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Rebellious waters of the Tamar

10 July 2015

Garry Humphreys on a new choral work in Cornish and Latin


FIRST launched in 2014, the Voices of London Festival seems here to stay, its success stemming from its inclusiveness and the imagination and energy with which it is conceived and carried out.

In the course of one week, after a choral showcase to launch the festival, days are devoted to youth choirs, chamber choirs, and workplace choirs, with a festival evensong directed by Patrick Russill, director of music at the London Oratory and head of choral conducting at the Royal Academy of Music, all in the Bayswater church St James’s, Sussex Gardens, with its fine acoustic and wide open spaces, suitable for a variety of performances.

Both amateur and professional choirs are involved, with an emphasis on youth, and the therapeutic and character-forming effects of singing together. Perhaps most intriguing are the workplace choirs, this year including groups from Lewisham Hospital, Islington Council, and P & O Ferries. In all these categories, several choirs have been singing together for only a short time (many inspired by the initiative of Gareth Malone in his various television series), but the benefits are clearly enormous. In connection with the organisation Music in Offices, Ben Resch, a company executive of Deloitte LLP, says the initiative "has been one of the most interesting and impactful morale-boosters I have experienced in 20 years with the firm".

But the Festival is also, in its own words, a "proud proponent of new music-making". The first festival in 2014 ended with a dramatised performance of Jonathan Harvey’s Passion and Resurrection (Arts, 25 July 2014), a rare and welcome revival of a 1981 commission. This year, the festival itself has commissioned a new piece, in association with the Language and Music Network and the Cornish Language Partnership. This is A Cornish Requiem (Requiem Kernewek) by the composer Jamie Brown, to a Cornish text by Pol Hodge, and it formed the first half of the festival finale on 27 June.

Brown is a linguist as well as a musician, interested in the way in which music can help protect and revitalise endangered languages. "In my view", he writes, "languages are cultural treasures, connecting communities with ancestors and the landscape around them, and play an often underestimated role in the creation of identity.

"In the case of Cornish, where large numbers of a community have lost their language, music (the universal language) can build an important bridge for people to re-access it."

A Cornish Requiem actually opens with the familiar Latin ("Requiem aeternam . . .") and continues with a Kyrie and Gradual, as if performed in a cliff-top church in Cornwall; but the sea — in an organ solo — drowns out the Latin, and a second choir, singing in Cornish, takes over.

In the course of the work, many legends are described: of King Arthur, his soul migrated into the body of a chough; of girls who danced on the sabbath, punished by being turned into standing stones; of "the rebellious waters of the River Tamar" (and the first appearance of a brass ensemble); of the Giant Bolster and St Agnes; and (with side drum) the commemorative procession at Chapel Porth beach on 1 May each year.

Then comes Ankow, the Celtic personification of death. All performers, including the original "Latin choir", unite for the conclusion, which honours "Kernow ni" (our Cornwall), echoes previous movements, and recalls "Trelawny", the Cornish national anthem.

Three choirs took part, with brass ensemble and organ, conducted with authority and clarity by Hilary Campbell, one of the founders of the Voices of London Festival. Instruments were used sparingly but effectively, the organ primarily underpinning the voices, and the brass reflecting that Cornish tradition perhaps familiar from the more reflective of Malcolm Arnold’s Cornish Dances.

The baritone soloist, René Bloice-Sanders, with even tone and an unerring sense of line, added lustre to a splendidly atmospheric performance in the presence of the composer and a large and appreciative audience.

It is good to know that A Cornish Requiem will soon be heard in Cornwall.

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