An important premiere at the Three Choirs Festival – Gabriel Jackson introduces The World Imagined

Gabriel Jackson’s new The World Imagined

When Covid restrictions caused the cancellation of the 2020 Three Choirs Festival I regretted that decision on many levels. One of my main disappointments was that the cancellation deprived us of the opportunity to hear the world premiere of a major new work by Gabriel Jackson, The World Imagined. Happily, it has been possible to reschedule the premiere and include it in the plans for the 2021 Three Choirs Festival. I have been an admirer of this composer’s music, especially his choral works, for many years now so the prospect of such a significant new score is enticing. Consequently, I seized the chance to discuss the new work with Gabriel, albeit in a socially distanced way.

Before considering the new piece, though, it seemed appropriate to ask Gabriel about the impact of the worldwide Covid restrictions on his work: besides the delayed premiere of The World Imagined what other projects have been impacted?  Gabriel told me that the Covid restrictions had also caused the postponement of the premiere of another large-scale piece for chorus and orchestra, Mass of St James, a 40-minute setting (with Credo) for choir and small orchestra. This had been commissioned by the church of St James, King Street in Sydney for their bicentennial and the premiere had, like The World Imagined, been scheduled for summer 2020. Initially, it was hoped the first performance could be pushed back to January 2021 but the continuance of Covid restrictions caused a further postponement. It is now hoped that the delayed premiere will happen in summer 2021.

Gabriel Jackson (c) Reinis Hofmanis

I am aware that Gabriel mainly writes to commission and I wondered if the long absence of live performances has reduced commissions and has therefore impacted his composing work. In fact, he said, he has been pretty busy over the last year. However, the uncertainty over the resumption of live performances has had some impact in that it has proved difficult to finalise arrangements for new projects that had been under discussion prior to the pandemic. So, there is currently a certain impact on his future workload but he hopes this will prove to be a temporary hiccup.

The World Imagined is a 45-minute oratorio which the Festival brochure describes as ‘an ecstatic contemplation of creation and humankind’s small place in an infinite cosmos’. I asked Gabriel how he had come up with such an ambitious concept: is this a work he had been planning for a long time before the commission arrived? ‘Over the last few years my focus, choir-wise, has shifted towards pieces for choir and instruments, be they a small ensemble (The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ), strings (Countless and wonderful are the ways to praise God – another setting of Doris Kareva, whose work also crops up in the new piece) or chamber orchestra (Spring Rounds, for the 25th birthday of the great Latvian youth choir Kamēr…) so an extended piece for symphonic chorus and large orchestra seemed like the next logical step.’

Gabriel told me that the work took about seven months to write. It is scored for tenor soloist, SATB chorus and an orchestra comprising triple woodwind, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tube, percussion (3 players), harp and strings. I have previously come across a few substantial works by Gabriel. His lovely Requiem (2008) is an a cappella piece (review). To the Field of Stars (2011) (review) involves just a couple of instruments, while his searing The Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ (2014) uses a chamber ensemble (review). I have always greatly admired the colours and textures in Gabriel’s pieces but this orchestra, the largest I’ve so far encountered in one of his works, seems to hold out the prospect of particularly rich and varied instrumental colouring. I wondered if these are the largest forces for which he has yet written in a choral work. Gabriel confirmed that this is indeed the case – but he hopes it won’t be the last work that he writes on such a scale

The World Imagined has been co-commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival and by an American choir, the Elgin Master Chorale who are based in the city of Elgin, Illinois, about 35 miles northwest of Chicago. They are due to give the US premiere in spring 2022. I recalled from when I interviewed Gabriel more generally about his music in 2016 that he has previously composed for some choirs located in Illinois and so I asked if this commission was the result of his Illinois connections. It turns out that a key figure in this is the American choral conductor, Andrew Lewis. One of his roles is as director of music at St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Evanston and it was that choir which I heard give the world premiere of the anthem, All shall be Amen in Gloucester Cathedral in the summer of 2016.

