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Birthday celebration

01 April 2016

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IT WAS apt that the forces arrayed at the Royal Festival Hall for Ronald Corp’s 65th-birthday celebration should be vast. They were arrayed around the choir seats, filling every nook and cranny, and spilled over on to the side audience sections like a massive wave. The orchestra, too, was resplendent in its numbers.

So fitting, too, that the concert should focus on the sea, and on reflections about it: the wonderful swath of Whitman text set by Vaughan Williams in his First Symphony, A Sea Symphony; the judgemental and unforgiving Suffolk seaside town of Britten’s Peter Grimes; and the première of Corp’s own work Behold, the Sea, its title culled from the massive opening outburst of the four-movement RVW work. (Feature, 19 February).

What impressed me, first, was the quality of the playing: well up to that of the well-funded great London orchestras, just as Richard Hickox’s ensemble (the City of London Sinfonia) proved previously, or Simon Over’s (the Southbank Sinfonia) has demonstrated since: electrifying and accurate brass; expressive strings, the cellos and double basses (and one melting viola passage) not least; woodwind whose colouring spoke reams; and tympani and percussion that effortlessly arched from didactic insistence to miracles of restraint.

Among Corp’s more intriguing works are ones that, like those of John Tavener, take stock of other religions (Dhammapada is based on a beautifully chosen selection of Buddhist texts, their sentiments, as Corp has pointed out, not so far from the Christian outlook); his 55-minute work The Lord is One (Adonai Echad), a treatment of Jewish and Old Testament texts with music fertile with ideas; his recent The Hound of Heaven, a choral setting of the text by the Victorian mystical poet Francis Thompson; and many songs (also setting Thompson), three string quartets, and large-scale works, including his symphony, cello concerto, and piano concerto.

What we were treated to here was a medley of verses that Corp felt drawn to set, and which provided for the forces with which he has been most closely associated for a quarter of a century. Thus, the Highgate Choral Society, whose reputation dates back to the 1880s, and whose calibre is well known from recordings of a rich range of repertoire, together with the London Chorus, the New London Orchestra, and, just as importantly, the New London Children’s choir, all contributed to this musical bonanza.

Indeed, the children, in a setting of Masefield’s “Sea Fever”, impressed mightily with the quality of their enunciation (”and the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking” — just how did they master that tongue-twister?); and the glorious, almost Elgarian passage “The night is calm and cloudless”, from Longfellow (once set by Sullivan). The children’s singing here was immaculate, although I did wonder, as with “They that go down to the sea in ships” (Psalm 107), if more varied word-painting might have helped the lines communicate. The idea of a gentle barcarolle was a good one, but only at “stagger like a drunken man” did the music seem to add something tangible to the psalmist’s reflections.

It was perhaps “Wild Nights”, a scherzo taking somewhat ecstatic words from Emily Dickinson, in which Corp has the woodwind sighing and soughing, and where the die-away for bassoon, double bassoon, and horns was typical of the flair the composer brings to orchestration: “Rowing in Eden — Ah — the sea! Might I but moor — tonight — in thee!” has a Whitmanesque flavour to it, just as the close of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” — “I hope to see my Pilot face to face When I have crost the bar” has the same flavour.

The great success of “Behold the Sea”, with its jaunty sea shanty (“Haul away, Joe”) at either end, is its uniformity. It brings together verses that harness splendidly, each bringing its own choice of metaphor to evoke genuine atmosphere. As for harmony, it was the children who won yet again, hands down: after surges of strings — a welter of waves — the exquisite close of the Masefield (“And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over”), where these attentive, beautifully drilled young musicians divided in close harmony, was for me an undiluted highlight.

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