Three Choirs Festival 2011 (2) – A dignified and moving commemoration of 9/11

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Barber, John Adams. Mahler, Mozart:  Julia Doyle (soprano), Clare McCaldin (mezzo-soprano), Simon Wall (tenor), Robert Macdonald (bass), Festival Chorus, Choristers of the Three Cathedral Choirs, Philharmonia Orchestra, Adrian Partington. Worcester Cathedral. 7.8. 2011 (JQ)

9/11 Memorial Concert

Barber: Adagio for Strings
John Adams (b. 1947): On the Transmigration of Souls (2002)
Mahler: Adagietto from Symphony No 5
Mozart: Requiem K 626

September 11th 2001, on which such shocking events took place in the USA, is surely a defining date in recent world history and the reverberations are bound to resonate for many years to come. No doubt when the tenth annivesary itself arrives in a few weeks time there will be sober reflection, not just in the USA but anywhere else in the world where there is an abhorrence of violence perpetrated on innocent civilians, no matter what the cause.

The Three Choirs Festival chose to include a commemoration of 9/11 in its programme and did so in a way that was dignified, uplifting and genuinely moving. The programme was shrewdly chosen, opening with Samuel Barber’s celebrated Adagio, which has become something of a national elegy in modern America. At first sight Mozart’s Requiem might seem to sit oddly with some of the other music on the programme. Let’s be honest, one reason for its inclusion may have been to provide a familiar musical anchor for those unsure about the music of John Adams – and why not? But, on another level, I wonder if the inclusion of the Mozart work, a long time staple of the choral repertoire, may have been a implied way of saying that, while we properly respect other cultures, the pillars of Western civilisation will and must endure come what may.

The Barber was done with sensitivity and Adrian Partington built the piece skilfully to its climax. In a way I wished that the whole first half could have been presented as a sequence sans applause but that was not to be and the Philharmonia strings merited acknowledgement for their playing of the Barber.

The centrepiece of the programme, which came next, was On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams and this was a brave choice in more ways than one. It was brave to stage it simply for logistical reasons for it requires large forces physically present on the platform and also a pre-recorded tape, which must be co-ordinated with the live music-making. It was also brave because I doubt many in the audience will have been acquainted with the work. And, finally, the Festival was making something of a pioneering artistic statement in programming the work because after what was, I believe, its UK première at the Proms in 2003 I doubt it’s been performed many times, if at all, in the UK.

The piece was jointly commissioned by New York’s Lincoln Center and the New York Philharmonic to mark the first anniversary of 9/11 and it was first performed in September 2002. It’s been recorded twice. I’ve heard both recordings – the New York Philharmonic recording, made at the first performances (review), and a subsequent studio version by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (review). I also heard on the radio the aforementioned performance at the Promenade Concerts, conducted by the composer, in 2003 but I’ve never been present at a live concert performance.

In the afternoon, before setting off to Worcester, I deliberately listened again to the Maazel recording just to remind myself of the piece. With that memory in my mind I was delighted to find how much detail – and the shape of the piece – came over in Adrian Partington’s performance. Indeed, I’ll go further: I think he and his performers achieved, in some respects, rather more clarity than one hears on the Maazel recording in that the choir’s words registered more strongly. Particularly noteworthy was the contribution of the children’s choir – conducted separately by Adrian Lucas. In his preface to the Festival programme Mr Lucas makes the point that few of the cathedral choristers were even born when 9/11 took place. Taking part in this performance must have been a uniquely formative experience for them, then, and their words came through very well.

The piece is a remarkable one. Wisely, Adams has in no sense attempted to depict the events of that terrible day. Instead he has sought to create what he calls ‘a memory space’. His text interweaves the names of some of those slaughtered on that day along with some words spoken or written by their loved one. A lot of this, together with some random everyday New York street sounds, is conveyed through the pre-recorded tape. The audience was well-prepared to understand the piece and what lies behind it because the Festival programme reprinted with permission a very useful interviewwith the composer from his website.

I thought Mr Partington controlled his large forces superbly and it seemed to me that the composer’s intentions were very accurately conveyed – the resonant acoustics of the cathedral didn’t obscure too much detail but lent a suitable aura to the sound. I found it very moving. At the end, after the piece had faded into a long silence, applause seemed almost an impertinence but it was justified out of respect for the performers, for the piece and, let’s not forget, for those who were caught up in that terrible day.

There is a New York link with Mahler, I suppose, in that he was the conductor of the orchestra we now know as the New York Philharmonic in the last years of his life. However, I wish Mr Partington had been even bolder in his programming and played not the Mahler but The Unanswered Question by Charles Ives. That enigmatic masterpiece is an acknowledged influence on Adams’s piece and it would have been wonderful if the Ives work had preceded the Adams and if On the Transmigration of Souls had then been followed by no more music but by the interval, allowing us time for reflection. Perhaps, however, the intention was to give us a trace of optimism after the Adams piece – Mahler’s movement is, after all, a love song, even if some of its point is lost when it is heard out of its context in the symphony, as Stephen Johnson implied in an excellent and thoughtful essay in the programme book. This particular performance of the Adagietto was a good one. Mr Partington shaped the music well and I liked the fact that he kept the music moving forward and thereby avoided any self-indulgent sentimentality.

Perhaps the inclusion of the Mahler was intended as something of a backwards bridge linking contemporary New York to the Austria of Mozart via Mahler, who lived and worked in both places. That may be a bit fanciful but in the second half we had one of Mozart’s greatest works, the Requiem. This was given in the familiar Süssmayr completion and it was an impressive reading. Mr Partington directed the work stylishly and with energy. His speeds were bracing although only on one or two occasions did I wonder if he was pressing forward a little too urgently.

The choir sang superbly and with great commitment – I loved the rolling of the letter ‘r’ in ‘the ‘Rex Tremendae’. The dynamic contrasts were good and the singing had life and vigour – for example at ‘Ne absorbeat eas tartarus’ in the Offertorium. But equally, there was sensitivity in passages such as the Hostias, where intelligent, well prepared singing and Partington’s fluent speed meant there was no heaviness. The fugues were robust but clear.

The pick of the solo quartet was soprano Julia Doyle, whose pure, clean tone impressed me as much as it had in Stephen Layton’s recent recording of Messiah (review). The clear singing of tenor Simon Wall also made a favourable impression.

Overall this was a strong and affirmative account of Mozart’s masterpiece and it was a fitting and often stirring conclusion to a dignified and thoughtful commemoration of 9/11.

John Quinn