Gabriel explained to me how the joint commission came about. ‘The Three Choirs Festival needed a co-commissioner for this project, preferably one in America. I have known Andrew Lewis, chorusmaster of the Elgin Master Chorale, for several years now; he’s also director of music at St Luke’s Episcopal Church, Evanston and also of the professional chamber choir Bella Voce, both of whom have commissioned me. In fact, Bella Voce recorded a whole disc of my work a few years ago. So, it seemed obvious to talk to Andrew about the possibility of bringing the Elgin Master Chorale onboard and we are absolutely delighted that they are part of the project. They have a major anniversary coming up next season [the choir’s 75th anniversary; it was founded in 1947] and it’s great that they want to celebrate that by co-commissioning this piece, which they will give the US premiere of early next year.’

Gabriel has drawn on an eclectically wide range of writers for his libretto. These include the early Christian theologian, St Ambrose (c. 340-397), Samuel Ha-Nagid (993-1056), the Spanish-Jewish scholar, and the Italian philosopher, Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837). Two American poets are represented: Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and Wallace Stevens (1879-1955). Finally, Gabriel has included lines by two living writers, the Estonian poet, Doris Kareva (b. 1958) and the Scot, Kenneth White (b. 1936). I was keen to learn from Gabriel how he had gone about assembling such a diverse libretto. His answer contains fascinating insights into his composition process.

‘The first thing to do is to decide what the piece is about. Not what it is about in terms of subject matter – that emerges later – but what other music is it about. How does it relate (if at all) to, for example, the Three Choirs Festival tradition of commissioned work, which is a long and distinguished one? What shape should it have? What is the emotional trajectory of the piece? What kinds of music should there be? Stuff like that.’ I asked Gabriel to expand on this. He told me that he was thinking of the nature of some of the pieces that are such a part of Three Choirs tradition, for example Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi and Missa Sabrinensis. He considered the kind of sound world he wanted to create in the new score and what relationship there should be between choir and orchestra.  For instance, in those Howells scores there is a great deal of writing in which the choral parts are doubled within the orchestra. On the other hand, a work such as Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass has virtually no such doubling.  He is pleased that The World Imagined is to share a programme with Elgar’s Enigma Variations, which has such strong Three Choirs links, though, of course, he wasn’t aware that was to happen until long after his new work had been finished, in February 2020.

‘Once I’ve found the answers to at least some of those questions, Google is a great friend! The Three Choirs Festival doesn’t require that new pieces are specifically sacred, but they do need to be appropriate for performance in a sacred building. As well as googling stuff around particular keywords, I rifle through a file of texts I’ve accumulated over the years – things I’ve been particularly struck by.’

Gabriel then went on to tell me about a couple of the texts which he has selected for The World Imagined. ‘The amazing Kenneth White poem that he called A high blue day on Scalpay, for example, is one that I’ve known for years and was absolutely perfect for the central “panel” of the fourth movement and, for me, it absolutely had to be set for solo voice. That poem, which begins “This is the summit of contemplation and no art can touch it…” is the real essence of this piece, I think. I also always look at Doris Kareva’s work – she’s one of my favourite poets, quite a remarkable writer and I’ve set several of Doris’s poems in the past. For large-scale pieces I like an anthology approach to texts – with a wide range of time periods, of languages (though all the non-English texts in the piece are in English translation save for a short verse in Latin), of lengths, of styles…’

I asked Gabriel to tell me something about the structure and nature of The World Imagined: what can the Three Choirs audience expect?  He told me that the work is in five movements, which are played without a break. The first, to which there is a short orchestral introduction, ‘is a rather mystical evocation of the night sky (and the earth below) with lots of filigree detail and colour. Samuel Ha-Nagid’s poem begins “I look up to the sky and its stars/And down to the earth and the things that creep there”. We encounter a dove pursued by a falcon, the moon is likened to a shepherdess and then to a ship at sail, the clouds to a girl watering myrtle-trees.’

There follows a movement for tenor and chorus which Gabriel describes as ‘more still and serene…Very contemplative’.  The poem by Giacomo Leopardi is entitled ‘I always loved this solitary hill’ and Gabriel drew my attention in particular to what he describes as a wonderful couplet right at the end of the poem; ‘In such immensity my spirit drowns/And sweet to me is shipwreck in this sea.’ Merely reading those words, at Gabriel’s prompting, it seems to me that they cry out for the extra dimension of a musical setting.

