Crossing a Bridge of Dreams

Vale of Glamorgan Festival (UK)
Susan Scheid, Prifrocks Dilemma - blog
Torsdag, 17. maj

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.