Sculthorpe, Stravinsky, Tavener. St Peter’s Cathedral. 9 Nov 2012
If you missed it, you missed it, and you really missed something. The Icons in Sound concerts – this was the second and last one for the year – are one-offs which makes them even more special.
Being presented in the serenity of St Peter’s Cathedral, it would seem a fair bet that the concert would have an overt religious theme about it, but if presented elsewhere this would not necessarily be apparent, and I found this a fascinating aspect of the programming.
The concert was an exploration of chant, but not entirely from the western tradition.
The concert began with ‘New Norcia’, a piece for brass and percussion by Peter Sculthorpe. It was name after Australia’s only monastic town, situated a short distance from Perth, which was a Benedictine mission established to serve indigenous Australians. Graham Skinner’s programme notes tell us that the work consists of five soloistic chant-like sections, each followed by a refrain for the full ensemble in which the percussion represents traditional tribal music of the region. This description is apt, and the sparseness of the melody – irreverently rated by my partner as ‘one angel out of five’ (!) – with the ambience of the venue made for moments of meditative introspection.
Stravinsky’s ‘Symphonies of Wind Instruments’ was infused with the style of chant from the Russian Orthodox Church, but it is episodic and perhaps unsatisfying in its brevity. As its title suggests, it is scored for a wind ensemble including horns, trumpets, trombones and tuba. The acoustic of St Peter’s allowed the skill and musical excellence of the brass in particular to shine through.
The journey through chant concluded with an impassioned performance of Sir John Taverner’s exquisitely beautiful ‘The Protecting Veil’, featuring Li-Wei Qin on cello and the string section of the orchestra. This composition is young – it was written in 1988 and premièred at the 1989 BBC Proms – but it is destined to become a classic. It is soaringly lyrical, and dare I say, at times ‘hummable’. Even though the motivation for the composition is an event early in the 10th century of Orthodox Christian tradition, it ultimately transcends religion and has the ability to transport the listener to precisely where the composer intended, and that is deep and abandoned in the recesses of one’s spiritual rather than religious self. The piece comprises eight sections without a pause that explore key moments in the life of the Mother of God, including the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Christ. Each section makes use of the so-called eight Byzantine modes, which are used in the Orthodox vocal chant music tradition to evoke different feelings in the listener. They are used to great effect in The Protecting Veil, and none so more than in the section where Tavener’s score calls for the music to be played ‘bell-like’. Prior to the performance conductor Benjamin Norhthey commented that such an instruction was cause for much discussion by the orchestra: did the composer have a particular sound in mind, or was it more metaphorical, noting that the peeling of bells is a call for celebration. Regardless, the second of the two passages marked with this annotation truly did sound like church bells – no mean feat from strings alone, and a testimony to their skill, and to the writing.
Li-Wei was a picture of studied concentration as he elicited wonderfully pure and thoughtful tones from his instrument with just the right amount of vibrato. Northey periodically lent over to turn the page of Li-Wei’s score but it was as if he never referred to or needed it.
And there we have it. Three quite different pieces each grounded in chant, and two of them – the Sculthorpe and the Stravinsky – disguising it fairly well. The whole experience was sublime.
Where: St Peter's Cathedral