New 9/11 choral work confronts tensions between Christianity and Islam

12/09/2011

 Richard Blackford, Copland, Barber: Paul Nilon (tenor), Stephen Gadd (baritone), Simon Callow (narrator), Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Youth Chorus, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Gavin Carr (conductor), Town Hall, Cheltenham, 11.9.2011. (RJ)

This concert was in many respects a fitting commemoration of the attack on New York’s World Trade Center ten years ago with the first half devoted to American music starting with Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. The short piece was one of several patriotic fanfares commissioned for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the dark days of 1942, and the only one which is still played regularly – a testimony to its continuing ability to stir the soul.

Actor Simon Callow introduced the concert by reading words by three of the founding fathers of the USA: Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and President John Adams. Then came Copland’s  Lincoln Portrait , another work designed to invoke patriotism after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. After a calm, pastoral-like start the music erupts into a lively hoe-down based on American folk tunes. But then a tone of seriousness enters and we hear Lincoln the statesman warning first that “we cannot escape history”, later condemning slavery, and finally delivering the Gettysburg Address.  The music mirrored perfectly the inspiring thoughts of the President, and the Callow’s fine diction together with the BSO’s sensitive playing made this a particularly moving occasion.

The action then moved forward to the 9/11 tragedy itself. Simon Callow read an extract from journalist Tom Junod’s description of a nameless man falling from one of the Twin Towers suspended momentarily in time – words which we would hear set to music later on in the evening. Barber’s Adagio for Strings provided a fitting elegy to the event with delicate, silky music from the BSO’s strings which eventually melted into the air.

Political speeches and belligerent calls to action might not strike one as the most obvious material for a choral work, and Richard Blackford showed great daring in confronting one of the major issues of our time – the apparently irreconcilable rift between Christianity and Islam which harks back to the time of the Crusades. The work, entitled Not in Our Time after a poem by Hilda Doolittle, starts in the 21st century with an orchestral evocation of the attack on the Twin Towers and President George W Bush’s address to Congress on September 20th 2001 declaring a crusade – a war on terror. This provokes a strong reaction from two Arab spokesmen.

Listeners are then transported back to the Middle Ages to hear Pope Urban II urge people to repel the Muslim invasion of the Holy Land and “destroy that vile race” since “it is the will of God”. Then follows a wonderfully stirring Crusaders’ marching hymn, Vexilla regis prodeunt, with a terrific brass and percussion accompaniment which makes them  sound truly invincible – as indeed they are.  Jerusalem falls under their pitiless onslaught and they wade through the blood of their victims to worship at the Holy Sepulchre with the hymn Lucis largitor splendide – a thrilling outpouring of praise full of contrapuntal complexity, which both the adult chorus and the children’s chorus handled with relish and skill. But towards the end of their celebration dissonances appear in the music and one has a premonition that the Christians will not have things their own way for ever.

The next section is as quiet and thought-provoking as the previous one had been loud and triumphant. (Mr Blackford does not spare the use of fff and ffff if he feels the occasion demands it!)  It is a setting of “He deserts this earth like an arrow”, Tom Junod’s evocative description (previously alluded to) of a man falling to earth and certain death as his body accelerates at “32 feet per second as though he were a missile, a spear, bent on attaining his own end”. The words were sung were sung with eloquence and conviction by Paul Nilon above a silvery, ethereal accompaniment. Then it was back to the Middle Ages as people contemplate the destruction around them, implore the Lord to help them and complain that he does not listen to their pleas. Eventually the words dissolve into a hubbub of voices. But then comes more rejoicing  – this time from the Muslims after Saladin defeats the “infidel” and retakes Jerusalem. “The Holy War! The Holy War! Help God and He will help you,” sings baritone Stephen Gadd lustily – but he represents the Muslim cause.

So whose side is God on – ours or theirs? Well, it would seem that he is not one for taking sides but favours the peace-makers, if President Obama’s speech to students at Cairo University is anything to go by.  The final section of the piece is devoted to this speech in which Obama insists that “violence is a dead-end” and quotes from three holy books – the Talmud, the Quran and the Bible – to prove his point.

I could easily digress into politics or theology at this juncture, but will desist. But I hope I have shown that Not in Our Time is an ingenious and provocative work which raises important issues for our time. Apart from that it is very strong and varied musically with some imaginative orchestration and really challenging items for the chorus to get their teeth into.

The Bournemouth Symphony Chorus, who commissioned the work for their centenary this year, have gained plenty of expertise over the years – it certainly showed at this splendid  performance – and their junior offshoot were also remarkably accomplished. Gavin Carr on the conductor’s rostrum welded his large forces together into a very convincing ensemble and the two soloists proved excellent in their respective roles.

Richard Blackford has composed a work which is stimulating both musically and intellectually – not all choral pieces are! – and choral societies who appreciate a challenge should be vying with each other to perform it. It proved a magnificent climax to a concert inspired by the tragic events of a decade ago and deservedly received a standing ovation.

Roger Jones

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