Sansara: Northern Rites

Northern Rites
Sansara, Tom Herring
St John’s, Smith Sq. 18 April 2019

As an early evening prelude to the main event of music by Sir James MacMillan, the young vocal group Sansara gave a short concert of music by MacMillan and contemporary Scandinavian composers, including arrangements of Scandinavian songs, many with roots in ancient Celtic traditions that influenced MacMillan’s compositions. The very effectively segued sequence of pieces opened with Bengt Ollén’s evocative arrangement of Trillo, a song calling seafarers home. The sounds of the waves were vocalised by the female singers on the stage, while the male singers recreated the sound of foghorns from the sides of the hall. Several of the later pieces had an aural texture of chord clusters, drones and high soprano voices, including MacMillan’s setting of Robert Burns’ The Gallant Weaver. His Child’s Prayer was dedicated to the 16 children who died in the 1996 Dunblane Massacre, here represented by 16 repetitions of the word ‘Welcome’; the texture peaking at the word ‘Joy’. The use of a text that welcomed Jesus “with joy and love in my heart / on this glad Communion day” was a curious choice to recognise the murder of 16 schoolchildren.

Other pieces included Knut Nystedt’s O Crux, again with the upper voices dominant, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s arrangement of the Icelandic folk song Þann heilaga kross, where the melody was passed from voice to voice within drones and clusters. Oliver Tarney’s Irish Blessing was one of the very few moments when we heard a resolution on to a major triad, coming after a litany-like repetition of the words ‘May God hold you’. MacMillan’s Lux aeterna had a polyphonic texture built around an alto chant, concluding with a sequence of isolated ‘Amens’.  The final piece was Ørjan Matre’s arrangement of the traditional farewell song Herrens venner, a largely homophonic series of verses with an evocatively meandering melody and a chorale-like mood, concluding with a wonderfully scrunchy final chord.

The 16 singers of Sansara were very impressive, notably the upper voices who had a lot to do. The founder and director Tom Herring conducted with commendable restraint.