Ex Cathedra: New Jerusalem

Parry, MacMillan, Panufnik

Part of Birmingham International Concert Season 2014/15 Concert Package, Ex Cathedra Season 2014/15 Concert Package, SoundBite, Birmingham International Concert Season 2014/15, Ex Cathedra Season 2014/15 and Vocal Music

Saturday 31st January

Town Hall

Ex Cathedra Choir and Ensemble
Jeffrey Skidmore conductor

Parry Jerusalem 10’
Roxanna Panufnik Since we Parted (world premiere) 8’
Parry Songs of Farewell 31’
James MacMillan Seven Angels (world premiere) 40’

Nostalgia has always been a potent force in British music but the emotions it provokes can look forward as well as back.

In this inspired programme, James MacMillan takes up where Elgar left off with a superb new choral work based on The Last Judgment, while a new work by Roxanna Panufnik, two much-loved favourites by Parry, evoke a century of great music.

Ex Cathedra is a Town Hall Associate Artist. http://www.thsh.co.uk

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Review by Christopher Morley, Birmingham Post:

Click here for full review

…     “Between the two Parry offerings came the first of the evening’s premieres, Roxanna Panufnik’s Since We Parted, a wonderfully warm work of immense emotional sincerity interweaving two deeply-felt poems of lovers’ separations.

Robert Bulwer-Lytton’s mid-Victorian eponymous poem fused perfectly with Kathleen Coates’ A Year and a Day, written on the brink of the First World War, and Panufnik’s well-layered choral textures combined with adroit imagery from a tiny instrumental group to create a heart-stopping 10 minutes.

Four times its length was the evening’s other premiere, James MacMillan’s Seven Angels, bringing to life the Book of Revelations’ Last Judgment and picking up a century later on Elgar’s reluctance so to do in his own New Testament trilogy.

Sharing with Elgar a desire for performance authenticity, MacMillan makes extensive use of two shofars (temple fanfaring instruments) brilliantly alternating with natural trumpets at the lips of Mark Bennett and Simon Munday, high in the organ-loft.

There are also virtuoso parts for solo cello (Andrew Skidmore), harp (Lucy Wakeford) and percussion (Sarah Stuart).

And, of course, the chorus, from which soloists emerge in Ex Cathedra’s traditional manner. MacMillan’s vocal scoring shares the often improvisatory nature of Penderecki’s St Luke Passion, including swooping exhalations, whistling, rapid teeth-palate alternations, humming and the like, all with the effect of setting his more conventional, fully-harmonised choral writing into glorious prominence.

As Seven Angels progressed, naturally structured upon each of the seven angel’s fanfaring, towards its visionary conclusion, we arrived at a final F minor chord, and the sound was genuinely ecstatic.

I doubt this performance could ever be bettered. The stunned audience silence at the end could have gone on forever.”

*****

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Review by John Quinn, SeenandHeard, MusicWeb:

Click here for full review

…     “Roxanna Panufnik’s Since we Parted was commissioned by Ex Cathedra with the support of Jane Arthur. Jeffrey Skidmore had asked that the piece should remember the Great War and, if possible, should set words by or about women. Miss Panufnik combines lines by two poets. A verse by Robert Bulmer-Lytton (1831-1891), from which the work’s title derives, acts as a kind of refrain for the full choir and is heard on several occasions. In between the refrains come lines by Kathleen Coates (1890-1958) from a poem entitled ‘A Year and a Day’. The piece is scored for choir and a small ensemble of harp, piano, cello and a pair of trumpets, the latter being used with great restraint as far as dynamics are concerned. It plays for about ten minutes.

The refrain is wistful and quite gentle. I may be mistaken but I had the impression that the music was subtly varied at each re-appearance. The composer said that in this music she tried “to create a sense of yearning – with harmonies that lean into each other and suspensions that only partly resolve.” I’d say she succeeded. The Coates lines are set in two separate passages. The first is for female voices and here the textures were graceful and the music warm. The men have the second Coates passage and their music is more robust. The performance seemed, at a first hearing, to be expert and the composer, who was present, was clearly delighted.     […]

[…]    

MacMillan chose as his text lengthy passages from the Book of Revelation in which St John describes that part of his vision when seven angels appear in succession, each to blow a dread fanfare to usher in further apocalyptic events. The angels were represented by two trumpeters, here placed behind and above the choir, next to the organ console. These trumpeters contributed a series of arresting fanfares, using not only trumpets but also natural trumpets and shofars, the primitive ram’s horn trumpets of Old Testament times, one of which Elgar deployed tellingly in The Apostles. In addition to the trumpeters the small accompanying ensemble comprised harp, cello and a battery of percussion, played indefatigably by one percussionist. It should be said straightaway that one of MacMillan’s many achievements in this score is to conjure a tremendous variety of arresting colours from just these five instrumentalists. This is just one way in which the score is highly imaginative.

Just as impressive is his writing for the choir. They have many passages of homophonic or polyphonic writing. In addition various other vocal techniques are employed, including Sprechstimme, glissandi, humming, shouting and whistling. The whistling occurs just before the appearance of the seventh angel and I suspect it’s intended to convey the sound of a great wind; if so, it works brilliantly. Indeed, all the various non-singing techniques made their mark and were relevant to the moment in the text at which they occurred; in other words, these techniques were not employed just for effect.

The words are intensely dramatic and MacMillan’s vast experience as a composer both of religious music and of operas equipped him extremely well to surmount the challenges of the text. Among many passages that caught my ear was a section, just before the appearance of the seventh angel, when the cello and tubular bells initiate a fast dance, the rhythms of which are excitingly irregular. This dance is sustained when the choir enters and it’s extremely effective. Effective too were the four passages for solo voices – bass, tenor, alto and soprano successively – which illustrate the appearances of the first four angels. Most imposing of all, however, was the music at the point to which the whole work had surely been aimed: the words beginning “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth”. Here the whole ensemble was united in a luminous outburst which gradually unwound to be followed by several more similar explosions of fervour. The work finished with the words “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” The long silence that followed the conclusion of Seven Angels bore testimony to the power and eloquence of the piece we had just heard for the first time.

I confess that for the first few minutes I wasn’t sure what I would make of Seven Angels but this is a work that draws the listener in and which compels attention. The music is astonishingly inventive and imaginative, though I do wonder if the trumpet fanfares are not perhaps a little overdone. The performance by Ex Cathedra and the small instrumental ensemble was beyond praise. The music is clearly complex and extremely demanding yet not only was it put across with great assurance but also with the conviction that only thorough preparation and highly skilled execution can produce. The composer, who was enthusiastically applauded, looked delighted by the performance and I’m not surprised.

This was an unforgettable concert of memorable music superbly performed. I’m particularly keen to hear Seven Angels again for it is a profound and dramatic work that demands detailed listening and reflection; one hearing simply isn’t enough.”

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