Monday 3 October 2022

From folk-inspired music to contemporary music mixing Carnatic and Western classical: finale concert of Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival

Olav Mjelva, Erik Rydvall & United Strings of Europe - Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival (Dmitri Djuric)
Olav Mjelva, Erik Rydvall & United Strings of Europe - Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival (Dmitri Djuric)
Finale Concert: Boccherini, Piazzolla, JP Jofre, Joseph Phibbs, Shruthi Rajasekar, Morten Lauridsen; Cantate Youth Choir, Herefordshire County Youth Choir, ORA Singers, Suzi Digby, Festival resident musicians; Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival at the Old Palace
Reviewed 2 October 2022 (★★★★)

A diverse end to the festival, including two world premieres, folk-inspired music from the Nordic countries, Romania, Argentina and Spain, plus cross pollination between Carnatic and Western classical musics

The Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival finished on Sunday 2 October 2022 with a final concert in the Old Palace celebrating the festival's theme of A World of Music, involving the festival's resident musicians and guests including JP Jofre (bandoneon), Adam Walker (flute), Morgan Szymanski (guitar), Nirmala Rajasekar (veena), Thanjavur Murugaboopathi (percussion), the Lodestar Trio, the United Strings of Europe, Ensemble Renard, ORA Singers, Suzi Digby (conductor), Herefordshire County Youth Choir, and Cantate Youth Choir, performing music by Boccherini, Piazzolla, JP Jofre, Stanford, Joseph Phibbs, Shruthi Rajasekar and Morten Lauridsen.

We began with United Strings of Europe (leader Julian Azkoul) in Boccherini's Musica noturna delle stradedi Madrid, his quintet evoking the sights and sounds of night-time Madrid. A work that he refused to publish during his lifetime as he said that it would not make sense to anyone unfamiliar with Madrid's night life. It is an idiomatic and colourful piece, with bells, blind musicians, soldiers' drums and far more. The ensemble played it with elegance and verve, as well as with a nice degree of creative freedom, and they were clearly having an enjoyable time, and so were we.

Julian Azkoul, Max Baillie & United Strings of Europe - Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival (Dmitri Djuric)
Julian Azkoul, Max Baillie & United Strings of Europe - Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival (Dmitri Djuric)

From Madrid at night, we travelled to the cafes of Argentina.

Adam Walker and Morgan Szymanski gave us movements of Piazzolla's 1985 work, L'Histoire du Tango. We heard the middle two movements. First 'Cafe 1930' where the music moved from elegant melancholy to more rhythmic, virtuoso moments. Then 'Night Club 1960' where the tempo was faster, the music edgier. In both cases, the form felt very free and there where rhapsodic movements and some lovely textures for flute and guitar, as well as plenty of discreetly virtuosic plying from Walker and Szymanski.

Modern day Argentinian composer and bandoneon player JP Jofre also channelled something of the tango in his String Quartet and Bandoneon No. 3, a single movement work that Jofre played with a quintet made up of Max Baillie and Julian Azkoul, violins, and players from United Strings of Europe. The work began in a dark, intense and highly rhythmic fashion, the music having hints of more popular elements alongside the spiky harmonies. This material was punctuated by slower, more lyrical sections by the opening material kept returning and we had driving rhythms to the very end.

The first half ended with a collaboration that had been put together specially for the festival, the Lodestar Trio (Max Baillie, violin, Olav Mjelva, folk violin, Erik Rydvall, nyckelharpa) joined forces with the United Strings of Europe for a medley that took in the music of Bach, Bartok and Grieg alongside Nordic folk songs. At the centre was a group of Bartok's Romanian Dances, intriguingly reworked with folk violin and nyckelharpa as their focus, but the music moved freely between styles and genres, yet always remained engaging and fascinating. The sound of the unison strings joining the Lodestar Trio in some of the Nordic folk material conjured, for me, the sound of Scots fiddle ensembles!

The second half opened with the two youth choirs, Cantate Youth Choir and Herefordshire County Youth Choir, conducted by James Slimings, in a lively account of Stanford's double-choir Latin motet Coelos Ascendit Hodie.

