Tuesday 4 April 2023

Imaginative programme & unusual repertoire: The Fourth Choir's The Only Planet at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The Only Planet - The Fourth Choir, Dusty Francis - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
The Only Planet - The Fourth Choir, Dusty Francis - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
(Photo: Kathleen Holman)

The Only Planet: Jean Ritchie, S M Denson, William Billings, Adolphus Hailstork, Stuart Beatch, Dale Trumbore, Samuel Barber, Elisha West, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, Judith Bingham, Vaughan Williams, Cooper Baldwin; The Fourth Choir, Dusty Francis; Sam Wanamker Playhouse
Reviewed 3 April 2023

An imaginative programme about the beauty of the Earth and the failure of man's tending of it, with music stretching from 18th-century America to contemporary

Founded in 2013 and celebrating its 10th anniversary later this year with a concert at the Barbican, The Fourth Choir is an LGBT+ chamber choir whose focus is on classical repertoire, its name arose because there were already three other LGBT choirs in London, mostly focusing on more popular repertoire. The choir has just appointed a new music director, Jamie Powe, and is currently working with a series of guest directors.

For The Fourth Choir's concert at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare's Globe, they were conducted by Dusty Francis, an American conductor and bass-baritone currently living in London where he is the choral director at the American School. The programme was entitled The Only Planet and inspired by the song Now is the Cool of the Day by the Appalachian songwriter and folk musician, Jean Ritchie. In the song, Ritchie urges us both to admire this garden of Earth and to look after it. The concert was divided into three sections, each preceded by a verse of Ritichie's song, If you keep the grasses green, with works about the full cycle of life, If you will feed my lambs, and If you keep the waters clean where the maritime theme shaded into foreboding, death and disaster.

It was an intriguing concept and one that brought a degree of coherence to the sort of mixed programme beloved by choral directors. Here we had over a dozen works ranging from the 18th century to the contemporary with a strong North American theme. This meant hearing music and composers whose work is not so well represented in the UK. So there were pieces by William Billings (1746-1800) and Elisha West (1756-1832), American hymns from the early 20th century, music by Samuel Barber and Augustus Hailstork and contemporary pieces by Stuart Beatch, Dale Trumbore, and Cooper Baldwin. In the final section of the programme there was also a small European contingent, with music by RVW and contemporary pieces by Jaakko Mäntyjärvi and Judith Bingham.

The Only Planet - The Fourth Choir, Dusty Francis - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
The Only Planet - The Fourth Choir, Dusty Francis - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
(Photo: Kathleen Holman)

The choir was nearly 40 strong, filling the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse's stage. The acoustic in the theatre is clear and somewhat dry; one of those acoustics that is true but gives the choral singer little help. There were a few pieces in the programme where this acoustic clarity was a little unhelpful and you rather missed the sense of aural bloom that a more resonant acoustic gives. Some of the more challenging contemporary pieces would have benefited from the aural blending of a more sympathetic, reverberant acoustic. The flip side of this, of course, is that the playhouse is such a wonderfully evocative space!

We began with a verse from Ritiche's song Now is the Cool of the Day, a fine mezzo-soprano solo leading to a choral arrangement that seemed very much inspired by the work of William Billings and the American shape-note movement. This feeling was kept for the next couple of items, first an early 20th-century hymn by Seaborn M Denson (with 18th-century text) in a contemporary arrangement from American composer Carol Barnett's An American Thanksgiving (2003) where Barnett keeps the period shape and feel to the music, but then develops it into something more complex with varied choral textures, though Barnett's piece seemed to stretch the material out rather too much. Next came the real thing, I am the rose of Sharon by William Billings, a remarkably perky setting, given a finely direct and vigorous performance.

We moved into a different musical world with Nocturne by the contemporary American composer Augustus Hailstork. The piece was written in the 1980s for the choir of the Unitarian Church in Norfolk where Hailstork was choral director. It began with folk-inspired melodies weaving in and out of humming, though the language was pure American the structure and style reminded me somewhat of Kodaly's choral treatments of the folk melodies of Hungary. As the piece developed the texture became more complex, yet always Hailstork kept that element of sustained notes with the melodies weaving over. It was rather a lovely piece, and we certainly do not hear enough music by Hailstork.

Stuart Beatch is a contemporary Canadian composer. His a boy & a boy was written in 2022 setting a poem by his friend Matthew Stepanic aimed at creating a piece that is unashamedly queer. The text was inspired by Octavia Paz's poem A boy & a girl set by Eric Whitacre. Beatch is currently the Fourth Choir's composer-in-residence and this was the UK premiere of the piece. I have to confess that this was one of the pieces that I felt rather stretched beyond the concert's concept. Stepanic's three verses pick three moments in two men's lives, young boys stretched out together in the wheat fields, sitting together as men in the theatre, and stretched out side by side in death. Beatch's setting began as a contemporary part song, largely homophonic and tonal, but with an interesting sound world, with some nice crunchy harmonies. It did not feel that far from the Barber piece in the programme, which is no bad model.

