Weltethos: Far from Festival Fare

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Jonathan Harvey, Weltethos: Samuel West (speaker), CBSO Chorus, CBSO Youth Chorus, CBSO Children’s Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Edward Gardner & Michael Seal (conductors). Symphony Hall, Birmingham. 21.6.2012 (JQ)

Weltethos (UK première)

Humanity (Confucianism)
Golden Rule (Judaism)
Non-violence (Hinduism)
Justice (Islam)
Truth (Buddhism)
Partnership (Christianity)

This concert was one of four events launching, pretty much simultaneously, ‘London 2012’. This is a nationwide Festival of the Arts, inspired by and coinciding with the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The festival will run for twelve weeks, will comprise some 12,000 events and has a budget of £55m. The laudable aim of the festival is to embrace the whole of the UK and to take in the full range of the Arts. The UK première of Weltethos was clearly positioned as a flagship event.

The concept of the work itself originated with the celebrated if controversial theologian, Hans Küng. He is the president of the Global Ethic Foundation (Stiftung Weltethos) which, we were told in the comprehensive programme notes, “seeks to foster peace between the religions on the basis of common ethical principles and values.” In 2006 Küng took his libretto for a 90-minute choral and orchestral work to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, which agreed to commission it; Jonathan Harvey was invited to compose it. The first performance was given in Berlin last October, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and Simon Halsey. So how did this piece become a major event in the London 2012 festival? In an online talk about the work Simon Halsey explains that the festival organisers spoke to him and explained that they were keen for the festival to make a statement about world peace but that they didn’t want to fall back, as is so often the case, on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: a fair point. Halsey suggested they consider Weltethos.

Weltethos is an ambitious work in every sense. The forces required are vast. The score calls for a speaker, large SATB choir, a children’s choir and a huge orchestra including an extravagantly large percussion section. Indeed, I can’t recall seeing so many percussion instruments assembled on stage, even for performances of some of Messiaen’s most grandiloquently-scored orchestral works. This massive ensemble, and the metrical and other complexities of the score, required two conductors working independently of each other, though the second conductor (Michael Seal) was not continuously involved. When both conductors were active it appeared that they were usually beating completely different tempi and directing separate elements of the ensemble.

The work is divided into six sections, each lasting roughly 15 minutes, and apart from brief pauses between most of the sections, the piece plays continuously. In the heading to the review I’ve listed not only the titles of the movements but also, in brackets, the identity of the faith or philosophy with which each section is concerned. Broadly, each of the sections follows a similar structure, though the structure is modified slightly for section five and substantially for the last movement. In essence, each section consists of a short orchestral prelude which leads to a passage for speaker in which the main philosophy and the leading figure – for example Buddha, the Prophet Mohammed, Jesus Christ – of the religion or culture in question are introduced. Then the choir delivers various passages of relevant text. Finally, each section – except the last one – concludes with a refrain, for children’s chorus, the material of which is very similar, if not identical, each time. It will be noted that in referring to the choir I used the word “delivers” rather than “sings”; the choice of word is deliberate because although some singing is involved so too are various other varieties of vocal production.

And that brings me to one of my principal problems with Weltethos. The libretto is substantial and clearly important. It was printed in full in the programme book but even with that support it was often hard to hear what the adult choir was singing. This is definitely not a criticism of the members of the CBSO Chorus, who were clearly labouring valiantly. However, several times Harvey requires the chorus to whisper substantial portions of the text. Frankly, they might as well have been whispering in any language during these sections since the words were completely unintelligible. At other times it sounded as if the words had been broken down into individual syllables, uttered almost at random by the choir. What on earth is the point of taking what was clearly a carefully crafted libretto, expressing some profound ideas and then setting the words in such a way that the audience struggles to follow the text? The choir’s task was not made any easier by the accompaniment. In fairness I should say that Harvey conjured up many delicate sounds from the orchestra but all too often one felt that the orchestra was being required to play against the singers.

