12 September 2011

Not in our Time

In common with many people people to whom I have spoken recently, I find it hard to believe that the destruction of the World Trade Center was ten years ago. It is an event of such magnitude that it will probably always appear a recent memory. Yesterday, the actual anniversary of course, was marked by many ceremonies and events, including the première of an oratorio entitled Not in our Time by Richard Blackford.
I was introduced to Richard by a mutual friend earlier this year – earlier in the summer, which today has confirmed the joke that I heard a few weeks ago: Hurricane Irene, which was downgraded to a tropical storm before it hit New York, has now been further downgraded to English Summer. We might reasonably have hoped for an Indian Summer, but we seem to be deprived of that consolation.
That said, yesterday was pleasant, although I spent much of it indoors. Richard’s work received its première in a bolted-on extra concert which nominally formed part of the Cheltenham Music Festival, which had in truth finished in July. The first half of the programme was an entirely predictable, even hackneyed, selection of American works: Fanfare for the Common Man, followed by another of Copland's top five, the Lincoln Portrait, and finished off with Barber's inevitable Adagio. But in fact, the programme was extremely well-balanced, and therefore well-thought-out: a workout for the brass and percussion to start and a showcase for the strings to finish, and although we hear those works (as I said to Gerald) too often, so we take them rather for granted, they are great pieces. The Fanfare, which I have never heard live before, took on a new, mind-blowing, dimension, and the Adagio was performed with such a light touch as to seem weightless. Both seemed impossibly fresh for works that we hear so often.
As for the Lincoln Portrait, which everybody and anybody in American public life (and Margaret Thatcher) seems to have narrated at one time or another, we had the privilege of hearing the Shakespearean tones of Simon Callow. Does it need an American accent? I think the work takes on a lot of the personality of the narrator, and as an English tribute to an event which was primarily (though by no means exclusively) an American one, it seemed entirely in order.
I guess it benefits from the fact that we don't hear it so often, not as much as the works that bookended it. I'd have rather liked to hear the choral version of the Adagio, which seemed perhaps a missed opportunity with all those singers sitting through the first half with nothing to do (I wonder why they came on at all? Did they sing a little in the Lincoln Portrait, unnoticed by me?) which would have given the programme a little more novelty: but I have no complaints. If it the programme was a bit of a cliché it was nevertheless a brilliantly executed one, and very moving.
I was able to attach myself to the representatives of Richard's record company, a meeting with whom was another purpose of my trip to Cheltenham: we lunched in Raymond Blanc's Brasserie, then made our way to the Town Hall where the chorus were leaving the stage having completed the rehearsal of the new work. That wasn't quite as we had planned it – especially as I was keen to reprise my long-lost career as a performing arts photographer. But if I were unable to get any shots of the rehearsal of Not in our Time, I was fortunate to be able to photograph perhaps the country’s greatest practising actor venturing into what I imagine might well have been new territory for him – I should have asked: when he joined a group which included me at the interval, he told us that his preparation had included listening to Katherine Hepburn's recording, which he estimated from the sound of her voice might have been made minutes before she died. His research had not included the Thatcher version – which I suspect is worth hearing, though this is a piece for occasions, not for daily listening.
The first half, even Mr Callow, were little more than a warm-up for the main event. After the interval (in which we were instructed to present ourselves at the patrons' bar, where we enjoyed a glass and a chat with the Narrator as well as meeting some other new people – to whom I was, to my embarrassment, introduced by the country's most highly-regarded composer of art songs as a leading authority on intellectual property) I had the pleasure of listening to one of the most intelligent, humane pieces of work I have ever come across. Richard had taken part in an interesting panel discussion earlier in the day, which helped to set his work in context. The discussion took us back to the Crusades, perhaps in greater depth than we really wanted given the time available but certainly it was very interesting: and it is the Crusades which inform Richard's work, starting with President Bush's extraordinarily insensitive, ill-informed, destructive reference to the war on terror as a modern version. Did no-one pause for a moment to consider where that word comes from? One of the panellists recalled how Rageh Omah, the BBC's man in the middle east at the time, had reported the gasps when people heard the word. It must be something like threatening the Jewish people with a new holocaust, imagining that it is a neutral expression. I too remember thinking it was an ill-chosen word, though I don't think I realised quite how significant it was at the time. (The panel discussion also produced the interesting insight that Barbara Bush, asked whether her son was dumb, had said: Yes, dumb like a fox. I beg to differ, at least on the basis of this evidence - and notwithstanding my sense of association with President Bush whose personal best for the Marathon was the same as mine for many years - until I took a few minutes off it six years ago.)
So, the music was atmospheric and tonal, the choral parts were excellent, and the concept was inspired. Some of the texts set were, however, a bit weak - they were the rights texts to use, but they weren't up to the job, in my opinion. President Obama's speech at Cairo University was not composed with a view to being set to music. The Falling Man, great in parts, has the same shortcoming in this context, and frankly I found it inappropriately dispassionate. I think I can see what the journalist was trying to do, and in places he succeeds magnificently, but some of the description of a victim's final seconds is simply too clinical. And, like the Obama speech, it lacks the rhythm needed to work as a libretto. To my mind at least.
Ian kindly explained to me a little about "recit", and mentioned how Balshazzar's Feast succeeds with this sort of vocal writing - A Child of Our Time too - so I must go and listen to them. I would much prefer to have listened to Mr Cowell declaiming those passages rather than singers battling with the conflict between the rhythms of speech and those of the music - but that's my taste, and I'm afraid that always grates on my ear. But as the piece ended - ended in what struck me as a highly original way - I was  in no doubt that I had witnessed a significant musical event - and not just musical, I hope. Not enough to get me to my feet, as most of the audience did, and that wasn't entirely because I had spent so much time on them earlier in the day, as I am allowed reservations - but I congratulated Richard when I saw him afterwards, and, musical ignoramus though I might be, all the accolades were richly deserved.

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