Thursday, May 17, 2012

Crossing a Bridge of Dreams

All Saints Church, Penarth, Wales, May 10, 2012
Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music

The taxi driver knew exactly where to find All Saints Church in Penarth.  “I was married there,” he said.  When we told him we were going to a concert of choral music, he seemed almost as excited as I was.  It transpired he’d sung in a choir as a boy, at least until his voice changed.  “It went all flat,” he said. His dejection at not being able to continue was palpable, even now.

Still, he listens.  He keenly watched the progress of the Welsh Boy’s Choir, Only Boys Aloud, in Britain’s Got Talent.  They came in third, “pipped to the post,” as the Wales press reported, “by dog act Ashleigh and Pudsey.”  Of all things, but there you are.

I asked him which composers were his favorites.  Bach and Beethoven, and Berlioz, as well.  He was delighted to discover one of his passengers was a composer, too, John Metcalf, who is also Artistic Director of the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music.

All Saints Church lost its ornamental gates and railings to the need for tanks and aircraft in World War II, never to be replaced.  Worse yet, as remembered by a resident,
One night in 1941 or 1942, All Saints Church was hit by a shower of incendiary bombs and was gutted by fire—only the walls remained. I remember climbing inside for a closer look in daylight, to find an almost unmarked pile of prayer books on a charred table—everything else inside the church had been destroyed. 
After the war, the church was rebuilt, reopening in 1955.

Walking to the church felt like a village homecoming, with all and sundry convening for the night’s event.  Metcalf and Gavin Bryars (on the right), accompanied by Bryars’ brother (on the left), exchanged halloos from the walkway.

In the company of the gracious Suzie, a longtime attendee of the Festival I’d first met the night before, we spotted Peter Bannister, another of the composers whose work was to be performed.  We had a lively conversation on the lawn before going inside to take our seats.

Inside, on an upstairs landing, several people in casual dress sat and conversed.  Little did I know they were members of Ars Nova Copenhagen, taking a moment to relax before changing into their performance finery.

People nodded and smiled, to one another and in general, as they found places to sit.  I sat next to a young musician from Hungary who’d come to live in Wales; next to him was his teacher, putting his student up until he found his feet.

As Ars Nova Copenhagen took their places, now in concert attire, the room felt alive with anticipation of what might be in store that night.  One of the singers set the pitch with a single strike of a tuning fork and a split-second hum.  The conductor, Søren Kinch Hansen (photo left), raised a hand, and the concert began.

The opening piece, Three Stages, by Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, was an exhilarating exercise in controlled chaos.  The three stages, depicted in three musical scenes, included the cacophony of a city street (complete with swear words in two languages), a riot of forest sounds—bird calls!—and, finally, “a fusion of the two worlds with the all-embracing ocean.”  The piece showed off the range of Ars Nova Copenhagen’s capabilities, answering the question, “What can they sing?” with a decided, “Anything and everything.”

Though I’ve heard only recordings of his work, I thought I knew well the meditative beauty of Arvo Pärt’s music, but I was wrong.  In Ars Nova Copenhagen’s pellucid singing, each note and harmony rose bell-like to the heavens.

For works not available for a second listen, my own limitations prevent me from commenting aside from a brief sketch, but I can say that, after listening to samples of Per Nørgård’s orchestral work, the gentler nature of his choral pieces made for an intriguing contrast.  Peter Bannister drew inspiration for his work, a world premiere commission, from an ancient Celtic liturgical text.  I sensed from the piece his love for and enjoyment in composing for the voice.

As I’d not been able to attend the opening concert of the Festival, which was given over to the music of Gavin Bryars, I felt lucky to have a small taste in his lovely Psalm 141, also a world premiere.  The music of Bryars I know best evokes, for me, the British countryside:  quiet walks across the Yorkshire Dales, perhaps, or sitting beside the River Taff, watching the water’s undulating currents as it flows away.

The male members of Ars Nova Copenhagen expertly tackled a voice version of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music.  After the concert, one of the singers explained that it wasn’t quite as hard as it looked—there was a system.  “So,” I said, “as long as you lock into it, you’re fine; if not, you’re done for.” “Right,” said he.

Of all the splendid and varied works in the concert, for me, the night belonged to Australian composer Anne Boyd’s As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams.  For this piece, the choir broke into three quartets, one positioned in front, the other two on each side, so that we, as listeners, were enveloped in sound as Ars Nova Copenhagen sang.