The rest of the concert took as its theme the idea of light, with a series of choral works including two new commissions and ending with Morten Lauridsen's Lux aeterna. We began with the premiere of Joseph Phibbs' Let there be light for cello and choir, performed by ORA Singers, conductor Suzi Digby, with cellist Guy Johnston (artistic director of the festival). Phibbs assembled a text from Biblical sources and the 17th century metaphysical poet, Henry Vaughan, mixing English with Latin, Greek and Hebrew. The work opened with a rhapsodic cello part and for the long first section, this alternated with a strong solo tenor cantor and responses from different sections of the choir in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, with the choral response varying from high and aetherial to low, dark and intense. A faster middle section, where cello pizzicato accompanied the choir led to a climax and a return to the rhapsodic cello solo. Finally, the setting of Vaughan's text, again with choir and pizzicato cello, but this subsided and the work ended with further cello rhapsodising over held choir notes.

Then came another new work, this time for choir and veena, a lute-like Indian instrument. Light Eternal by American-Indian composer Shruthi Rajasekar combined South Indian classical (Carnatic) and Western classical influences, with Suzi Digby and ORA Singers being joined by veena player Nirmala Rajasekar (Shruthi Rajasekar's mother) and percussionist Thanjavur Murugaboopathi (from Chennai). The text combines words from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (a 7th to 6th century BCE Sanskrit text that is one of the first Upanishadic scriptures of Hinduism) with words from Psalm 119 and Erasmus.

Combining the two types of music (Carnatic and Western) is tricky, owing to the differences in tuning and much of the first half of the work was a sort of call and response, based on a series of drones, with the choral contribution being responded to by virtuosic flights from Nirmala Rajasekar on veena. Gradually the music became stronger and more rhythmically intense, and at the end the two worlds combined in an evocation of the Thanam, the percussive form of Carnatic music, creating something hypnotic. The music for the choir kept to relatively simple harmonic forms and the spice of the piece was very much in the writing for veena, where Nirmala Rajasekar was playing from memory and creating some astonishing improvisations. Throughout the percussion player supported Nirmala Rajasekar and at the end rather came into his own with the highly rhythmic sections.

Sunday 2 October 2022 was Gandhi Day (Mahatma Gandhi's birthday, he was born on 2 October 1869) and in recognition, Shruthi Rajasekar had arranged the devotional song Raghupathi Raghava Raja Ram for Nirmala Rajasekar (voice and veena) and the United Strings of Europe. Rhapsodic at first, it moved into a highly rhythmic and dramatic form moving towards the climax.

The final work in the programme was Morten Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna, a five-movement work for choir and orchestra which the composer wrote in 1997. It uses Latin texts assembled by the composer but remains a secular piece, exploring the various elements of sacred light. The work was performed by Herefordshire County Youth Choir, Cantate Youth Choir, ORA Singers, United Strings of Europe and Ensemble Renard, conducted by Suzi Digby. 

For much of the opening movement, Introitus, Lauridsen alternated the choir, singing in a style familiar from the composer's famous unaccompanied choral pieces, with a warm, mobile orchestral texture, only bringing them together at towards the end. Throughout the piece, Lauridsen used his two groups independently, sometimes together and sometimes separate, rather than the orchestra simply accompanying choir. The second movement, In te, Domine speravi was darker and more intense with freer writing for the choir, whilst the rather touching O nata lux used a lot of unaccompanied choir in Lauridsen's more familiar style. The large-scale Veni, sancte spiritus was a remarkable dance-based movement growing from a choral unison. We ended with Agnus Dei - Lux Aeterna, which moved from unaccompanied choir to a more romantic tutti which developed quite a head of steam.

Morten Lauridsen: Lux Aeterna - Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival (Dmitri Djuric)
Morten Lauridsen: Lux Aeterna - Hatfield House Chamber Music Festival (Dmitri Djuric)

Lauridsen's piece is quite a large scale one, lasting around 30 minutes. Coming at the end of a long and diverse programme (the whole concert lasted around 150 minutes) was perhaps not ideal positioning and it might have been fairer to have a shorter programme with the Lauridsen more as the focus. At times the work seemed to be slightly to extended for its material, but Digby and her performers undoubtedly gave it a finely crafted performance and it was lovely to see the young singers from the youth choirs performing enthusiastically alongside the adults in ORA Singers.

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