Birmingham Dances to Alec Roth’s Tune

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Roth: Grace Davidson & Amy Wood (sopranos), Matthew Venner (alto), Jeremy Budd (tenor), Greg Skidmore (bass),Ex CathedraChoir & Baroque Orchestra, Jeffrey Skidmore. Birmingham Town Hall, 12. 10, 2012 (JQ)

J. S. Bach: Magnificat in D major, BWV243
Alec Roth: A Time to Dance (2012)

These two works were not placed together on the same programme by accident. Alec Roth’s A Time to Dance was commissioned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Summer Music Society of Dorset and a deliberate decision was taken that it should be a companion piece for the Bach Magnificat. Indeed, Roth’s piece is scored for exactly the same forces as the Bach with the small exceptions that he only uses one soprano solo where Bach requires two and that Bach’s timpani are replaced by a small array of modern percussion instruments. Roth has designed his work so that it can equally well be performed on modern instruments or, as was the case here, on period instruments. This was the second performance of A Time to Dance: Ex Cathedra premièred it last June in Sherborne Abbey when I understand the audience accorded it a prolonged standing ovation.

Bach’s music is meat and drink to Ex Cathedra. Though their programmes range across the centuries right up to the music of our own time much of their reputation is founded on their performances of Renaissance and Baroque music from all over the world. This account of the Magnificat was an impressive one. Jeffrey Skidmore was judicious in his choice of tempi: wherever appropriate, the music was delivered at a lively pace – though never rushed off its feet – but the more poetic and reflective movements were allowed to breathe and expand in a completely convincing way. So, for instance, among a quintet of good soloists Grace Davidson floated Bach’s plangent line quite beautifully in ‘Quia respexit’, singing with warm tone, while Matthew Venner gave a delightfully relaxed performance of ‘Esurientes’, supported by beguiling flutes. Mention should also be made of tenor, Jeremy Budd. First he matched Venner’s light voice very well in ‘Et misericordia’, to which Jeffrey Skidmore’s chosen tempo imparted a good, easy lilt; later Budd brought a splendid ringing tone to ‘Deposuit potentes’ in which I admired his clarity in the difficult divisions.

The choir was on fine form from the start. Their precision and rhythmic clarity impressed in the opening chorus, which was light, buoyant and, of course, festive with three natural trumpets. They brought good attack to ‘Fecit potentiam’ and the ‘Sicut locutus est’ fugue was really well delivered, all the fugal lines coming across. The orchestra was not large – the strings mustered 4/4/2/2/1 with pairs of flutes and oboes, bassoon, timpani, chamber organ and the trio of trumpets – but they were very well balanced against a choir of 38, including the soloists, and the playing was expert throughout. All in all this was a suitably joyful and thoroughly enjoyable performance.

In his brief programme note Alec Roth said that A Time to Dance “celebrates the ‘times’ and ‘seasons’ of human existence.” The work, which ran for 58 minutes in this performance, is divided into a Prologue and Epilogue, each entitled ‘Sunrise’, and four main sections, ‘Spring Morning’, ‘Summer Noon’, ‘Autumn Evening’ and ‘Winter Night’. The work begins with a Processional to which the choir enters and a Recessional during which they all exit the stage. Each one of the four main sections features one of the four vocal soloists. Roth has ranged extremely widely in his choice of texts – there are 27 separate, short movements in addition to the Processional and Recessional. The authors include William Blake, Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson, John Donne and Christina Rosetti and many of the selected texts are relatively unfamiliar, at least in the sense that I’m not aware that many of them have often been set to music. I thought the selection of texts was most discerning. The text for the opening Processional comes from the Book of Ecclesiastes – the only non-secular text in the work – and it concludes with the words from which A Time to Dance takes its title. I thought this was a most apt title for the piece firstly because it emphasises the essentially celebratory nature of the composition. In addition, it underlines the link with Bach, so much of whose music – even in such very serious works as the Passions – is founded on the spirit, forms and rhythms of the dances popular in Bach’s day. As A Time to Dance unfolded I became more and more aware of the parallel with the Bach Magnificat in that, like Bach, Roth has composed a work that is essentially joyful and celebratory yet which contains many pauses along the way for musical poetry and moments of reflection.

