Spitalfields Music: 40th Summer Festival

Spitalfields Music: 40th Summer Festival

WP_20160608_18_44_07_Pro.jpgSpitalfields Music has been an extraordinary musical and community success since its foundation 40 years ago. Starting life with a 1966 concert to help save Nicholas Hawksmoor’s architecturally important Christ Church Spitalfields (which was then, unbelievably, under threat of demolition) it soon grew into a ‘Summer Festival of Music’ led by Richard Hickox. Initially under the auspices of the Friends of Christ Church, it became an independent organisation and charity in 1989, setting up their continuing community and education programme two years later. Under the artistic and managerial leadership of the likes of Judith Serota, Michael Berkely, Judith Weir, Jonathan Dove, Diana Burrel, Abigail Pogson and the current Chief Executive, Eleanor Gussman, it has grown into an major musical and community force in London, sharing their passion for music with nearly half and million people, attracting more than 325,000 audience members to events in more than 70 venues in the Spitalfields and Tower Hamlets area. Alongside their Summer and Winter Festivals, they run an enormous Learning & Participation programme involved more than 125,000 people.

They have traditionally focussed on early and contemporary music, commissioning many new works from present day composers to create the ‘early music’ of 300 years hence. In recent years they have also expanded their focus to include an enormous range of musical and community based activities. This year’s Summer Festival opened in the Chapel Royal of St Peter as Vincula in the Tower of London and will finish with an ‘ethereal collaboration’ in a Tower Hamlets cemetery, taking in an interactive opera for 0-2½ year olds, a composition for 120 children, and electronic music in a Pathology Museum alongside the BBC Symphony Chorus, English Concert, Ex Cathedra, and The Sixteen. The Festival continues, and details can be found here. Unfortunately, diary pressures meant that I could only get to three of this year’s events, starting with

Sacred & Profane: Monteverdi & Rossi
Early Opera Company, Robert Howarth
Christ Church, Spitalfields. 8 June 2016

WP_20160610_18_54_42_Pro.jpgThe Early Opera Company explored pieces from the early seventeenth century that were as close to opera as you can get, without actually being opera. They opened with four Monteverdi madrigals from his 7th and 8th books (1619/38), the first, Tempro la cetra, calls on the lyre to be tuned to allow the power of music to shine over the conflicting songs of Mars and Venus. Sung by solo tenor Nick Pritchard with a small but aurally rich continuo group of harpsichord, theorbo and harp, this demonstrated Monteverdi ability to incorporate a range of emotions into a comparatively short piece. Despite the well-tuned lyre, Venus then took the upper hand for the remaining three pieces, Se pur destina e vuole is marked to be sung by a solo voice ‘without a regular metrical beat’, a key feature of the recitative opera style of Monteverdi and his contemporaries. Sung by baritone Jonathan McGovern it falls into the ‘poor me’ category of forlorn lovers bemoaning their fate at the hands of a cruel lover. Revealing early opera’s roots in the declamations of ancient Greek drama, McGovern’s powerfully impassioned singing perfectly caught the underlying torment of the unfortunate protagonist.

The 8th book of madrigals was written 20 years later and is probably best known for the Lamento della nifa, another ‘poor me’ ditty, here from the female perspective, but with a backing group of male sympathisers who introduce the setting of the lamenting nymph wandering in the meadow whingeing about her lovers’ betrayal. The nymph herself, on this occasion, Esther Brazil, then opens her heart above the steady step of a four-note ground bass, the latter aided by the addition of a lirone and cello to the continuo group.  The final madrigal managed to combine the themes of the previous three by inviting the ladies of Ferdinand III’s court to join in the dance with the lyre – it was written for his coronation in Vienna in 1636. This also added two violins to the instrumental forces.

These four Monteverdi madrigals set the scene for the most interesting part of the evening, a rare performance of the anonymous Oratorio per la Settimana Santa, probably written by Luigi Rossi, a protégé of the Barbarini dynasty who held political and artistic power in Rome in the early 17th century. Engagingly introduced by director Robert Howarth as a Holy Week piece guaranteed to ‘make you feel guilty about everything’ that, after some jolly frolicking from the cackling demons in Hell, ends ‘quite miserably’. And so it did, with its concluding madrigal ‘Weep, eyes, weep! Sorrows, torments, rise!, with its encouraging message that the way to live eternally is through ‘pain and torment’. This is the earliest known of the ‘passion oratorio’ genre, and contrasts the crowds baying for Barabbas to be released rather than Jesus with the glee of the chorus of demons in Hell that they appear to be on the winning side – and are certainly having a great deal more fun. Along comes the Virgin Mary, in the form of soprano Claire Booth, to add some grief and misery to the proceedings as she bemoans the death of her son, culminating in her concluding aria ‘Sorrows, torments, rise . . . Eyes weep for evermore’. Mary manages to ignore the entreaties of the demons that heaven is already closed to her and neither ‘sees, nor hears, nor cares’; that she is stricken by the ‘madness of blind faith’; and that the ‘homicidal strength of impious pain’ will end in ‘persistent torture’, and somehow manages to persuade the chorus (now representing the oratorio’s congregation) that pain and torment are the way to go. Claire Booth gave a convincingly powerful portrayal of the hapless Virgin, contrasting the strength of the Virgin’s grief with the beautiful gently rocking conclusion of her aria Asprissimi chiodi.

