Thursday 26 May 2022

Intensely evocative: Arun Ghosh's spiritual jazz re-imagining of St Francis of Assisi's The Canticle of the Sun premieres in Norwich

Arun Ghosh: The Canticle of the Sun; Arun Ghosh, Irini Arabatzi, Seaming To, Camilla George, Ruth Goller, Sarathy Korwar, Huw Bennett, Mieko Shimizu; St Peter Mancroft Church, Norfolk & Norwich Festival
Reviewed, 21 May 2022 by Tony Cooper

The audience didn't want the show to end: Arun Ghosh's eclectic re-imagining of St Francis' sublime and mystical prayer

The splendid 15th-century church of St Peter Mancroft nestling by the side of Norwich’s centuries-old marketplace, proved a perfect setting for Arun Ghosh’s new work, The Canticle of the Sun, a spiritual jazz re-imagining of St Francis of Assisi’s devout and mystical prayer, at the Norfolk & Norwich Festival on 21 May 2022.

Award-winning British-Asian clarinettist, composer, music educator, Arun Ghosh (who grew up in Bolton to first-generation Indian parents) is all over the show when it comes to musical styles as he incorporates in his work a wide range of musical genres from jazz, Indian and western classical to hip-hop, rock and experimental sounds.

His latest work, The Canticle of the Sun (co-commissioned by Sound UK and Norfolk & Norwich Festival) proved an eclectic and electric-driven jazz setting of St Francis of Assisi’s sublime and mystical prayer dating from the 13th century telling of the heavens filled with the glory of God and all creation is shouting for joy!

Arun Ghosh reimagined this most loving and devotional prayer through a host of spiritual music gleaned from across the world therefore he harnessed the intensely evocative sounds of qawwali, meditative mantras and mezmur (Ethiopian Orthodox Church music) as well as Gregorian chants and spiritual jazz thereby creating a transcendental sound world which projected a powerful (but gentle) message that humanity is but one part of the ecosystem.

For sure, a passionate, heartfelt and spiritual work, the subject-matter focuses upon the importance of prayer in celebrating the unity of nature from the sun to the creatures that live beneath it thus spelling out St Francis’ all-encompassing message of love and respect for the celestial and natural world. In fact, the work could readily be described as a ‘love-song’ to life, nature and the all-embracing universe as the flowing verses not only praise the sun, the moon and the stars but also the natural elements of air, water, fire and earth, too, while universal themes of love, devotion, death and peace are self-evident.

Set across eleven songs – ‘Opening’, ‘The Sun’, ‘The Moon & Stars’, ‘The Wind & Air’, ‘Water’, ‘Fire’, ‘Mother Earth’, ‘Praised by You, for your Love’, ‘Peace’, ‘Death’, ‘Praise and Bless my Lord’ - Arun Ghosh’s electro-acoustic realisation of The Canticle of the Sun was sung in the original Umbrian text used by St Francis heard alongside a chanted English translation graciously performed by an eight-piece contemporary ensemble, - Irini Arabatzi, Seaming To (voice), Camilla George (alto saxophone), Ruth Goller (electric bass), Sarathy Korwar (drums, percussion), Huw Bennett (double-bass), Mieko Shimizu (keyboards, harmonium, vocals) - led from the keyboard by Arun Ghosh. He also led one song from the guitar and on the last piece showed his dexterity on clarinet partnering Camilla George on alto saxophone - who contributed so much to the overall success of the evening - in a lively musical conversation and, from my perspective, a highlight of the whole show.

As one would expect from an ensemble of virtuosic players, they produced some brilliant stuff. For instance, amazing and stylised percussion work emanated from Sarathy Korwar with Mieko Shimizu on electronic keyboard/harmonium complementing well Arun Ghosh’s dynamism at the keyboard while Ruth Goller (electric bass) and Huw Bennett (double-bass) added the necessary weight and balance to the overall sound of the band.

And the well-controlled and well-phrased voices of Irini Arabatzi and Seaming To were superb radiating round the beautiful and majestic church of St Peter Mancroft (highly praised by architectural historian, Sir Nikolaus Pevsner) in total harmony floating high over the ensemble’s pulsating, hypnotic and energetic rhythms to mesmerising and great effect.

I was truly taken by The Canticle of the Sun as, too, was the rest of the audience judging by the great reception they offered the performers at the end. They didn’t want the show to end, neither did I, therefore I’m hoping to pick up another performance hopefully at St John’s, Bethnal Green, London, on Friday 1 July. Further performances follow at Hull Minster (Thursday 1 September), St Barnabas’, Oxford (Thursday 8 September) and St Bartholomew’s, Marsden (Sunday 9 October), further details from the Sound UK website.

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