Musical factions fight for supremacy in Tonus Peregrinus's Opera Fringe Festival oratorio  

It’s that time of year again, time to drink Pimms on the veranda and time for opera, in all its forms, to take over Northern Ireland's classical music calendar. 

With Castleward Opera already in full swing, Down District Council’s Opera Fringe festival begins with an impressive programme, including conductor Massimiliano Murrali with the Ulster Orchestra and several multimedia performances - including Kenneth Brannagh’s controversial film adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute

One festival act making waves on the UK’s choral circuit is Tonus Peregrinus, formed by composer and musical director Anthony Pitts while he was studying at New College, Oxford. 

Pitts’ ability as a choral composer shines through in much of Tonus Peregrinus's recorded work. Thus far the group have gathered many accolades including a BBC Music Magazine Awards nomination in 2006, and the prestigious Cannes Classical Award for their recording of Arvo Pärt’s Passio in 2005.

Audiences at the 2008 Opera Fringe Festival are in for a treat then, as Tonus Peregrinus take their pews in the Down Cathedral for the world premiere of Pitt’s latest work Jerusalem, or Yerushalayim

Based on a menagerie of Old Testament texts including the books of Genesis, Isaiah, Psalms, 1st Chronicles and Deuteronomy, Pitts' oratorio is an epic work for a modern audience, modelled on Handel’s Messiah

With influences from jazz and popular music to Purcell and Parry, the piece endeavours to tell the story of Jerusalem and its chequered importance throughout history.

The composer’s attention to detail and use of musical motifs is clear from the outset. The work’s principal themes include motifs for ‘sacrifice’, ‘free will’, ‘thanksgiving’, ‘humanity’ and so on. 

In some respects the individual movements of Jerusalem work well, interspersed with narration from John Crook, but perhaps less well as a whole. 

Certainly, in terms of musical invention the piece cannot fail to impress or, indeed, to surprise. But as a ‘twelve-movement entity’ (according to the programme notes), Jerusalem does not tell the story as clearly as one might hope. 

Primarily this is down to the sheer amount of influences that strive for supremacy within the piece, with none ultimately surfacing as the oratorio’s true persona. 

This was, perhaps, a conscious choice by Pitt, an attempt to reflect the many faces of the great historical city. That said, however, there are some great moments in Jerusalem, particularly in the second half. 

'Seventy Weeks', sung by countertenor Alexander L’Estrange as Daniel and soprano Dianna Forbes as Gabriel, is a beautiful work performed superbly by the soloists and ensemble. 

The same can be said of 'A House of Prayer for All People' and its adjoining coda, 'The Peace of Jerusalem', which the choir recorded for Hyperion on their new album Alpha and Omega. These are expressively charged movements which bring out the best choral performances of the night.

All things considered, Jerusalem is worth the effort. Both the musicians and choir give passionate performances, with fantastic direction by the composer himself on piano. It is a work which demands attention, as well as a good deal of discussion on the journey home. 

Graeme Stewart