sound festival 2019 review: The Big Picture

Dr Roger B. Williams M.B.E.: Conductor

John Horton: Associate Conductor
Joanna Nicholson: Clarinet
Dr Lisa Nicol: Percussion
Dr Jeremy Coleman: Keyboard
Con Anima Chamber Choir
Voices From Aberdeen Schools

Celebrating the re-opening of Aberdeen art gallery, featuring a live performance of an epic choral composition, The Big Picture, commissioned specially for this most auspicious event from the current master of the queen's music, Judith Weir.

A large crowd of invited guests thronged the newly opened Aberdeen Art Gallery to be welcomed with lavish hospitality and introductory speeches and to see round the newly refurbished and upgraded gallery. Specially for this event, Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, in collaboration with the soundfestival entering the second week of its current run on Thursday, had commissioned a new choral work from Judith Weir, the first female Master of the Queen’s Music.

It took some time for the conductor of the new work, Dr Roger Williams, to get the huge number of people milling around and chatting happily in the Atrium to realise that something really special was under way, but eventually a hush came over the crowd and when the music started, its magical effect had everyone in the Atrium listening attentively. Unfortunately there were many people in other parts of the gallery who probably were not aware that live music was in progress, so there was still a certain hubbub in the background.

All the same, this was a large scale choral work, and for me, it won through triumphantly above the background. The performers occupied several levels in the gallery. In front of me was the conductor, Dr Williams, and in front of him, the members of Con Anima Chamber Choir. To his left, from where I was standing, Dr Jeremy Coleman was seated at the keyboard. Up in the gallery was virtuoso clarinettist Joanna Nicholson and at the left hand side in the gallery, ace percussionist Dr Lisa Nicol. Just beside her was the second conductor, John Horton whose job it was to relay the conducting instructions of Dr Williams to the long line of community singers, mostly, but not all, young people who were also to take part in the projection of percussion sounds with triangles and other metallic noise makers as well as adding their singing, speaking and whispering voices to the music.

The new work entitled The Big Picture was in five movements. Each used words of poetry based on colours, a perfect idea for sure for a work intended to celebrate an Art Gallery. Some of the poets, if you include King Henry VIII, were well known, others less so. The first colour was GREEN based on ‘Green Groweth the Holly’ attributed to King Henry. ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’ by Wallace Stevens (1879 – 1955) described as ‘an American modernist poet’ was inspired by a painting by Picasso, once again perfect for an Art Gallery. Obviously BLUE was the colour here. GOLD was expressed in the poem ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ by Robert Frost. The Irish/American poet’s ‘A White Rose’ contained both RED and WHITE, while the final poem,‘Colour’ by Christina Rossetti (her brother was an artist) brought back colours visited already while adding some others, PINK, YELLOW, VIOLET and finally ORANGE.

The work opened with a sinuous introduction for solo clarinet then the keyboard came in before the young choir from above sang the word green repeatedly. Finally the Singers of Con Anima came in with the full words of the poem. In the second movement dealing with blue, the young choir sang the word ‘tung’ repeatedly imitating the strumming of guitar strings. The movement dealing with gold had dazzling sforzandos from both choirs expressing the glitter and shine of the colour. The red and white movement had fascinating percussion-like vocalisations from the young singers and then the final movement led to an explosive combination of sounds from all the performers, a joyous musical crash. 

How would I describe the work as a whole. I thought just a little bit of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Only a little bit though, because Judith Weir’s piece is much freer, something that is built into the very performance instructions. What was it then that reminded me of Orff. Well, he uses pre-existing medieval melodies while Judith Weir’s music is her own and yet many of her melodies, harmonies and rhythms have early music flavours. Her lavish use of percussion and the contrast of younger and more mature voices reminded me of Carmina Burana. For me, this work is an attractive marriage of the simple and the complex, and in the texts, the straightforward and the mystical. I loved the seductively compelling sounds of the clarinet which introduced most of the movements. I liked the brash brightness of the percussion and the fresh qualities which the voices of the young singers brought to the music. It offered colourful settings of fascinating poems and above all it was a sparkling performance from everyone involved. Con Anima were at their usual enthusiastic best and the two conductors gelled perfectly. John Horton is a specialist in getting youngsters to sing and in this performance it worked magnificently.

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