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The song that sings the bird

by
19 July 2011

Roderic Dunnett hears a fine modern cantata

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JONATHAN DOVE’s large-scale cantata There Was a Child, revived by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and its choruses in the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, was written in memory of Robert van Allan, a gifted 17-year-old who drowned while snorkelling in Thailand in 1999.

It is not so much an elegy as a celeb­ration. The bold choice of poems sets in nine contrasted sec­tions sug­gests a life rich in wonder, eagerly ex­ploratory, and even tinged with daring.

Conceived for soprano and tenor soloists, adult and children’s choruses, and orchestra, and co-commissioned by the CBSO and the boy’s family, this electrifying work — which calls to mind Britten’s Spring Symphony — was first heard during the 2009 Norfolk and Norwich Festival, and more recently at the Brighton Festival this May.

Dove is best known for his operas, but is no stranger to larger choral works; and his copious expertise accounts for why There Was a Child is unquestionably a masterpiece. The performance, including the CBSO Children’s and Youth Choruses, both superbly trained, as well as the pol­ished main chorus, put through their paces by Simon Halsey, was one to glory in.

The work opens with a Rite of Spring-like blaze (“I am the song that sings the bird” — Charles Causley). “Birth” (Langston Hughes) produced miraculous orchestral tinglings. “Child­­hood” (Traherne) and part of Wordsworth’s The Prelude (“O many a time have I, a five years’ child, a naked boy, in one delightful rill . . .”) brought teasing echoes of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

John Keats’s cheeky “There was a naughty boy” yielded brilliant scher­zo, like dazzling Stephen Sondheim; two Emily Dickinson settings, with the soprano Joan Rodgers joining the children’s choir in a passage suggest­ing Britten’s Titania, also made one realise that Dove’s treatment is as marvellously conceived as Tippett’s A Child of our Time. More Words­worth, with vital brassy syncopations and a lulling ostinatoed conclusion, confirmed this.

W. J. Turner’s “Romance” (“When I was but thirteen or so I went into a golden land”) was yearningly sung by the tenor Toby Spence. The penultimate section is “New Worlds” (Traherne again): it burst explosively, like a sizzling Polovtsian Dance. “High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)” — shades of W. B. Yeats — built to a rapt dramatic climax (“And while, with silent lifting mind I’ve trod The high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”)

And then, after all this life, new spring and optimism, the composer finally brings in death: first, for Chidiock Tichborne’s 1586 poem “On the Eve of his Execution”, an ominous, trudging march; then a lament from Shakespeare’s King John of the dead Prince Arthur’s mother, Constance (“Grief fills the room up of my absent child Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me”); and then a touching fragment from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, tinged with portentous tympani and bells, the choir’s staged pianissimo fade-out beautifully contrived.

This stupendous work concludes with Walt Whitman: a kind of “All the world’s a stage” parade of the generations, fringed with G. M. Hopkins-like glimpses of nature, concluding, “These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will go forth every day.” The singing of the full chorus was superb, full of skilled contrast and finessed light and shade; and the juniors likewise.

Bearing the brunt of the whole work, the dedicated CBSO players brought the kind of invigorating sound and pure precision that they would give to Tchaikovsky or Brahms. Dove’s cantata certainly belongs in that fold.

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