More often than I’d like, when listening to contemporary choral music, I’m struck by one of two things:  either the composition offers little to distinguish it from so many others, or it leans on technical acrobatics to stand out from the pack, with scant musicality left in its wake.

Boyd’s piece, in contrast, sacrificed none of the radiant beauty of Ars Nova Copenhagen’s singing, yet created a choral soundscape like none I’d heard before.  Boyd took as her inspiration 11th century Japan, in particular the “sho, a Japanese mouth-organ whose soft, infinitely subtle and slow-moving chords form the background sonority for the gagaku, the ancient court music of Japan.”  From this, she wove an elegant, contemplative, and wholly original tapestry of sound.

I floated out into the night, new CDs in hand, buoyed up by sound-memories of Ars Nova Copenhagen’s resplendent voices, crossing my own bridge of dreams. I had only one regret:  that our taxi driver, who so loves choral music, hadn’t been able to be there, too.

This is the first in a three-part series.  The second part, Ancient Instruments, Timeless Sounds, can be found here.  The third part, Worlds Entwined, can be found here.

The program for the May 10, 2012, Ars Nova Copenhagen concert at All Saints Church, Penarth, Wales, can be found here, including useful links to information about the composers and Ars Nova Copenhagen.

Postscript:  Soli Deo Gloria, which commissioned the Bryars and Bannister pieces premiered at the concert, has posted an excellent article about Bryars' Psalm 141 here.  An article on the Bannister piece is to follow, and I will post a link to it when it becomes available.

Listening List (music marked by an asterisk was performed in the concert):

Peter Bannister, Et iterum venturus est (rehearsal clip)

Gavin Bryars, Glorious Hill
(For an excellent introduction to the music of Gavin Bryars, read George Wallace's A Ramble on Gavin Bryarshere.)

Anne Boyd, *As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (A CD by Ars Nova Copenhagen that includes Boyd’s composition can be found here.)

Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen, Statements for Equal Voices (1969), no.1 - Epic Text (performed by the women of Ars Nova Copenhagen)

Per Nørgård, Singe die Gärten

Arvo Pärt, *The Deer’s Cry
Arvo Pärt, *Most Holy Mother of God

Steve Reich, *Clapping Music (original, for two sets of hands clapping; at the concert, the arrangement was for Ars Nova Copenhagen’s 6 male voices)

Ars Nova Copenhagen, Requiem (promo) (For more about Requiem, which is on CD, click here.)


Credits:  The “pipped to the post” quotation can be found here.  The quotation about All Saints Church destruction can be found here.  The quotations relating to Three Stages and As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams are from the program notes (the latter notes are © Faber Music Ltd).


Suze said...

I am only three minutes into Boyd's, 'As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams,' listened to while I read your post and, now, am commenting.

I have felt on the verge of tears the entire time. The emotions from the brain in my stomach that this piece and your words have elicited/are eliciting are new to me. I can't quite put a name to them, just yet, and feel a little silly at typing out this comment with so inchoate a response.

I wanted though to let my fingers fly as I listened for the first time. At 5.27, now, startled! That keen is very

I must stop and just listen. I tried.

Suze said...

Sirens. Of more than one kind, surely!

Pain, like a wounded animal, but necessary.

Braided vortices, white and ivory. Foundations receding.

At last, tears.

Suze said...

The silence after the piece has ended hurts.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Susan:
We too have 'floated', not into the night, but into the morning with this absolutely wonderful and totally magical post which transports us to Penarth and what, surely, must have been, an unforgettable evening. And how, through your rich prose and images, you bring it all to us so that it becomes a near reality for all of your readers.

David said...

'A village homecoming' with great artists: isn't that the dream of every regional festival? What a marvellous programme. You have brought it all to life as usual.

Scott said...

I too am listening to "Bridge of Dreams". As I've come to really appreciate, your enthusiasm gushes from this post. It certainly has become quite contagious.

The Japanese influence on the music is interesting. The sho and gagaku, how cool. Although a heavenly or holy sound, I didn't feel intimidated or guilty. More like listening to a song or a journey.

For me, the star of this wonderful story is the taxi driver. The life long bummer of not being able to make it to the "show". In his unassuming way, still loving it so. And your absolutely fabulous trait of realizing this.

Friko said...

How very misguided of me not to have joined you. If this is just the first evening, how did you manage to survive all of them intact?

Every word of your post breathes the joy you experienced. I am so envious.

