Thursday 21 October 2021

Composer Richard Blackford introduces 'Vision of Garden', his new work for the Bach Choir

The Bach Choir
The Bach Choir
Composer Richard Blackford's new choral work, Vision of a Garden is being premiered by the Bach Choir and Philharmonia Orchestra, conductor David Hill,  and baritone Gareth Brynmor John on 24 October 2021 at the Royal Festival Hall. The work arises directly out of events of last year and is based on Bach Choir member Peter Johnstone's ICU diaries, and it details Johnstone's experience of COVID-19. Here Richard Blackford introduces the background to the work:

During the pandemic and that eighteen months when live choral music was impossible I spoke frequently with choral conductor friends and colleagues to explore what could still be achieved under those limiting circumstances. I supported several virtual choral projects, and also wrote solo works for saxophonist Amy Dickson and violinist Madeleine Mitchell about the pandemic experience, which were filmed by them and posted online. However, like many composers, I longed for an opportunity to write for a live choral performance once restrictions were lifted, and to reflect in music our and others’ experiences of COVID and its impact on our families, friends and our countries. Of course not all of it was bad – I wanted to also record my still closer engagement with the natural world, my greater awareness of the environment, the kindness of friends and neighbours in the village where I live, the heroic efforts of the medical and nursing staff who cared for the thousands afflicted by the virus.

When David Hill proposed a Bach Choir commission based on Peter Johnstone’s ICU diaries I was immediately drawn to his idea of composing a work to be written during the Covid-19 pandemic about one man’s direct and intense experience of it, an out of body experience he had in the ICU, and the care he received from the nursing staff. Peter, who is Professor of the Foundations of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, was very patient and generous in allowing me to select entries that I felt could provide a satisfying musical structure, entries which could encompass the different stages of his experience, from delirium, crisis, lyrical reflection, to recovery and gratitude to his nurses. The text itself is unsentimental and factual, so I was anxious to avoid writing music that was itself too sentimental. In fact, just the opposite: some of the music is quite angry at times, reflecting Peter’s desperate situation, his fight for life, and the efforts of the medics to save him. But it is still, I hope, very expressive.

I scored Vision Of A Garden for baritone solo, chorus and string orchestra, and it lasts about eighteen minutes. The work is framed by gently overlapping choral entries in which the nurses introduce themselves, set against a pulsating, almost mechanical string accompaniment that evokes the sounds of hospital ward machines. The first choral outburst, “You are positive with the Covid-19 virus” is thematically linked to the later chorus where someone “died from the Covid-19 virus” after the dream garden sequence. A male nurse describes how he sang along to a recording of Handel’s Messiah which was played to the delirious Peter. This quote, with its harmonically blurred cadence, leads to the first garden dream music. A lyrical solo viola weaves through the baritone’s vocal line. Later, in the real visit to the garden, the viola’s material is taken up and transformed by a solo violin. These musical mirrors help to unify the work and help prepare for the choral climax that starts, “I hope you feel better soon.” In the final section, in which the baritone articulates the overwhelming feeling of love Peter felt for his nurses, their soft overlapping voices return, as if introducing themselves once more to the next patient in the ICU.

I will never forget the moment when The Bach Choir came together to rehearse one Monday evening in September after an eighteen-month enforced silence. The thrill of hearing its magnificent choral sound resonating through Westminster Cathedral Hall, and the cheer for its conductor David Hall was like a release of emotion after so many months of musical and social deprivation. It was a moment when music triumphed, when everyone there truly appreciated the value of what had been lost. After reading through the Faure Requiem the choir turned to Vision Of A Garden, with its librettist Peter Johnstone surrounded by his friends in the tenor section. The first read-through, despite its hesitations and mistakes, was overwhelmingly positive and we all could hear the shape and architecture of the work. Afterwards I spoke to Peter, who had brought his diaries to the rehearsal to show fellow members. He appeared very pleased with the singing of his and the nurses’ words for the first time and insisted that at the concert he would be singing rather than sitting in the audience. When the baritone solo and the Philharmonia Orchestra join The Bach Choir on October 24th our vision will finally come to life.

Richard Blackford

Vision Of A Garden receives its premiere on 24 October 2021 at the Royal Festival at 3pm. The Bach Choir and Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by David Hill, are joined by baritone Gareth Brynmor John, as part of a concert which include's Faure's Requiem, the premiere of Gabriel Jackson's The Promise of Dawn and music by Tallis and RVW, details from the Southbank Centre website.

Vision Of A Garden will be recorded at St. Augustine’s Church, Kilburn, the following week for release on Lyrita Records. On the same disc will be a new recording of Richard Blackford’s acclaimed St Francis of Assisi cantata Mirror Of Perfection, with soloists Sophie Bevan and Roderick Williams, with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by David Hill.

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