Los Angeles-based composer Dale Trumbore's Returning featured a chorus designed to be sung by everyone. It was an evocative piece, quasi-folk song with a sustained harmonic backdrop developing into interesting textures, though I was not quite sure whether the material developed sufficiently to sustain interest over all four verses.

We moved from exploring the life-cycle of the world to feeding and food in If you will feed my lambs. Here, the verse from Ritchie's song was followed by a rather lovely Shaker Hymn from 1908, Not one sparrow is forgotten, given rather lush harmonies by American composer William Hawley. Then came Samuel Barber's The Coolin' setting a text by James Stephen from Barber's Reicarnations. The text is based on a traditional Irish one, and the title refers to a fair woman. I have always assumed the poem was about seduction 'Come with me, under my coat', though the reference to drinking the milk of the white goes seems to be the reason it was included here, a bit of a stretch, perhaps. But Barber's imaginative choral writing came as something of a relief after the mixture of rather slow, folk/hymn-inspired music in arrangements that often featured long sustained harmonies. The Barber is a tricky piece and the choir rose well to the challenge.

We finished the first half with another 18th-century piece, The reapers all with their sharp sickles, in an arrangement by American composer and choral conductor Seth Houston that felt rather contemporary. Again we began with a folk-like hymn melody (this time on solo tenor) over sustained harmonies and it was only in the third verse, describing the day that the earth shakes, that the choir joined in.

The second half was subtitled If you keep the waters clean, and featured music where disasters were described or foretold, reflecting the way we have not kept the world clean. Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi wrote Canticum Calamitatis Maritimae in 1997. It is dedicated to the memory of all those who died in the shipwreck of the ferry Estonia in 1994, and sets the Latin text from the Requiem and from Psalm 107 ('They that go down to the sea in ships') along with a description of the disaster from Nuntii Latini, the Latin-language Finnish news service!

Here was a very different sound world indeed, and it came as both a relief and a renewal of interest in the musical narrative. Mäntyjärvi begins the piece with a sigh, and then muttering from the choir over which stretched a wordless solo soprano and tenor soloist who sings the Nuntii Latini text. Mäntyjärvi creates complex textures from multiple layers of lines, each of which could be described as intoning, overlaying different elements to remarkable effect. It was the sort of writing that required attention to detail from the singers, switching between styles and types of vocal production, and the result was a dazzling and engaging piece. It eventually reached a climax, with a strong homophonic choral section, but this unanimity did not last and the closing pages featured elements from earlier in the work, combined and gradually receding from view.

The inclusion of Judith Bingham's The Drowned Lovers was rather naughty. Certainly, the piece was inspired by Bingham's swim in a Bavarian lake and uses her own words which have a watery theme, but overall the work is one of Bingham's series where she reconstructs elements from existing music. In this case, Stanford's part-song The Blue Bird, and the choral contribution in Bingham's piece consists of elements selected from Stanford. In the published score, Bingham requests that the piece be followed by The Blue Bird. This did not happen here (the Stanford did not fit the theme), but it perhaps weakened Bingham's piece. Over the lovely rocking choral texture that Bingham creates there was the fine mezzo-soprano solo from guest Cara Curran. As ever, Bingham's harmonies are striking and the result was intriguing indeed.

Next came a more familiar piece, RVW's Shakespeare setting, Full Fathom Five in a lovely evocative performance that brought out the work's shimmering harmonies. 

Cooper Baldwin is a contemporary American composer. His Libera Me (as embers singe the tide) mixes the Latin text with quotes from the 2022 IPCC Report on Climate Change! It began gently, with some striking, opaque harmonies. Baldwin made much use of choral chattering and chanting to create complex layers as a backdrop to solo lines, into a series of striking choral moments. A setting of words from the Dies Irae which featured rhythmic stamping from the choir became remarkably threatening and almost militaristic, which made the background to the piece all the more intriguing. Overall this seemed to be a deliberately unsettling work.

We ended with a final verse from Jean Ritchie.

This was an intriguing and challenging programme. As I have said, I was not quite convinced by the selection of pieces in part one and felt that the programme after the interval was more satisfying in its variety. That said, there is no gainsaying the strong performances from the choir. This was a taxing programme, with some tricky pieces and a challenging variety of styles. All were sung with confidence and aplomb.

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