Earlier this summer I attended a fine performance of the Rachmaninov All-Night Vigil by Ex Cathedra (review) after which I had the chance for a brief word with Jeffrey Skidmore. When I mentioned to him that I hoped to attend this performance of A Time to Dance he said “Wait till you see what he does with three baroque trumpets!” It’s worth commenting on this aspect of the scoring for Roth has used these instruments in a wonderfully imaginative way. At the very start two of the trumpeters were positioned on either side of the stage at the front while the third was stationed above and behind the choir by the organ console. From these positions they contributed excitingly at the beginning of the piece. Before long the two trumpeters had moved from the stage to join their colleague in the gallery, staying there until nearly the end of the work. From here the trumpeters made some significant interventions, for example helping, through some jubilant music, to drive on the exciting chorus that ends Part I. However, Roth went further than that. Have you ever heard a baroque trumpeter emulate the Big Band style of playing? Neither had I, but that’s how the principal trumpeter appeared to play in the chorus that concludes Part II. Later, there’s a setting of words from Blake’s ‘To the Evening Star’ at the end of Part III. This is an exquisite, gentle alto solo but it’s the accompaniment as much as the solo line that tickles the ear. Roth uses the three trumpets, playing with mutes and from a distance, to colour in the accompaniment oh-so-subtly. When he adds the oboes to the mix and, later, the choir softly humming, the sounds ravish the ear.

All my previous experience of Alec Roth’s music, notably Ex Cathedra’s splendid two-CD set of some of his vocal pieces (review) and Mark Padmore’s equally fine disc of songs (review) has shown that he writes most effectively and pleasingly for voices. This was again strongly evident in A Time to Dance. All four soloists get some meaty and attractive music to sing. Grace Davidson had just the right timbre and vocal style for the rapturous Blake setting, ‘Infant Joy’ in Part I and she was equally successful in her other solos. Roth’s use of period strings brought a gossamer lightness to the accompaniment in her rendition of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ ‘Spring’. Jeremy Budd’s solo opportunities included a sensuous, not to say erotic, excerpt from Ovid’s poetry. His witty delivery of Roth’s equally witty music made the audience not chuckle so much as laugh out loud. I admired all his singing, not least the agility he showed in a tricky poem about a cheeky fly, which ends with the fly being all-too-audibly swatted for his pains.

The alto has the music associated with autumn and the choice of solo voice for this section – and Roth’s music – accords well with the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. Matthew Venner did a fine job both in the Blake setting, previously mentioned, and in another setting of words by the same poet, ‘To Autumn’, in which the singer is memorably matched by a keening flute. In the Bach Magnificat I felt that Greg Skidmore was a little lacking in vocal amplitude in his solo but he was much more convincing in Roth’s music. He gave a good account of the John Donne setting that opens Part IV and was even better in the rather bitter setting of words by Ernest Dowson that comes a few minutes later.

The choir has quite a lot to do in this piece and Ex Cathedra were consistently excellent. In this piece Alec Roth is not above letting his hair down and I loved the setting for ladies only of ‘When maidens are young’ by Aphra Behn (1640-89). This lively piece is really cheeky and the singers entered right into the spirit, hip-swaying and all. Effective contrast is provided immediately with a slow, expressive a cappella setting for full choir of words by Emily Bronte, which the choir sang with fine feeling. I also liked very much the spare beauty of Roth’s setting of Longfellow’s ’Snow Flakes’ near the end of the work. Throughout the piece the choral writing is impressive and effective and Ex Cathedra responded to Roth’s music expertly and with evident enthusiasm

The conclusion of A Time to Dance is both theatrical and great fun. For his Recessional Alec Roth has chosen words from ‘The Praise of Dancing’ by John Davies (1569-1626). Each of the four soloists gets to sing a verse and each verse is followed by a catchy refrain in which everyone joins and during which the singers leave the stage, pausing each time a verse is sung. They were led off by Jeffrey Skidmore, beating a big (tenor?) drum that I’ve seen him use in a similar fashion in a concert of Latin American Baroque music. It’s a delightful conclusion to the work.

I can’t readily recall when I’ve been more entertained by a piece of new music. That’s not to imply for a moment that A Time to Dance is a superficial work: it’s not. The music is skilfully written and often serious and moving in tone. However, above all it’s a joyful work and I enjoyed it immensely, not least because the performance was so excellent and so full of spirit. The composer was present and was very warmly received. It’s a pity there wasn’t a full house for this concert – goodness knows why not – but the audience was certainly appreciative, and rightly so. This is another impressive, accessible and rewarding work from Alec Roth’s pen and it’s a cause for celebration that Jeffrey Skidmore and Ex Cathedra continue to champion his music so effectively. I’d love to hear it again and I hope that somehow the funds might be found to make a recording of it for it is certainly worthy of being brought to the attention of a wider audience.

John Quinn