There were sections when a somewhat more conventional approach to choral writing was evident. One example was the passage in Part IV beginning “Hast thou ‘ere considered”, which was one of a number of passages sung by a semi chorus. Another was the concluding chorus passage in section III. These reminded me that previously Harvey has written some short choral works, such as I love the Lord, which I’ve found intriguing and interesting. However, such passages were fairly rare in Weltethos. The CBSO Chorus is well accustomed to performing contemporary music and such experience must have stood them in good stead but I do wonder how much rehearsal time had to be devoted to this fiendishly difficult work – and was it worth it?

If one struggled to discern the choral parts at least there were no such problems with the material given to children’s choir. Superficially, this was much more straightforward in comparison with the material for the adult choir. However, I’m sure it was demanding for these young singers. Yet they delivered their passages in the work with consistent clarity, freshness and, above all, enthusiasm. I thought they were marvellous. Whatever doubts I may have about Weltethos it’s excellent that young people are receiving exposure to contemporary music in this way. One other point. With so much going on around them that must have been novel to say the least – one thinks of the very active percussion section with its array of exotica – it would have been understandable if their concentration had wavered. However, there was never a sign of that happening and their discipline was as remarkable as their singing. Bravo!

Along with the BBC Symphony Orchestra the CBSO is probably more experienced in playing contemporary music than any other UK orchestra. That expertise showed in this performance. Harvey makes huge demands on the players but so far as I could judge the playing was razor sharp throughout. Though there are some ear-splitting climaxes, much of the orchestral writing demands pinpoint precision and, often, delicacy. The CBSO seemed fully up to the score’s demands. Edward Gardner, supported by Michael Seal, kept the enormous edifice on an even keel.

So what’s the verdict on Weltethos? You will have gathered by now, I think, that I’m unimpressed. I’m always wary of judging a piece on one hearing and on the way up to Birmingham I had thought I might listen to it a second time through the BBC i-player facility before writing my review. I’m sorry to say, however, that with the best will in the world I couldn’t face sitting through it again. Parts of the work intrigued me and Harvey produces some fascinating sounds from the orchestra but that’s not enough for a compelling listening experience I’m afraid. In the end, it seemed to me that the work’s complexity is self-defeating. It’s hugely ambitious, both philosophically and musically, and as it progressed I came to feel that Weltethos had foundered under the weight of its ambition, certainly as regards the musical side of things. There’s a pragmatic objection too. One presumes that Hans Küng wanted his message to reach a wide audience. Jonathan Harvey has cloaked the words in a score of such magnitude – in every sense – that one wonders how often Küng’s words will be heard in public because Weltethos will be prohibitively expensive to mount.

The other question that arises is whether it was an appropriate choice for the opening of the London 2012 festival. I fear it was a misguided selection. I can understand the wish to programme a work that speaks of world peace – and to avoid yet another Beethoven Ninth. However, to judge by the public statements from Festival Director Ruth Mackenzie a key aim of the festival is inclusivity – and rightly so. This was not an inclusive event – for one thing the many empty seats in Symphony Hall told their own story. However, the choice was wrong also because, for all its aspirations, Weltethos is a highly elitist work. I fully accept and strongly agree with the proposition that creative artists – and performing artists – should regularly push the boundaries of their art but in doing so it’s crucial that the audience is taken along, not left behind uncomprehendingly. Judged by that yardstick Weltethos does not succeed in my opinion.

When I got home I saw a little of a TV broadcast of an open air concert from Stirling, another London 2012 event. There were literally thousands of local people, many of whom may well never have attended a symphony concert in their lives, sitting in the pouring rain watching and evidently lapping up a performance by Gustavo Dudamel and the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra. While I think that Dudamel himself has been somewhat over-hyped I’m in no doubt that the Stirling event offered much more that Weltethos as an exciting and inclusive festival opener

Weltethos was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and the recording can be accessed here for the next few days.

John Quinn