‘Instead of shying away from the weird and wonderful, we can do it. By playing safe, you really don’t get anywhere.’ The words of Paul Hillier, artistic director of Chamber Choir Ireland, whose most recent visit to Northern Ireland shows he really means it.
A day after the world premiere in Dublin of American composer David Lang’s When We Were Children, Hillier brings the piece to St Thomas’s Church on the Lisburn Road, Belfast, for its UK premiere.
Lang’s text is St Paul’s famous verse from 'Corinthians': ‘When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.’
It’s a traditional enough choice, but what Lang does with it is anything but conventional. Cutting various English renditions of the original Greek up into phrases, he arranges them alphabetically, ‘creating a kind of catalog of its meaning, as it changes from translation to translation'.
These subtle shifts in meaning are traced musically in a series of echoed responses to basic motivic material, as one phrase ricochets into another, setting off a domino-like reaction.
The core melodic material, given in unison by sopranos at the outset, is simple in profile – perhaps referencing the innocent world of the child which is its subject – and there’s an element of ecclesiastical chant about the way it’s shaped and articulated.
By the time the piece encroaches on the world of manhood, however, Lang’s harmonies have mutated into something more unsettling, as though a small shot of pained experience has entered the music, and is perniciously spreading its canker.
The performance, as one has come to expect from this superbly accomplished group of 15 singers, has an ease and assurance, which makes the work itself a pleasure to listen to, so transparently realised are its intentions and expressive subtleties.
‘Weird and wonderful’ is an apt description of at least two other works on the CCI programme. 'The Bird Watcher' by Michael Gordon (another American) eschews text altogether, achieving its effects by the layering of polyrhythms and wordless pitches.
The result is a mesmeric vocalise, thrumming and pulsating round the antiphonal space created by arranging the singers in a semi-circle, using the St Thomas side aisles to broaden spatial perspectives.
Hillier conducted the premiere of 'The Bird Watcher', and directs the CCI’s realisation of it with an unfussy clarity of purpose, eliciting deliciously limpid textures – pitched with pin-point accuracy – from the singers.
For Malcolm Williamson’s 'The Musicians of Bremen', the ensemble slims to just half-a-dozen singers, all male. It’s a zany piece, setting a Brothers Grimm fairytale, and requiring the vocalists to make noises imitating a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster, as well as playing a couple of robbers.
Pieces like this can fall apart if the performers go for too much slapstick. In Hillier’s witty, judicious interpretation, a pleasing balance is struck between the comedy and the need to do full justice to the work’s considerable technical difficulties.
The balance of the programme is devoted to works by John Tavener and Steve Martland, both of whom passed away last year. Tavener is represented by his well-known Blake setting 'The Lamb', and the even better known 'Song for Athene', which was sung at Diana, Princess of Wales’s funeral.
It’s tempting to OD on the meditative element in conducting Tavener. Again, however, Hillier’s scrupulously measured musicality is evident, and he keeps both pieces moving fluidly forward, avoiding the kind of woozy sanctimony they can easily descend to.
Most poignant of all, perhaps, is Jenny Jones, the third of three Steve Martland pieces, his setting of the children’s street song whose last verse reports the death of the girl in the title.
As the singers taper the dynamics down exquisitely for the sad, disconsolate conclusion, it’s impossible not to think of Martland himself, a maverick, iconoclastic talent gone too soon, aged 53, the victim of a heart attack.
He would surely have relished the part his music played in this imaginatively programmed recital, wonderfully sung by a choir whose exemplary standards of execution place them among a small handful of truly world-class musical ensembles currently active in Ireland.
For information on forthcoming concerts, visit the Choir Chamber Ireland website.