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Green thoughts

25 April 2014

Roderic Dunnett hears a new choral work


FEW experiences are more delightfully raw and bracing than hearing a massed community choir - some of its members unauditioned - gathered in the nave to test its lungs in singing a new work, whose very massiveness of concept and broad musical sweep test a cathedral acoustic to its limits.

All the more so when the thunderous musical onslaught at Winchester Cathedral included a flood of young primary-school children, 170 or more, many experiencing such a building for the first time, and responding with vigour and audible excitement.

The Great Turning is the Revd June Boyce-Tillman's vital, even explosive, new work for large forces: a passionate response to the green issues addressed in a new book or collection, Stories of the Great Turning, featuring artworks and new prose writing, just published by Vala Publishers.

Both look at ordinary people who have had the courage to attempt to change their often selfish, indifferent, grasping, money-obsessed surroundings, proclaiming alternative Christian-rooted values of consideration for others, love of the environment, and putting others less fortunate first.

It's not exactly a new idea, rather an affirmation. Nor does the quality of either words or music necessarily matter so much as the excited sense of event, the feeling that singing may inspire to action, and change attitudes. Perhaps even, here (I could suggest), that musical proclamation may carry with it the power of prayer, and by its very incantations wave a magic wand.

A Boyce-Tillman score is by no means inhibited. Time and again she packs a punch, with orchestration (plenty of fine percussion and quite superb brass from the Southern Sinfonia) that gets you in the solar plexus. It's in part a credit to her conducting - vigorous, characterful, holding back nothing. The strings had their moments later - one superb solo for the leader, then a duet for the first two violins - that lent beauty, atmosphere, and contrast.

I liked the start almost most of all. Her Overture is magnificent and substantial - and, over it, the children are introduced as a vast unvoiced twittering chorus concealed at the east end. The effect is miraculous, a kind of unexpected glimpse of 1960s modernism, which also occasionally surfaces in her inventive harmonisations; just as the opening resonant cymbal booms might be a blast from Berio or Xenakis.

The work is a joyous mixed bag, embracing a clutch of hymns and songs, and some new words - set to the Londonderry Air - providing a thrilling massed conclusion. "The Tree Song", a Hampshire folksong collected by John Gardner, is a wonderful choice for children: "And from that seed there grew a tree, And as fine a tree as you ever didsee. . ."; it also anticipates early on a main motif of the work: that from tiny seedlings great things can derive, and yield great and good works that may change the world.

That image is attractively brought out in the dozen-or-so movements, many of them spliced by tight attacca or hauntingly linked by wan solos (a wondrous flute, sonorous trombone, lonely side drum or tympanum).

Perhaps inevitably, some of the texts feel a little simplistic, so that one might have reservations about asking even (or particularly) the young to sing them. Yet everything they touched with their voices was a blazing success. The children, from eight schools, fabulously well rehearsed, possibly outshone the adults, who did jolly well, too.

Occasionally the fresh text matched the undying quality of folksong. "Rural Idyll", by Celia Sousek and Sarah Morgan ("winter closing, cooling, clouding, Starlings flocking cloud the light. . .") is so skilfully set by Boyce-Tillman that you hear a glorious meshing of words and music. The soprano and violin soli launching "A dark time of uncertainty" were spectacularly beautiful; the scherzo "Rush hour" worked well, but the song "Economic Growth" less so, not because the catchy music didn't bustle, but because the chief verbal conceit ("stuff") seemed oddly outdated.

The concert's first half cleverly anticipated several features of the main work: a use of negro spiritual, a like verbal imagery, and so on. The opening piece, "Wade in the Water", was sung in an inspired performance by the Castle Singers. But nothing could match the vocal- and choral-studies students from Winchester University, whose plangent piano delivery of Bruckner's motet Ave Maria was unmatched. The music comes close to Liszt, another priest-composer who placed manifold gifts at the service of Church and concert hall alike.


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