As well as some fine singing, in chorus and solo, from the seven-strong choir, there was excellent support from the instrumentalists, notably the continuo group of Robert Howarth, harpsichord, Siobhán Armstrong, harp, and Eligio Luis Quinterio.

The Choir of Clare College Cambridge
Graham Ross
 director, Raphael Wallfisch cello
Christ Church, Spitalfields.  10 June 2016

WP_20160610_18_54_29_Pro.jpgTwo days later, also in the Festival’s home turf of Christ Church, Spitalfields, the splendid restoration of which was rooted in the publicity that the Spitalfields Festival has brought the church, we heard the Choir of Clare College Cambridge give an incredibly challenging programme of works for 40 voices in celebration of the Spitalfields Festivals 40th anniversary, their current student choir enlarged for the occasion by some alumni. Bookended by Tallis’s 40-part Spem in alium and the work that seems to have generated its composition, Striggio’s Ecce beatam lucem, their programme also included Giles Swayne’s The Silent Land for 40 voices and cello, premiered in Christ Church by Clare College Choir during the Spitalfields Festival some 20 years ago.

Perhaps rather bravely, they opened with the Striggio 40-part Ecce beatam lucem. According to the programme note, it seems likely that this was originally performed in Florence Cathedral in 1561 as part of a spectacular sacra scena, complete with masked and costumed singers and instrumentalists descending on cloud machines, representing the text’s ecstatic vision of the New Jerusalem. Shorn of the instrumental doublings (recorded in a 1568 Munich performance as including eight trombones) the young singers struggled to find their confidence and, occasionally, the right notes at the right time. The complex arrangement of four choirs of 16, ten, eight and six voices was spread across the stage into one of the side aisles and up on the opposite side gallery, making coordination difficult.

Their concluding Tallis Spem in alium was more successful but, again, their disposition made life difficult for them. In an inverted formation, the eight groups were positioned in the side aisles and at the back of Christ Church, meaning the instead of starting from the left and progressing clockwise, for the audience, they did the opposite. I was puzzled that not all the groups had the required five voices (the seventh, next to me, had only four), but there might have been an explanation for that. With most members of the audience sitting close to at least one of the eight groups of singers, individual voices were inevitably tested, not always entirely successfully. This would have been better arranged with the choirs closer and within clearer sight and earshot of each other.

The central work was Giles Swayne’s The Silent Land for 40 voices and cello. For this the choir were sensibly all on the stage, in a half-star formation of eight choirs of 4/5-voices, with cellist Raphael Wallfisch in the middle. The cello has a very prominent role in this piece, which is almost in the form of a choral cello concerto. The multi-layered vocal contributions ranged from whistling to mediaeval-like intonations. After the introduction, one singer from each choir stepped forward to form a solo octet. This is a complex work that stretched the young singers, notably in matters of intonation.

They seemed very much at home in John Tavener’s Svyati, dating from 1995, again with cellist Raphael Wallfisch but this time playing from the back of the church. Sung in Church Slavonic, the piece is based on the moment in the Orthodox funeral service when the coffin is closed. The choir (minus the alumni) also impressed in the shorter pieces by Schütz, Tye and Taverner.

Orpheus Caledonius
L’Avventura London & Old Blind Dogs
Žak Ozmo
 director, Siobhan Miller voice
St Leonard’s, Shoreditch. 10 June 2016

A unfortunate clash of start times (and the late-running of the Clare College concert) meant that, rather than slipping in during the interval, I could only catch the last 20 minutes of the cWP_20160610_21_32_37_Pro.jpgoncert by the combined baroque group L’Avventura London and Scottish folk band The Old Blind Dogs in an event designed to mix and match 18th-century high

The two groups of musicians placed themselves in a slightly confrontational manner facing each other across the stage, with harpsichord and drum kit vying for the central space. Heavily amplified, perhaps unnecessarily, they produced a bold sound that clearly went down well with the audience. I caught the last of the purely baroque sets, but was serenaded by a sequence of apparently very naughty songs, sadly sung in the impenetrable language of the Scots. The collaboration between L’Avventura London & the Old Blind Dogs is a continuing one.

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