The third movement is a setting of Doris Kareva’s poem ‘Blazing, unmoving sun/over the isle of death’. Here, Gabriel says, ‘there are lots of evocations of brilliant light, with fierce trumpet roulades, brittle ponticello string lines, flaring woodwind figures, but also moments of death-haunted quiet, with rattling vibraslap and ominous sandpaper blocks underpinning the chorus’s murmurings.’ The scoring sounds amazingly inventive: I can’t wait to hear it.

Gabriel tells me that the fourth movement is the longest. He characterises it as ‘an energetic and excitable Whitman setting’ coupled with ‘St Ambrose’s light-filled verse’. The scoring includes ‘clanging bell percussion and ecstatic, screaming high woodwinds framing a solo tenor setting of Kenneth White’s poem [mentioned above] with its shimmering, string-dominated accompaniment.’

The last movement is, Gabriel says, ‘a kind of extended coda, a summing-up I suppose, “We say God and the imagination are one…”, at the climactic heart of a rather complex Wallace Stevens poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”. It is from this poem that the title of the piece comes. The last pages attempt a kind of autumnal glow – “Out of this same light, out of the central mind/We make a dwelling in the evening air/In which being there together is enough”.’

Some of the poems that Gabriel has selected are remarkable in their imagery. The Kenneth White poem, for example, speaks of ‘the far-out archipelago and the sea shimmering, shimmering…’ and the poems by Samuel Ha-Nagid and Giacomo Leopardi also contain images of immense physical spaces. The prospect of hearing them set to music is very exciting.

David Hill is to be the guest conductor of the concert which will include the premiere of Gabriel’s new piece. I asked David to tell me about his association with Gabriel’s music and for his thoughts on the new work. ‘I have had a close association with Gabriel as a composer for many years. He was Composer in Residence for The BBC Singers during my time as Chief Conductor. During that time he and we explored many of his works, along with new commissions for The Singers all culminating in a CD which is available on Signum (review). His “voice” is distinctive as it is rooted in the English Choral Tradition in which he has played a part as an ex-chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. The revelation to me in The World Imagined is his skill for imaginative orchestration and choral writing which many groups will be able to embrace. He is a master of choosing text and setting it with sensitivity and fluency. I am so looking forward to conducting it at the Three Choirs Festival: it will be the third occasion I will be joining artists and audience for this unique and wonderful festival of music.’

The world premiere of The World Imagined will be given on 25 July in Worcester Cathedral. The fine young British singer, Nick Pritchard will be the tenor soloist. The Three Choirs Festival Chorus and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales will be conducted by David Hill. The performance will be recorded for future transmission on BBC Radio 3.

Two other works by Gabriel will be performed the following day, 26 July. In a morning concert in the Cathedral Adrian Partington will conduct the Goldfield Ensemble in a programme which includes the instrumental work In the Mendips (2003), which Adrian Partington has described to me as ‘a delightful and sophisticated piece’. A couple of hours later, the Marian Consort will sing the Stabat Mater (2017), a compelling work which Gabriel wrote for them and of which they have made a superb recording (review). Thanks to the recording, I have some familiarity with Stabat Mater whereas In the Mendips was previously unknown to me. I was able to discover from Gabriel’s website that In the Mendips is scored for six instruments (flute, clarinet, harp, violin, viola and cello) and you can hear an audio recording of it on his site. It is a crisp, fresh and very attractive piece which I like very much. Though the works are very different, it seems to me that In the Mendips would very effectively complement Ravel’s sublime Introduction and Allegro in a concert programme. I asked Gabriel to tell me a little about it. ‘In the Mendips is derived from a work by Richard Long called “Plane of Vision The Mendips”. It’s one of his textworks, which simply lists all the things he can see from a single vantage point, be they light cloud, dark cloud, gorse, even a rucksack…and of course some of these things are seen more than once. My piece assigns a discrete musical object, as it were, to each of the things Long sees, so the pattern of juxtapositions and repetitions in his work is recreated exactly in the structure of mine.’

Details of ticket availability for all three of these concerts are on the Festival website.

John Quinn

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