The piece you featured is gorgeous, lush and melodious, not a bit like the 'new music' I fear to be exposed to.

Rubye Jack said...

What a great place for you to be--Wales, as well as in musical heaven. This is such a great post. You are so much in your element when you're describing these great performances Susan, and I love reading about them. I hope the remainder of your stay is just as exciting.

Mark Kerstetter said...

I'm with Scott. I love how you bookended the post with portrait sketches of the taxi driver. I really wanted to hear 'Three Stages' - your description of it is irresistible. Really wanted to hear that voice version of Reich too. Lucky you!

Naturally I went to the Arvo Part videos first. 'Most Holy Mother of God' is a sublime composition, the Hilliard Ensemble is first rate and the video itself is excellent quality, a real gem. I really liked 'Statements for Equal Voices' too. Looks like the group in the video is the group you heard? - They're really outstanding. Listening to Anne Boyd's piece now - must've been incredible to hear live in that setting.

For my own posts I'm going to start setting my links to open in new windows. I thought of doing this because when I read your posts I wish they opened in new windows. Looks like your other readers like to listen as they read + comment too.

Thanks Susan.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Susan .. what a wonderful post and photos to evoke the moment. Your words and everyone's comments give us more - I'd love to be more musical and understand - I can continue on learning. I do wonder if my cousin was there in the audience - as he lives in Penarth .. I must ask.

Love the vignette of the taxi driver - did you by chance give him your blog address?

The Welsh are so musical .. and it's sad he's feels he can't have that involvement anymore - yet would love it.

Cheers - I'll be back to listen .. Hilary

wanderer said...

There is so much beauty here Susan - taking the journey alongside you, hearing the programme with you, reflecting on the works beside you - that I keep delaying my comments until I have listened to all the works.

I was really touched by so much - of course the haunting Boyd work (and to think we had peeked into her persona a little already), the Arvo Part and especially Most Holy Mother of God which I heard here sung by the Hillaird Ensemble just this March (one of the many blog posts never realised), and can you believe it Clapping Music which as you know Mr R himself clapped out last month, way down here down under. So many lines crossing on the life graph. Spooky.

So, I have just now ordered the Bridge of Dreams CD - it includes another wonderful antipodean composer Ross Edwards whose Veni Creator Spiritus was also in the Hilliard /Australian Chamber Orchestra concert just mentioned.

The ACO are in New York recording with Dawn Upshaw. Watch for that!

So you see, I didn't start for fear of not stopping ...

Brigitta Huegel said...

Dearest Sue,
I am so glad that your voyage to Wales was such a success! "I floated out into the night, (...), crossing my own bridge of dreams." - that is the utmost we can wish for. I will listen to the music when I have unpacked (at the moment more in the 'purple haze' than in the fresh English countryside). I am really looking foreward to that (SEE? See? I do it again: "looking" instead of hearing, "see?" instead of listen - but I will, Sue, promised). My warmest regards! Britta

Susan Scheid said...

Suze: “That keen,” by which I think you mean the voices gliding downward and fading away (a glissando, I’ve been told), struck me particularly in listening to this piece. I thought it terrific that you jumped in to respond in “real time.” And you came up with such gorgeous, particular words—“braided vortices, white and ivory,” for example—to describe what you were hearing. What could be better than that?

Jane and Lance: Particularly given all the places to which you’ve introduced me (Esztergom! Budapest!), I am all the more delighted to have brought a bit of Penarth and the music I heard to you.

David: I do think part of the magic of this festival (though of course not unique to it) resides in the venues for the concerts. For me, the intimacy, beauty, and history of the spaces offered an extra dimension to an already rich experience. It’s interesting, too, for me to think of the “regional” aspect from the perspective of actually flying across the Atlantic expressly to attend—and then encountering music that was so international in scope, including Denmark, Australia, and, in other concerts, China. Somehow it made New York City, rich as its musical offerings are, feel a bit regional, not in fact, perhaps, for there is always a tremendous variety of music on offer, but in perspective, which I sometimes feel gets too caught up in whatever is “trending” at the moment.

Scott: I like the way you put it, that the Bridge of Dreams describes a song or journey—and the journey she chooses to take us on is certainly splendid. The conversation with the taxi driver struck me enormously. I am often conscious of that “life long bummer,” and did say to him at the time that I was sorry he wasn’t going off shift, so he could join us. I’d love to know what he thought.

