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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Bryars, here.)
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).