Monday 18 July 2022

Our Future in Your Hands: Kate Whitley's new oratorio for Buxton used a chorus of children from local schools and students from the RNCM to terrific effect

Kate Whitley: Our Future in Your Hands - Buxton International Festival (Photo David John King Photography)
Kate Whitley: Our Future in Your Hands - Buxton International Festival (Photo David John King Photography)

Kate Whitley:
Our Future in Your Hands; Fiona Finsbury, Rhiannon Dougan, Christopher Cull, children from Derbyshire schools, members of the festival Young Instrumentalists Programme; Buxton International Festival at St John's Church, Buxton
Reviewed 17 July 2022

A climate change oratorio full of imaginative writing and invested with terrific energy and commitment by a chorus of local school children 

Kate Whitley and Laura Attridge's new oratorio Our Future in Your Hands was commissioned for 2020 by Buxton International Festival and the Royal Over-Seas League. Its premiere was postponed until 2022 and we caught the second of two performances at the Buxton International Festival at St John's Church, Buxton on Sunday 17 July 2022. Tom Newall conducted an orchestra made up of instrumentalists from the festival's Young Instrumentalists Programme (taken from students at the Royal Northern College of Music) alongside mentors from the Northern Chamber Orchestra, with soloists Fiona Finsbury (soprano), Rhiannon Dougan (mezzo-soprano), and Christopher Cull (baritone). The two choruses were made up of over fifty young people from eight Derbyshire schools - Platform3 Singing Club (Burbage School, Fairfield Endowed C of E Junior School, Peak Dale Primary School, Buxton Community School, St Philip Howard Catholic Voluntary Academy, St Mary's Catholic Voluntary Academy, Tinderbox Performing Arts and Tintwistle Primary School.  Voices were largely unbroken with a sprinkling broken ones. The orchestra used single woodwind (no clarinet), horn trumpet, bass trombone, tuba and two percussionists.

Taking as its subject climate change, the oratorio was in ten parts with choruses alternating with solo movements. The chorus was split into two, one the voice of protest and anger, the other of hope and optimism, though it has to be admitted that this distinction was harder to discern in performance as words came over patchily in the church's resonant acoustic. Some choruses had parts for the soloists, central solo sections and sections where soli soared over chorus. 

Each soloist also got a solo movement too, Rhiannon Dougan was  a woman struggling to find water to survive, Christopher Cull was man struggling to decided whether to bring a child into the world and Fiona Finsbury was an astronaut watching Earthrise from space.

The majority of chorus members were in the five to seven year old age range and singing seven choruses from memory in a substantial new work was a big ask. Kate Whitley's writing for the young singers centred on ostinato phrases, chanted repeatedly, sometimes hammered home and creating a wonderful proletarian roar. Only once or twice did she let the chorus lines soar, notably when singing about 'Our Future'. The results were terrific, and the young singers invested the music with an incredible energy. The many faster numbers having a great sense of propulsion and a feeling of investment that suggested the subject matter and the words really meant something to them.

Kate Whitley: Our Future in Your Hands - Buxton International Festival (Photo David John King Photography)
Kate Whitley: Our Future in Your Hands - Buxton International Festival (Photo David John King Photography)

Underneath, the orchestra often had slower ostinatos, Whitley creating some striking timbres. She used brass extensively and certainly she kept the bass trombone and tuba busy! The results were full of colour and energy, supporting and complementing the singers without ostensible doubling. Whitley's writing certainly pulled no punches, the accompaniment was not traditional protest song, there was little in the way of simple rhythmic framework for the young singers to hang onto, yet they followed conductor Tim Newall admirably.

In the solos, Whitley's vocal writing inclined to the plainly declamatory. Rhiannon Dougan was moving as the woman searching for water, ending bleakly with the phrase 'Where should we go'. Christopher Cull began his solo quietly accompanied just by scrubbing strings and tuba, but this built to something powerful. Fiona Finsbury as the astronaut moved from declamation to passionate rapture.

Words were something of a problem in the acoustic and whilst everyone tried hard, not enough came over and the work might benefit from a less resonant acoustic.

The performance came after a matinee of Rossini's La donna del lago, in which Fiona Finsbury had played Albina, Rhiannon Dougan and Christopher Cull had sung in the chorus and some dozen orchestra members had provided the stage band, so this had been a busy day indeed. Tom Newall did not just control his forces, he invested the performance with incredible energy and was richly rewarded.

Laura Attridge and Kate Whitley chose not to end on a gloomy note, but to be positive as children and adults sang about planting a garden. 

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