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Music: When a Child is a Witness by Liz Dilnot Johnson (Coventry Cathedral)

18 March 2022

Roderic Dunnett hears a varied choral work in Coventry Cathedral

Coventry Cathedral

The windows of Coventry Cathedral

The windows of Coventry Cathedral

COVENTRY has been City of Culture during the past year, and some of the most original elements designed for that purpose have, advantageously, been allowed to extend into 2022.

A central part in these events has been played by music from a range of cultures. Every kind of ensemble has found its way on to one stage or other, embracing the city’s two universities, newly opened concert venues, the art gallery, with a host of events, the extensive motor museum; or above all, the cathedral.

Earlier in the year, a vividly illustrated event filled both cathedrals, bathing the pillars of both the new cathedral and the old with monochrome illustration of the devastation of the saturation bombing, and colour representing the optimism and hope that the once forlorn shell has come to represent (Arts, 11 February)

Now, a host of contrasted performers have brought striking character to When a Child is a Witness — Requiem for Refugees, by the composer Liz Dilnot Johnson, who is now composer-in-residence to Birmingham’s outstanding choir. This is a new version of the composer’s Colwall Requiem for Aleppo, first performed in 2017.

The aspiration of this work, performed by a vividly varied group of performers, hailing from different sources, is quite distinctive. “Each Window (section) provides a space in the flow of the music to feature voices of others . . . voices that might not normally be heard here.” The composer’s aim is that these quite distinct formats and antithetic forms of expression will enable and exemplify a bringing together in a most radiant manner, and reveal a diverse body of music (and speech), so that all enhance one another.

A great influence on the work was the late composer David Fanshawe (1942-2010), best known for his vivid choral work African Sanctus, but whose most important work lay in intensive researches into music of other cultures: Africa, Afghanistan, the Middle East, including Iraq, and Polynesia. By taping local performers, he engaged in fresh ways of pursuing a new and universal array of musical idioms.

At the heart of the event was Ex Cathedra, the Midlands-based chamber choir (here significantly enlarged with student and academy singers), founded and directed by Jeffrey Skidmore. Perhaps most impressive of all was Johnson’s music, a composition of notable insight, beauty, and variety, which made a marked impact.

Yet Ex Cathedra also yielded up one soloist, the mezzo-soprano Gabriella Liandu, whose expressiveness and delicacy brought a quite sensational quality, and a magic to every passage that she sang.

If one had to pick out any group — and one really need not — the children, all from Ravensdale Primary School, were not just vocally spirited and creative, but staggeringly disciplined. Some hymns were allocated to them, but their contribution was far greater. Even the bell sounds they designed were nothing short of perfection. In all respects, they were exemplary.

One after another, the perfect performances flowed on. Right at the start, “Tutu Gbovi”, a Ghanaian lullaby, set the tone. More than one “meditation” for violin (Lucy Russell) provided emotional contrast, although the piece described as “Hardanger” (a string instrument from western Norway) sounded not unlike the same normal violin.

Especially appealing was the European Music Youth Refugee choir — offset by the groups Sharing Cultures, Migrant Centre, and Carriers of Hope. One solo instrument was utterly mesmerising. That was the West African kora, a (usually) 21-string plucked, bewitchingly resonant lute-like instrument, played by Kadialy Kouyate, furnishing one of the most haunting, lulling, and evocative contributions to the whole evening. A Kurdish poem, instructive and reflective, was delivered, or written, by Yathreb Ramadhan, and again provided one of the most alluring, or didactic passages: mesmerising, in fact.

“When a Child hears Singing” freed up the children not just to sing, vitally, but also to clap and stamp with aplomb. On the Coventry Harrison & Harrison organ, Rupert Jeffcoat produced a welter of perfectly designed contrasts.

Was there any doubt about the work? If any, it would be that the wide range of different kinds of movement seemed latterly, at almost two hours, rather too much of a medley, too elaborate, too overloaded. Yet the performers seemed wholly at ease, and the audience, too. The variety clearly worked for both of these; and perhaps that is the measure of the success of When a Child is a Witness.

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