Musical ecumenism in Wales (i)

One of my great musical pleasures over the last few years has been my visits to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, where I have just been for the fourth time. On each occasion I have returned home enriched by the discovery of intriguing compositional voices brought to South Wales from all parts of the globe by the untiring advocacy and unfailingly open ears of festival director John Metcalf, whose artistic policy has consistently been marked by a refusal to pander to musical fashion and a commitment to favouring content over superficial effect. It was through the Vale of Glamorgan Festival that I for example came across the symphonies of Australia’s Ross Edwards, the extraordinary choral works of the Dane Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen or the deeply spiritual music of Galina Grigorjeva, a Ukrainian living in Estonia who is rapidly emerging as one of Eastern Europe’s most potently expressive composers of sacred music in the generation after Arvo Pärt, Valentin Silvestrov and Sofia Gubaidulina.

It was Galina Grigojeva’s work, as well as that of John Metcalf himself, which led me to Wales last week in order to attend the first performances of their new Psalm-settings commissioned as part of the SOLI DEO GLORIA Psalms Project, sung by the unique Estonian 13-member vocal ensemble Vox Clamantis. Last year’s collaboration with the festival had borne fruit in the form of a wonderful Psalm 141 by Gavin Bryars premièred by the stunning Ars Nova Copenhagen, so inevitably my question when travelling to Cardiff was whether the two new Psalms commissions would reach the same artistic standard. I am happy to answer with a resounding yes on both counts, with the pieces delivering the musical goods in completely different yet complementary ways.

Galina Grigorjeva’s compositional style is both wide-ranging and technically impressive; she is equally at home when writing in a highly accessible diatonic idiom as when producing intricate atonal choral soundscapes whose texture is at times reminiscent of Penderecki (Nature Morte, 2008). The first Eastern Orthodox composer to join the SDG Psalms Project roster, Grigorjeva provided us with an invigorating setting of Psalm 103 which, in spite of its English text, is clearly rooted in Byzantine tradition. As such, it is very much in keeping with her previous choral works such as the riveting On Leaving (1999) which had alerted me to its composer as soon as I heard the ear-tingling first seconds of the piece sung by the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir under Paul Hillier.

Balticic Voices 2 cover

In our public pre-concert discussion, Galina Grigorjeva explained that her choice of words had been motivated by Psalm 103’s emphasis on a Divine – as opposed to merely human – strength which is badly needed in today’s world. If this strength was already well conveyed by the modestly-sized forces of Vox Clamantis, I found myself imagining the full visceral impact that Grigorjeva’s Bless the Lord might have when sung by a larger choir (preferably with the assistance of a few stray Volga boatmen to underpin the bass section!).

The contrast between the eternal character of God and this-worldly transience structures the setting; after a bold, largely homophonic opening section recounting God’s constant redemptive action (‘Bless the Lord, o my soul, and forget not all his benefits’), there is a transition to a more fluid, fleeting texture (marked by skilful canonic writing) at the lines

‘As for man, his days are as grass, as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind passeth over it and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more’

With Galina Grigorjeva in St Augustine’s Church, Penarth

Chordal declamation then returns at the pivotal verse ‘but the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him’ and continues unabated until the final acclamation ‘Bless the Lord, all his works in all places of his dominion; Bless the Lord, o my soul’. Grigorjeva’s Orthodoxy comes through in the the resolutely theocentric focus of her setting, whose affirmative tone nonetheless avoids any kind of cheap triumphalism.

John Metcalf’s choice of Psalm 150, Laudate Dominum, as the text for his Psalm-setting might have created expectations of a similarly robust treatment of a supremely musical text which has inspired many composers from Schütz to Bruckner, Franck and Stravinsky. However, both as a composer and as a frequently counter-cultural champion of New Music, John Metcalf has never been one to conform to received ideas. His Laudate Dominum offers us a purposefully understated work of great delicacy and subtle harmonic shifts, evoking a feeling of hushed wonder at the mystery of God’s universe (‘laudate eum in firmamento virtutis ejus‘/’praise Him in the firmament of his power’). Musically, this sense of worshipful humility is symbolized by Metcalf’s self-limitation in terms of compositional means, the writing being constrained by the constant appearance of the note G (in various octaves) at every moment of the piece in sonorities varying from single notes to rich 8-part pan-diatonic harmonic clusters. The success of the work lies in Metcalf’s ability to make highly expressive music on the basis of what might at first seem a dry compositional exercise, while consistently refusing clichéd solutions. No concessions are made to stereotypical word-painting; although the choir reaches an obligatory fortissimo at the words laudate eum in cymbalis jubilationis (literally, ‘cymbals of jubilation’), there is no artificial interruption of the work’s stately, dignified pace for the sake of obvious textual illustration, as if to remind us that jubilation is essentially a matter of an inner spiritual state and only secondarily one of external expression. Likewise Psalm 150’s reference to ‘timbrel and dance‘ (‘laudate eum in tympano et choro) is reflected in the music’s slow, exquisitely choreographed movement, conjuring up images of the silent motion of the heavenly bodies. Two precedents for this type of treatment spring to mind. The first is the conclusion of Henryk Górecki’s vastly underrated ‘Copernican’ Symphony n.2., a true ‘cosmic liturgy’ in music if ever there was one,  a work in which the Polish composer (a visitor to the Vale of Glamorgan Festival in 1994) sets words from Psalms 145, 6 and 135 alongside texts from Copernicus’s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium [‘On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres’]. A second, more well-known example is the quiet, rapt final ‘Laudate’ of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. John Metcalf’s insistence during our discussion that he deliberately avoided listening to the work of the great Russian composer while writing only makes this convergence more striking. While the Psalms undoubtedly possess extraordinary generative power in their capacity to elicit new responses from successive generations of artists, there is something no less extraordinary in their gravitational pull, in the frequent underlying similarity of these artistic responses across barriers of time and space. As in the famous epigram of Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (1808-1890), plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.’

These two first performances on their own would have been enough to make the Vox Clamantis concert a memorable one. Equally remarkable, however, was the rest of their highly imaginative and ecumenical programme, which will be the subject of the second part of this post.

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John Metcalf (centre-right) with members of Vox Clamantis and conductor Jaan-Eik Tulve

A selection of works by Galina Grigorjeva can be heard online at: http://www.reverbnation.com/galinagrigorjeva

More information on the music of John Metcalf can be found at http://www.johnmetcalf.co.uk/

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