Sunday 3 July 2022

Arun Ghosh's The Canticle of the Sun at the Spitalfields Music Festival

Arun Ghosh: The Canticle of the Sun - Arun Ghosh & ensemble - Spitalfields Festival at St John on Bethnal Green
Arun Ghosh: The Canticle of the Sun - Arun Ghosh & ensemble - Spitalfields Festival at St John on Bethnal Green

Arun Ghosh: The Canticle of the Sun; Arun Shosh, Irini Arabatzi, Seaming To, Camilla George, Sarathy Korwar, Ruth Goller, Davide Mantovani; Spitalfields Music at St John on Bethnal Green

Eclectic and powerful, Ghosh's style of composed jazz fused many different elements in his setting of St Francis' original Umbrian dialect text

Clarinettist and composer Arun Ghosh's spiritual jazz reimagining of St Francis of Assisi's The Canticle of the Sun premiered at this year's Norfolk & Norwich Festival, when Tony heard it and reviewed it for us [link]. Produced by Sound UK, the work was a co-commission between the Norfolk & Norwich Festival and Spitalfields Music. On Friday 1 July 2022, we caught Arun Ghosh and his ensemble giving the London premiere of The Canticle of the Sun at St John on Bethnal Green as part of Spitalfields Music's Summer festival. 

Ghosh set St Francis' text in the original Umbrian dialect, sung by Irini Arabatzi and Seaming To, accompanied by Arun Ghosh on keyboards (with some guitar and clarinet), Camilla George on alto saxophone, Sarathy Korwar on drums and percussion, Ruth Goller on electric bass and Davide Mantovani on double bass. Lighting was by Brendan Clarke with sound by Tim Hand.

The text was split up into ten sections, each prefaced by a spoken recitation of a key part of the English translation which pointed up the theme of that section, 'Brother Sun', 'Sister Moon and the stars', 'Brother Wind', 'Brother Fire', Sister Mother Earth', 'Those who give pardon', 'Those who endure in peace', 'Sister Bodily Death' and a final 'Praise and bless my Lord'. The style was very much composed jazz, highly structured but with space for instrumental riffs notably from Ghosh, George and Mantovani. The sound world was fascinatingly rhythmic; instrumentally, Ghosh placed a lot on the two bass instruments and the drum kit, with just his keyboards filling in harmony. In some sections this created a feeling of the two voices (usually in unison) over a rhythmic figure with little in the way of middle filling.

Each section had a particular character, with Ghosh showing an eclectic taste so that the music had elements of chant, laid-back late-night blues, minimalism and more. The styles also varied from the note crunching to the spare, and even at one point a feeling that a Country-style sing-along was not far away. But in each section, he would set up a rhythmic motif which was repeated, with variants, and the music would evolve over this. Whether fast or slow, this gave the music a fascinating sense of impetus, and even the most laid-back of music could be whipped up into strong climaxes. This meant that for all the eclecticism, it was Ghosh's own voice that was prominent.

He was a highly active participant in the drama, most of the evening he directed from the keyboards and his body language was almost as expressive as his playing. For 'Mother Earth' he moved to acoustic guitar and then during 'Sister Bodily Death' there was a stunning, climactic clarinet solo that moved from something rather Eastern Mediterranean and ancient into more jazz-inspired intensity. The ending, coming after this clarinet solo section, was aetherial and evocative, gradually unwinding to a satisfied close.

Lighting by Brandan Clarke was heavily involved in the changes of mood, though there was a rather over dependence on strong colours (see the above highly pink image), and I would have liked moments when we could see the players in a more natural light. This was a highly amplified evening, and whilst Tim Hand's sound set up gave us a strong clear sound, I felt that it was a little too much for the venue. Ghosh's approach was a long way from big-band screaming and a subtler sound scheme would have helped, but perhaps that is just the old fogey in me!

Given that Spitalfields Music presents such a diverse array of styles and genres, I felt that this presentation had missed a trick and that an early evening performance of Walton's fine choral setting of the text, Canticle del Sole (from 1974) might have been an interesting exercise in compare and contrast, and there are plenty of other settings of the text to explore from Donovan to Tõnu Kõrvits!


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