Back to the future, music sets sail in Plymouth on the good ship Mayflower

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Jane O’Leary and Jonathan Dawe: Erika Baikoff (soprano), Timothy Nelson (baritone), Plymouth Performing Arts Academy Junior Chorus. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Kokoro Ensemble / Mark Forkgen (conductor). Theatre Royal Plymouth, 4.6.2021. (PRB)

Erika Baikoff (top left), Timothy Nelson (top right), Robert Taub (bottom left),
Mark Forkgen (bottom right) (c) Philip R Buttall

Jane O’Leary and Jonathan DaweSome Call It Home

The spectacle was created, produced and directed by Dr Robert Taub, Music Director of The Arts Institute, University of Plymouth. He describes it as a ‘passionate multimedia music drama inspired by our ongoing relationship to our home, our planet’. It opens a short season of events in the city to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower in 1620 and its subsequent effect on the New World – referred to as an ‘unexplored Eden’ – before the Pilgrim Fathers settled there. If you do a quick calculation, you will notice that the whole thing is a year late. It is just one of those unfortunate Covid-19 casualties, either simply cancelled or, as was luckily the case here, postponed until the main city theatre could reopen, albeit still under a number of restrictions yet to be eased or removed. The event, which runs for two consecutive evenings, is presented by Theatre Royal Plymouth and The Arts Institute at the University of Plymouth.

Some Call It Home achieves its powerful and telling effect with the utmost efficiency and use of available resources. The result – a chamber cantata for two voices, small vocal ensemble, nine strings and a dash of discrete percussion – lasts some 75 minutes without a break. This is followed by a 45-minute post-show discussion where audience members are invited to engage with the main performers on any related topic. There are no frills or finery, with players and young singers in plain black, and the two soloists correspondingly attired. The multimedia lighting effects, images and videos are very simply conceived, rather like visual aids in a university lecture. State-of-the-art they certainly aren’t, but that integrates more effectively with the whole raison d’être.

The musical score is particularly impressive, and very much in empathy with the varying emotions of the libretto as the nine scenes unfold. This seems all the more remarkable because the score is the result of collaboration between two eminent contemporary American composers, Jane O’Leary and Jonathan Dawe. The writing slips seamlessly between the chaotic dissonance at the start – ‘chaos’ in reference to the libretto’s opening gambit ‘It’s only a wilderness or a frontier if it’s unfamiliar to you’ – and music of an eminently more tuneful kind. Much use is made of special string effects, and it is hard at times to believe that the sounds are purely acoustic, with ne’er a synthesizer in sight. Once or twice, I could not help but notice a wry smile on the face of the double bass player, shared with his socially distanced colleague on second violin, as they clearly found the writing, especially the cool use of glissandi, good fun all round. And, as the only instrumentalist who could free up both hands, I hope the bassist got his ‘second-instrument’ fee for a tongue-in-cheek mini-performance on a pair of Indian Bells.

But just as there were dissonant passages, with some quite angular writing for the soprano to negotiate, there were also sections of good old four-part harmony, much in the style of worship at the time, along with an occasional mix of other genres. That was enough to keep everyone happy, both onstage and in the audience. These stylistic and harmonic juxtapositions worked a treat, because they always matched what we saw, and so ensured a cohesive and over-arching experience.

Each scene title relates to the origin of its part of the libretto: Home – Eden – Arrival 1620 – God’s purpose – Expansion – Manifest Destiny – Transmogrified – Migration 2017 – Earthrise. The writers include Bill Anders (Apollo 8 crew member), Robert Oppenheimer, President Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson and William Bradford (one of the Pilgrim Fathers arriving in the New World in 1620).

In terms of performance, I feel the highest accolade must go to the nine players from Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Kokoro Ensemble, under the inspired and assured direction of conductor Mark Forkgen. They did an absolutely first-rate job, did not (knowingly) put a foot wrong, and – despite the complexity of the score at times – looked as if they were enjoying themselves. That ensured that there was no loss of momentum as the cantata ran its course.

It was good to see and hear four young singers from Plymouth Performing Arts Academy: Theadora Beavan, Ava Bend, Midori Dutta and Morgan Stringer. The youngsters, who will be among our next-generation performers, will surely have cherished the experience of taking part in the South West’s premier theatre, alongside top professional musicians from both sides of the Atlantic – as well, of course, as adding a feather to the currently recovering community music scene in the city.

It was also entirely apposite that the two soloists – Russian-American soprano Erika Baikoff and British-born baritone Timothy Nelson – should represent both America and Britain respectively. There could scarcely have been better choices of young and upcoming vocal ambassadors for our two countries. Nelson has a rich tone in the middle register, but with an equal ability on occasions to vie with the tenor’s domain. That has perfectly complemented Baikoff with her equally warm, sunny disposition and fulsome delivery, allied to an impressive coloratura technique in some quite challenging writing, too.

Even with the wealth of talent onstage, the quality of the music composed, and appropriate choice of texts, Some Call It Home was always going to be Bob Taub’s ‘baby’. It has had to go well beyond term because of Covid, but it still managed to enter the world with all the life-force and ingenuousness of any new-born baby.

Philip R Buttall

For more about Some Call it Home click here.

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