Invictus: a Passion

Goodall – Invictus: a Passion
Handel – Foundling Hospital Anthem
Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford
Stephen Darlington, Mark Dobell, Kirsty Hopkins
Lanyer Ensemble, Oxford Baroque
St John’s, Smith Square. 25 May 2018

Invictus: A Passion was commissioned (at the suggestion of its composer Howard Goodhall) by the Choir of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, Texas and their Director of Music and Fine Arts, Sid Davis. It was the second Goodall work to be commissioned by them and they gave the first performance on Palm Sunday 2018. This was its European premiere. The piece is described as “a contemporary reflection on the themes of the traditional Christian Passion story with particular attention to the role and perspective of women”. Interspersed with extracts from Æmelia Lanyer’s 1611 passion story Salve Deus Rex Judæorum (one of the first books by a female poet in the English language) are texts from “various periods of historic turmoil, written or inspired by women which eloquently portray humility in the face of tyranny”. These include Gethsemane by Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Mary Magdalene and the Other Mary by Christina Georgina Rossetti and Slave Auction by Ellen Watkins Harper. Its themes include “persecution of the innocent, malevolent authority exerting itself against ideas that threaten and challenge, the redemptive power of love, and the resilience of the human spirit”. 

The piece is in nine movements and is scored for soprano and tenor soloists, choir, and a chamber orchestra of two opposing string quartets plus double bass, piano, two horns and saxophone. Goodall makes imaginative use of these orchestral forces which, combined with interesting, if not musically advanced, use of harmony, makes for an interesting work. Goodhall’s musical style is at the softer end of the contemporary composing spectrum, as evidenced by his well-known TV theme tunes and musical theatre compositions. Although it might raise the ghostly eyebrows of Stockhausen, Boulez et al, as well as many young and more musically adventurous contemporary classical composers, it will not upset granny. His ability to write attractive and approachable melodies is obvious, one example being his version of the hymn “When I survey the wondrous cross”, the expansive and stratospherically soaring melody probably putting it well beyond use for congregational singing, but well within the reach of the probable intended market – chorale societies.

The piece starts with a gently murmuring string accompaniment, but it is not long before the first of several catchy ear-worms arrives, with the little four-note motif on the word “Gethsemane”. The various sections tend to follow a rather predictable structure, usually starting quietly, often with a solo, and then building to varying degrees of climax, either in sheer volume (as in the concluding ‘I will arise’, when the full blast of the organ joins in), or in musical intensity as the choir and full orchestra join in. One example of this is Invictus, the movement that gave the piece its title, which builds to another ear-worm with the rousing refrain “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul” – repeated as a grand finale at the end.

The performance itself was excellent, with Stephen Darlington and the choir of Oxford’s Christ Church Cathedral (a unique building that is both a college chapel and a cathedral) absorbing themselves into a musical idiom that, perhaps surprisingly, they have shown a past affinity with.  Soloists Mark Dobell and Kirsty Hopkins were outstanding, both thankfully retaining their well-honed ‘early classical music’ voices rather than attempting the singing style of contemporary musicals. For a change, it is possible to specifically mention a double bass player, Kate Aldridge, whose often plucked contributions were often key to the rhythmic security and harmonic foundation of the work.

To complete the programme, Darlington sensibly chose to follow Invictus with one of Handel’s less-successful works, the 1749 Foundling Hospital Anthem (HWV268). It was accompanied by the period instruments of Oxford Baroque, led by Mayah Kadish. This was the first of many major contributions, musical and financial, that Handel made to Thomas Coram’s charitable foundation (which still exists). Another purveyor of approachable tunes, Handel borrowed from several of his earlier pieces, concluding with the then little-known Hallelujah chorus from Messiah. It was possibly at the first performance of this anthem, rather than any performance of Messiah, that started the tradition of the audience standing. Mark Dobell and a pair of unnamed choir trebles and a male alto were the soloists. Clearly intended to make the audience at the fund-raising concert feel blessed for being so wonderful, the text doesn’t bear close inspection.

I am sure that Invictus: A Passion will appeal to lovers of Howard Goodall’s popular style, although I do wonder whether audiences will be listening to it in 250 years time. A CD of the Goodall piece by the same cast will be released on the CORO Connections label in August.

 

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