theatre of Voices' strong performances, though a guilty part of me would have been perfectly happy with just the music.

The singers from Theatre of Voices made a strongly focused yet vibrant sound, this was very much Arvo Pärt sung Estonian style rather than a pure, white English sound. But, another confession, what troubled me was the organ. This was an electronic one and it played quite a prominent role in quite a lot of the music, yet not all the registrations felt quite convincing and I was somewhat distracted by wondering which elements were most convincing!

It seemed curious to hear Pärt arranging a Scots song, but My Heart's in the Highlands  was very much Pärt and not very Scots, beautifully and hypnotically sung. Sarah Was Ninety Years Old is an early piece, written in 1976 before Pärt had quite reached his tintinnabuli style and as such completely fascinating. We heard two excerpts, the voices singing a vocalise. The choral pieces Cantate Domino and I am the true Vine are more familiar, but a welcome chance to experience Theatre of Voices in choral mode. Finally came the purely instrumental Spiegel im Spiegel.

After the interval we had Jóhann Jóhannsson's Orphic Hymn.  I had not encountered the music of the Icelandic composer live before and would definitely like to, again. Jóhannsson, who died in 2018 (aged 48), worked in a great variety of mediums including film. The text of Orphic Hymn, in Latin, comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses and Jóhannsson provided a powerful piece with highly sculptural lines. There was something neo-Renaissance about the strong, polyphonic nature of the piece, yet contemporary too. Resulting in something sombre yet sober.

The final work of the evening was the UK premiere of Michael Gordon's A Western. Gordon is the co-founder of New York's Bang on the Can Festival. A Western was a Theatre of Voices co-commission and the group premiered it in the Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg in January 2019. The work is loosely inspired by the 1952 film High Noon, with Michael Gordon's text using a storyline from the film. Written for unaccompanied vocal ensemble, it was in nine sections from Prelude to A Western to The Showdown. Gordon's text puts an interesting spin on the film's plot, concentrating on interesting details. Unfortunately, the lighting in the hall was such that we could not read the text, and the way that Gordon set it with some quite dense choral textures, meant that words were indistinct at best. So what we had was simply the music. Whilst Gordon's striking textures evoked Minimalism with plenty of rhythmic repetition, the piece had moments of being quite jazzy too. Gordon's writing varied from interesting close harmonies to some quite traditional polyphony.

The result was striking and vividly performed, with Theatre of Voices really committing to the piece, even to American accents. But to appreciate the work's full impact, I think I would want to listen again with the words in front of me, and certainly hope that I get the opportunity to do that soon.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Strong revival: a well-balanced cast bring a sense of enjoyment to Richard Jones' highly theatrical production of Puccini's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House (★★★★½) - opera review
  • The music around him: a look at Mozart as he writes Mitridate, Re di Ponto in The Mozartists '1770 - a retrospective' at Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Handel Uncaged: chamber cantatas revealed in new context by Lawrence Zazzo on Inventa (★★★★½) - Cd review
  • Haydn’s The Creation at the Bartók National Concert Hall (Müpa Budapest) by Concentus Musicus Wien and the Purcell Choir produced a memorable performance under Ádám Fischer (★★★★) - concert review
  • The other concertos: Mendelssohn's Double Concerto & Piano Concerto No. 1 from the Stankov Ensemble (★★★½) - CD review
  • Britten and Dowland: Allan Clayton, Sean Shibe, Timothy Ridout and James Baillieu at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Jordanian-Palestinian pianist Iyad Sughayer explores the brilliant piano music of Aram Khachaturian on this debut disc (★★★★) - CD review 
  • 2019 in CD reviews - article
  • 2019 in concert and opera reviews - article
  • Dramatic Elgar and rare Chadwick from BBC National Orchestra of Wales & Andrew Constantine on Orchid Classics (★★★½) - Cd review
  • The first time that someone has written something major on composer Roger Sacheverell Coke since the 1990s: I chat to pianist Simon Callaghan about his forthcoming disc and his academic research into the neglected composer  - interview
  • A hugely rewarding journey: I and Silence, Marta Fontanals Simmons & Lana Bode in Aaron Copland, Dominick Argento, Peter Lieberson, Samuel Barber, and George Crumb - (★★★★) CD review
  • Prayer of the Heart: the Brodsky Quartet & the Gesualdo Six in a sequence of music from Tavener to Panufnik (father and daughter) - concert review
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