Into the wonder, into the mystery
Posted: 23 May 2007 @ 00:00
In Hereford Cathedral, Roderic Dunnett hears a new sacred cantata
IT BECAME apparent very early in the performance in Hereford Cathedral of From Darkness to Light, a cantata by Jon Lord, one of the founders and former members of the pop group Deep Purple, that here was a work of considerable emotional pull interspersed with hints of real musical substance.
Originally conceived as a brief textual setting to be sung in place of the Nunc Dimittis, the work evolved into a fuller cantata, taking as its words a compact 16-line prayer by the Revd Paul Nicolson, former Assistant Curate of Hambledon, who chairs the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, couched as an appeal: “Jesus our brother, lead us, out of illusion . . . into the light of hope, of peace, of love and understanding . . . into the wonder, into the mystery.”
These and other words relating to “suffering, oppression, poverty, and darkness” were intended to have intercultural appeal, so that the work might find resonance among people of other faiths, whether here or (for example) on the Indian subcontinent, as well as to Christians. The final prayer is a mere 43 words long, but sections are recycled in Lord’s music in an often original and enhancing way.
Some 300 children from nine mainly primary and prep schools were led by the Hereford Cathedral School (whose girls provided the evening’s best singing in Parry’s “I was glad”) and the Cathedral’s Junior School. All voices responded genuinely and enthusiastically to Lord’s music, now expanded to include harp and strings, as well as an effective piano part.
Central to this spirited response and the discipline of the young singers was the incisiveness and cool control of the unaffected conductor, David Evans, whose sound, businesslike management of young people and effective, precise handling of choir and orchestra alike turned what might have been a sprawling and loose presentation into a performance of zest and gusto, and yet, above all, one that was also sensitive to the allure of the words and the aspirations they expressed. Individual choir trainers had done their stuff: these children knew it backwards.
Effective contrasts at the start — some percussive piano, serene strings almost suggesting a seascape, and one of several excellent cello solos (with harp added) — made for an effective opening. Piano then voices folded in a warm melody as the words entered. One striking passage of two-octave spread suggested not so much Elgar (much admired by Lord) as Vaughan Williams; and a moment where the voice line is taken up by solo violin proved mesmerising.
The solo tenor line, pitched pretty high, was admirably navigated by Jon Weller of the Armonico Consort. There was one rivetingly expressive moment when a well-contrived, long-breathed chorus melody passed from upper to lower voices, then handed on to (I think) the violas.
There was some quite brave, risk-taking writing for orchestra (cellos and double basses paid rich dividends throughout), and some beguiling, well-tuned unison singing. Only towards the end did Lord’s invention seem to falter: too long a sequence in triple time lost its drive, and Nicolson’s words started to feel used up. These longueurs were blown away by some splendid syncopated pizzicato double-bass chorus accompaniment (with harp), and another attractive violin solo from the leader of the Herefordian Orchestra’s leader, Hazel Davies.
At the close, we were back at the beginning, the cycle completed.
As a work for massed children’s voices, shrewd and economical, From Darkness to Light is certainly to be recommended. Any income the work makes will go to the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, which fights poverty, related ill-health and educational under-achievement, and economic and social injustice.