United Kingdom Kirke, Ryan, Miranda: Juliette Pochin (mezzo-soprano), Pennisula Arts Chorale, Ten Tors Orchestra / Simon Ible (conductor), St Andrew’s Minster Church, Plymouth. 22.9.2012 (PRB)
Alexis Kirke: Distinction
Nick Ryan: As above, so below
Eduardo Reck Miranda: Sound to Sea
Plymouth University is the largest university in the South West of England, and has recently been short-listed for one of the most coveted awards in the UK higher education sector – University of the Year – in the annual Times Higher Education Awards.
Peninsula Arts, the university’s public arts programme, has organised a series of special music events as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations. Given Plymouth University’s origin as a School of Navigation in 1862, new music has been commissioned by this academic establishment for 2012, appropriately inspired by the oceans and Plymouth’s seafaring heritage. The venue for the inaugural concert was the city’s Minster Church of St Andrew, which has witnessed the final prayers and departure of so many great voyagers, from Sir Francis Drake and the Mayflower Pilgrims to Sir Francis Chichester.
Even if the Mayflower Pilgrims’ final prayers proved of greater historical significance, Plymouth’s Mother Church again bore witness to an equally moving experience: the world première of Eduardo Reck Miranda’s epic seven movement work Sound To Sea.
This eminently tuneful piece for full orchestra, organ, chorus and soloist is a veritable compositional tour de force presenting a truly effective juxtaposition of musical styles and genres, which can appeal on every level.
According to the composer, the first movement, Quadrivium, celebrates the human thirst for wisdom and the significance of understanding the past to build the future. Delving further into Miranda’s succinct insight into how each movement has been constructed, the mere mention of ‘algorithmic musical practices’ alongside the ‘metrics of classic Latin’, for example, confirm that we are not dealing with a work fashioned along conventional lines or by any conventional composer.
Brazilian-born Miranda is, in fact, a composer in his own right, as well as a renowned researcher in the field of computer music, and is currently Professor in Computer Music at Plymouth University where he is Head of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research.
Sound To Sea is sensibly constructed in four main movements with three intermezzi separating each one. This has the combined advantage of varying the sound-stage for the listener, while affording some respite for the soloist and the demands made upon her elsewhere. The first Intermezzo, Prototype, is built upon a 12-note series reminiscent of the style of Second Viennese School composer, Webern. Musically it prepares the audience for the sound-scape of the second movement proper, Raster Plot, which makes use of ‘Sprechgesang’, a vocal technique favoured by Webern’s teacher, Schoenberg.
A ‘raster plot’ is essentially a graph plotting the sequence of bursts from neurones in the brain, as they form streams of rhythmic patterns, and towards the end of this movement, there is a quite magical passage bearing a distinct resemblance to a cathedral psalter chant, which emerged as one of the work’s many musical highlights.
The second Intermezzo, Anathema, was apparently influenced by Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Orchestra, in particular the second movement, Eccentric, which Stravinsky said was itself inspired by the ‘ jerky movement, the ups and downs and rhythm’ of a clown he had seen in London.
In the third movement, Sonnet 55, the music skilfully interweaves extant themes, such as Elgar’s Nimrod in such a manner that the original notes emerge fragmented yet reformed, and not as any mere restatement as such. It is in this movement that organist, Jonathan Watts, came into his own on the magnificent Romantic-voiced St Andrew’s Rushworth & Dreaper instrument.
The final Intermezzo, Maranatha, expresses Miranda’s clear admiration for Messiaen’s organ music, while representing the tension between Darwin’s theory of biological evolution and the Christian Church’s biblical account of the creation of the world. Though Messiaen was a devout Catholic, whose faith was a driving force in his compositions, it is still Darwin’s theory of evolution which is at the core of this movement, for which Miranda programmed a computer with an evolutionary model to generate musical patterns, employing software which used a mathematical model known as the Game of Life. This simulates the behaviour of simple living beings by means of rules for the birth, death and survival of life forms.
The final movement, A Fine Rattling Breeze, emerges from a continuous droning texture, becoming increasingly richer and more dynamic, until passages from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F, K. 332, in varying forms of mutation, make their presence increasingly felt, as if suggesting the notes of Mozart’s score were providing the genetic code of Miranda’s music.
Throughout the work, there is a clear debt to the British choral tradition, though here seen through contemporary eyes where the specially-imported London-based Peninsula Arts Chorale’s superb singing made such a telling contribution.
Mezzo-soprano, Juliette Pochin, was equally on top form, coping with the immense technical difficulties with great panache, her flawless and effortless delivery yet another highlight of the performance.
Alexis Kirke’s Distinction, a fascinating amalgam of voice, tubular bells, timpani and computer-processed marine-sounds provided the ideal aperitif to the evening’s main work along with Nick Ryan’s emotionally-moving As Above, So Below. The latter was inspired by the tragic loss of the multi-award-winning composer’s father in an accident on a tea plantation in Kenya in 1973 when Ryan was just six months old, and offered a quite different aural experience. This single Adagio movement is actually the first part of the work; Ryan is planning to write the sequel this December when he revisits Kenya to experience the locale once more. The complete work will then be performed at the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival to be held at Plymouth University next February.
Notwithstanding the composers’ crucial input, the evening’s success was largely down to the consummate skill of the performers, particularly Simon Ible, the conductor and Peninsula Arts’ Director of Music. He drew everything together so seamlessly on the night after guiding them with constant enthusiasm through often uncharted waters beforehand in the rehearsal of a challenging and innovative programme.
Philip R Buttall