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.

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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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In search of vital signs (2)

Three days prior to the first performance of Roxanna Panufnik’s Love Endureth in Westminster Cathedral I had been in Wales for a concert given by the remarkable 12-voice ensemble Ars Nova Copenhagen under conductor Søren Kinch Hansen at All Saints’ Church, Penarth in the Vale of Glamorgan Festival.  Nothing suggested that this would draw a major turnout: All Saints’, though a pleasant enough church, is hardly one of Wales’s most prestigious buildings, and the two commissioned composers with works on the programme (Gavin Bryars and myself) both had problems finding it! Ars Nova may be a Grammy-winning choir, but they are scarcely household names in the UK, and they were performing an evening of music comprised exclusively of works written by living composers. If broadcasting Beethoven 7 over a PA system can prevent loitering, as we discovered thanks to Philip Hensher in the previous post, then this repertoire ought to have provoked a veritable public stampede in the opposite direction.

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All Saints’ Church, Penarth

Except that it didn’t. For some inexplicable reason the church was packed with around 250 listeners – a good proportion of them local residents of this small seaside town just outside Cardiff. And listen they certainly did. The evening began with Three Stages, a joyfully anarchic soundscape of Copenhagen street cries, birdsong and Renaissance melody by Danish composer Pelle Gudmunsen-Holmgreen. As an extraordinary extended exercise in choral acrobatics it had already made my jaw drop when I heard Ars Nova rehearse it in a studio at Welsh National Opera the previous evening, not least because it was very evident that this is a piece that gives the choir immense pleasure (I saw none of your typical ‘Contemporary Music Scowls’ here). But in concert Ars Nova’s output of vocal energy – in an acoustic doing them no favours – was even more remarkable: I was not the only member of the audience pinching myself in order to remember that we were hearing only a dozen rather than forty voices. This was no ‘percentage’ singing in the sense of trying to economize vocally in order to survive the very demanding and exposed 75-minute programme; instead each work from first to last (Australian Anne Boyd’s hypnotic As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams) was performed with equal passion and commitment.

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With Ars Nova Copenhagen. Photo: Susan Scheid

It is not for me to comment on my own Spiritus divinae lucis gloriae – other than to emphasize the conviction and plasticity with which Ars Nova performed it – but I and many others were very touched by Gavin Bryars’ new setting of Psalm 141, commissioned for our SDG Psalms Project. Simple without ever sounding banal, its plaintively flowing chordal writing marked by subtle and well-judged harmonic sideslips, Bryars’ Psalm 141 is deeply expressive while never becoming cloying, and we hope that many choirs will find performing it a richly rewarding experience.

None of what I have just said, however, fully explains the size and enthusiastic engagement of the audience in Penarth; my intuition is that at least three additional factors were at work. One is the fact that the Vale of Glamorgan Festival’s artistic director John Metcalf has over the years quietly succeeded in creating a discreet but very real cult following for what I would term ‘new music with a human touch’ in South Wales. As the Guardian‘s reviewer put it, the festival ‘manages to extend its audience’s aural horizons with an approach that appears benign but is actually quite radical’.

Secondly, although the legendary Welsh choral culture may no longer play the role in local communities that it did in its heyday (I can recall attending church services there as a teenager where the standard of voices was such that you could have recruited congregational members at random for an opera chorus), there is no doubt that the first association of music in Wales remains with choral singing rather than orchestras or solo instruments.

Thirdly, there is what might be termed the ‘Arvo Pärt effect’. Having now observed a number of audiences at concerts where Pärt’s music has been on the programme, I have consistently found that the audience brings a peculiar energy of its own – the expectation not merely of being treated to a performance of artistic excellence, but rather of experiencing something on the level of human communication that goes beyond the purely musical. In the case of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, this may have not a little to do with Pärt’s 75th birthday visit to Wales in 2010 for a festival concert featuring his 4th Symphony (as well as the SDG-sponsored first performance of the orchestral version of his piece In Spe): my guess is that a fair proportion of the Penarth audience would have remembered seeing or indeed meeting the composer in person. Which is not an experience that you forget in a hurry.

Ars Nova Copenhagen, who together with their founder Paul Hillier have worked intensively with Arvo Pärt, performed three pieces (all in English) by him whose brevity was inversely proportional to their impact: the haunting Deer’s Cry (a setting of the prayer known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ commissioned by the Louth Contemporary Music Society), O Holy Mother of God and Morning Star. It was the latter which particularly caught my attention; commissioned by Durham University for its 175th anniversary in 2007, Morning Star sets a luminous text found above the tomb of the Venerable Bede in Durham Cathedral, and which was printed on the Penarth concert poster:

“Christ is the morning star, who when the night of this world is past
brings to his saints the promise of the light of life and opens everlasting day.”

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Bede’s tomb in Durham cathedral. Photo: Robin Widdison

In referring to Bede, Morning Star follows the procedure also found elsewhere in Pärt’s recent output of finding a material connection between the location of the commissioner and the heritage of Christian spirituality. Some examples of this are Cecilia, vergine romana – written for the Accademia Santa Cecilia in Rome , Littlemore Tractus for choir and organ (commissioned by the Vicar of Littlemore for the 2001 bicentenary of John Henry Newman’s birth and setting words from a sermon preached by him in Littlemore) or La Sindone (‘The Shroud’) – composed for the city of Turin in conjunction with the 2006 Winter Olympics). Morning Star is a typically Pärtian combination of the ancient and the post-modern; written with characteristic transparency it manifests the composer’s unique ability to evoke a whole spiritual and emotional world in the space of a few minutes and with a bare minimum of notes. Like so much of Pärt’s music, it is as limpid as Mozart’s Ave verum corpus or a Schubert Moment Musical, and yet it also has something of the spontaneous directness of a Lennon/McCartney single of a type that Western art-music has not tended to generate for a very long time. Ars Nova delivered it with great power but also a complete lack of affectation which left me wondering – is this a modern-day Bach chorale, or the perfect pop song, or both? As we noted in the previous post, Philip Hensher may think that ‘classical’ music will have died a death from incomprehensibility in a century’s time, but not if composers communicate with their listeners like this.

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As a coda I would like to suggest an experiment fit for Pentecost. Participation doesn’t unfortunately come entirely free, but as you’ll see it’s not very expensive either. Ars Nova Copenhagen include Morning Star on their consistently excellent new CD of works by Arvo Pärt entitled Creator Spiritus. I would myself highly recommend getting the album in its entirety as I find it quite mesmeric, but this not strictly necessary for our experiment. Here are the instructions:

1. Go to your favourite mp3 music store and type ‘Pärt Creator Spiritus Copenhagen’ into the search engine

2. Once you’ve been directed to the Harmonia Mundi recording, shell out $0.99 or the equivalent in euros, roubles, Uruguayan pesos etc. for Morning Star

3. Download it to your habitual mobile audio device

4. Activate the ‘loop’ or ‘auto repeat’ option

5. Take a brief look at the text (above)

6. Taking any chewing gum out of your ears and turning off any reality TV shows you may have running in the background first, close your eyes, adjust the volume to a decent level and listen to the piece at least 3 times. Or as long as it takes for the music to get ‘inside’ you, so that you reach the stage of ‘active listening’ where you can anticipate where the piece is headed and breathe together with it. If you feel so inclined, treat Morning Star as a prayer, meditation or mindfulness exercise. If that’s not your thing, then just listen.

7. Leave a comment in the box on this blog.

Am I the only one who thinks that if the 462,077,235 people who have been viewing Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance on YouTube could just make it through steps 1-6 the world might be a different place?

Veni Creator Spiritus …