Friko: It’s discovering a piece like Boyd’s that makes my forays into “new music” so worthwhile. I can’t tell you how delighted I am that you enjoyed Boyd’s piece—it’s wonderful to share that with you. It would have been fun to be at the concert together and compare notes. Perhaps someday we’ll have the chance, who knows?

Susan Scheid said...

Rubye Jack: Yes, Wales is a sort of musical heaven, particularly of the choral variety! I’m delighted I was able to convey something of this experience—it was far too rich to keep it to myself.

Mark: Ars Nova Copenhagen is definitely an ensemble to watch for. “Most Holy Mother of God” is indeed sublime, and I was delighted to find a good example on the web. I believe you’re right, about “Statements for Equal Voices,” that it is Ars Nova Copenhagen’s female branch singing. And who knew about Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen? I will definitely be keeping an eye out for him from now on. (By the way, on the subject of the Hilliard Ensemble, Paul Hillier, who is chief conductor for Ars Nova, was founding director of the Hilliard Ensemble.)

On the issue of links in new windows, I would love to do that, but haven’t been able to figure out how, so do let me know if you discover a way. (That’s actually why I started to put some music in the sidebar, because I’m aware, with everyone’s limited time, that’s an effective way to allow for reading and listening at the same time, if the reader would like.)

Hilary: I would love to know if your cousin was there, and, if so, what he thought! As to the taxi driver, I have to say, I was so entranced with his story, it never occurred to me to pass on my blog address. He was a lovely man.

wanderer: Seems to me as if Down Under is yet another thriving center of the musical universe, based on all you’ve written (and, as I see here, what you haven’t had time to write about, as well). It is interesting how lines cross on the life graph (love the way you put that). The world may be big, but it can also be quite small (in a good way). Other small world phenomena, of sorts: my copy of ANC’s Dreams CD just arrived just today—listening to it as I write! Dawn Upshaw, as it happens, grew up in a suburb of Illinois very close to where I grew up (though quite a few years after I was there). She is also currently the Artistic Director of the Graduate Vocal Program at Bard, from whence Contemporaneous also springs. I will certainly keep a look-out for the ACO/Upshaw recording—and perhaps you’ll alert us if you know of it first.

Britta: And welcome back from London! I hope and trust your trip was successful, too. As for seeing and hearing, a good part of what makes a live performance so engaging, at least for me, is the ability to see, as well as hear, the music as it’s made. I loved watching, as well as listening to these singers. Their engagement with one another as they sang, and with the audience, made for a terrific evening. So, Britta, I say, you go ahead, and “see” the music—at least once you are out from under travel’s purple haze!

Suze said...

Glissando -- thank you for that!

shoreacres said...

I'm astonished by the ability of so many to listen and read at once - I simply can't do it. Either I don't know what I've read at the end, or the music passes me by.

I did take the time to notice and listen to Arvo Pärt's The Deer's Cry. If you remembered that was one of my favorites from a little exchange some weeks ago, bless you! If you didn't, bless whatever spirits led you to post it. Utterly gorgeous.

Your description of this night, and of the walking to the church feeling like a village homecoming, evoked the feeling of our summertime concerts in my hometown. There was a marvelous bandshell in the park, and families would come and picnic while they listened. Of course the repertoire was quite different, but there were times when we (yes, we! I played clarinet) would ease in a little Copland or Ralph Vaughan Williams just for fun.

Now, I have to go hear the "Clapping Music" and see what relationship it bears (if any) to traditional American field music.

Susan Scheid said...

shoreacres: Well, of course I had to go right back to your blog to see if I could find The Deer Cry exchange (which must have been in my subconsciousness, for I can’t claim a good enough memory to have recalled it outright), and what a nice trip down the memory lane of your posts that was! First, The Saining of Speech, and The Deer’s Cry video in your response to my comments, then the post on Estonian Singing Revolution, in which you mention Pärt. Two great posts, and a pleasure to be reminded of that terrific documentary, too.

Your reminiscence here about summertime concerts in your hometown—and you, on clarinet, playing and sneaking in a bit of Copland or RVW. Lovely thought.

shoreacres said...

I found the clapping song I was looking for. It's the Pine Leaf Boys doing an old one called "Quand Rita Est Arrivé". The link is only a snippet, but you might even find it on Spotify.

I heard them do it at Whiskey River in Henderson, and it electrified the crowd so much they demanded it twice in a row!

Susan Scheid said...

Thanks for the tip-off, which demonstrates, once again, that clapping is a universal language!

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