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Glorious musical resurrection

25 July 2014

Garry Humphreys on a 'church opera' revived

THE composer Jonathan Harvey, who died in December 2012, was a visionary, particularly inspired by mystical texts, and with a deep personal interest in Buddhism. His ability to create spectacular soundscapes, often by a mixture of electronic and acoustic instruments, grew from a musical education that began as a choirboy at St Michael's College, Tenbury, continued at St John's College, Cambridge, and, on Benjamin Britten's advice, with Hans Keller and Erwin Stein - who introduced him to the 12-tone system - then at Pierre Boulez's IRCAM laboratory in Paris.

But it was at Tenbury that his life changed when the organist in his concluding voluntary one day "did something really wild, which was thrilling. I knew in that moment that I wanted to be a composer and do something similar." He also said: "I never got over that sense of making music for the glory of God." His music, like the man, has humanity and integrity.

Harvey was commissioned by Martin Neary, then organist of Winchester Cathedral, to compose Passion and Resurrection, a "church opera in twelve scenes, for soloists, chorus and ensemble", which was first performed at Winchester in 1981, but not heard again until 1993, when it was given in Westminster Abbey and at the cathedrals of Canterbury, Liverpool, Sheffield, and Llandaff, and in Bath Abbey. It was broadcast in 1999, and then in 2009 there were several performances in Ossiach, Austria; but it was not revived in Britain until it formed the climax of the first Voices of London festival this month at St James's, Sussex Gardens.

The first 11 scenes use a translation by the Revd Michael Wadsworth of an anonymous 12th-century Latin Passion play from the Benedictine monastery of Montecassino; the 12th scene (Resurrection) is from a play-book in Fleury Abbey, France. Wadsworth's text has vibrancy and a humanity matched by Harvey's music, which, to convey its message, must be matched by the singers and players.

This was a semi-staged performance, in the large central space of St James's, with the instrumental ensemble in the chancel to the rear. There were very few props and no special lighting - except for a torch with which the Maid taunts Peter as he denies he is a disciple of Christ. Dress for everyone was "all black", Caiaphas wearing a clerical shirt and collar. Many of the characters were seated initially among the audience so that they could enter the performance area from a variety of directions, giving the audience a feeling of involvement.

It was directed by Matthew Monaghan, a self-confessed atheist who discovered "an intensity locked within the fabric of the music itself", and ultimately decided that "it is about basic human urges and desires that disrupt and unsettle our senseof ourselves. A group of young, attractive, and idealistic men rebel against the establishment led by their charismatic leader, Jesus Christ. Their values lie in love, not greed."

Harvey's score is a kind of exalted recitative, based on plainsong, with complex time signatures that are really a means of accommodating the natural shape and flow of words and phrases. At St James's, the score was slightly shortened: Annas, Pilate's wife, Procula, and the two thieves crucified with Christ were omitted, with no great harm to the sense of the piece, as was part of scene 12 with the chorus and the three Marys.

The very end, where Harvey asks the brass quintet to disperse to the four corners of the building, with a certain amount of choreography, ending up outside, was not followed, but the conclusion was no less effective in its radiance. As one writer has commented, "Harvey reaches out and touches the sublime."

The performance deserved the heartfelt ovation it received at the end, all the singers displaying remarkable ability to meet its challenges. Outstanding were the Canadian tenor WeiHsi Hu as Pilate, and the soprano Victoria Pym as Mary Magdalene. David Jones's Jesus was good, but I felt that his was not quite the voice (or the personality?) for the part, unless a Dennis Potter view of Christ was intended. Having the chorus behind the scenes greatly reduced the impact of the all-important Turba. Richard Harker conducted with panache, and the instrumental ensemble was immaculate.

Passion and Resurrection is a stunning piece that deserves to be better known, and could, perhaps, even become popular. I was not quite stunned, but was mightily impressed by this performance, which could reignite interest and lead to a DVD, fully staged with an audience, perhaps using Bishop John Taylor's original 1981 Winchester production. There was fora short time a CD of the BBC broadcast, but this no longer seems to be available.

It was a triumphant conclusion to this new festival, encompassing days for office choirs, community singing with Ralph Allwood, chamber choirs, youth choirs, early music, contemporary music (including a composition prize, won by Ian Assersohn, judged by Judith Weir and Stephen Jackson), and British music. Encouragingly, St James's says that it is looking forward to hosting it again next year.

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