Featuring a full complement of the Scottish orchestras, the presence of Scottish Opera, quality string quartets and more top drawer pianists than is quite decent, one of the few things the 2022 Lammermuir Festival is not about is debuts. Or perhaps it is.
With The Marian Consort, Sansara, The Orlando Consort and Dunedin Consort still to come in the chamber choir line-up, that strand began with the first public concert by the newest ensemble under the capacious umbrella of the National Youth Choir of Scotland.
Long in the planning, or at least in the aspirations of NYCoS founder and artistic director Christopher Bell, the NYCoS Chamber Choir takes his example of the pursuit of excellence with the young musicians of Scotland to another level. If the full forces of the senior choir have already impressed some of the world’s top conductors in performances in Edinburgh, London, Europe and the United States, this elite unit of between 20 and 30 young voices is a refinement of that success.
What Bell has done with the formation of the Chamber Choir is select the finest voices within the current cohort – and possibly recent graduates who are beyond the stipulated age-range in future incarnations – and created a group that can tackle specific repertoire. Who knows what that might be in the future, but this first concert set bold, contemporary parameters – putting, perhaps quite deliberately, clear distance between the NYCoS Chamber Choir and the other vocal groups at this year’s Lammermuir.
With Michael Bawtree at the organ for Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, which opened the recital, and the piano for Jonathan Dove’s The Passing of the Year, which concluded it, the other two works were a cappella – James MacMillan’s Culham Motets and Caroline Shaw’s And the swallow.
Only the Dove, which dates from 2000, could be described as a secular work, although some of the poetry he sets – Blake, Dickinson and Tennyson among the texts – is faith-inspired. It was an especially appropriate work, not just for an unintended allusion to the death of the Queen, but also because the setting of Dickinson’s Answer July seemed to be a mature version of the sort of songs NYCoS has commissioned as part of its invaluable training of young musicians over its 25 years.
That coming to maturity of the organisation is perfectly celebrated in the birth of this choir. If Britten’s fascinating 1943 work – commissioned by the same clergyman responsible for Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms and setting texts by troubled 18th century poet Christopher Smart – is not heard very often, it is because it is far from easy. Here too, though, step-outs from soprano Emily Kemp and alto Olivia Mackenzie Smith take the listener into a child-like world of cat and mouse, while tenor Alexander Roland and bass Christopher Brighty each made powerful solo contributions.
Kemp then supported fellow soprano Lorna Murray in the exquisite close harmony passages of the MacMillan, while all the female voices provided an ethereal underscore to solo tenor Lewis Gilchrist. With alto Morven McIntyre and tenor Jack Mowbray the solo voices in the Dove, this was a chance for individuals to shine, but mainly about the meticulous performance of the ensemble of young men and women whose musical abilities far transcend any “youth choir” or “non-professional” categorisation.
The group also gives Bell access to a whole realm of repertoire, including the newest piece in this programme, the setting of verses from Psalm 84 by America’s composer-of-the-moment, Caroline Shaw. And the swallow is a gorgeous piece which seems to take the sound-world of Whitacre or Lauridsen into a more sophisticated sphere, not least in the imaginative and specific vocal techniques it demands.
Composer Jonathan Dove talks to KEITH BRUCE about Flight and a possible Scots premiere for his newest work
Although American Jake Heggie, less than two years his junior, out-scores him internationally, on this side of the Atlantic composer Jonathan Dove is the most produced contemporary opera composer of his generation.
Among performers, and some directors, that status might come with airs and graces, and even diva-like behaviour. Composers? Not so much.
So when the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s head of opera studies Philip White requested a reduced score of one of Dove’s biggest hits, Flight, to meet the strictures of social distancing in the pit of the New Athenaeum Theatre in Glasgow during the pandemic, the composer immediately sat down and re-wrote his work for 19 players.
In the event, further restrictions made it impossible to stage the production at all until earlier this month, when it happened to coincide with the RSNO and theatre company Visible Fictions taking a newer Dove work, Gaspard’s Foxtrot, setting the children’s stories of Zeb Soanes, out on the road to primary schools as well as presenting it on the orchestra’s digital platform.
There, in a nutshell, was the range of Jonathan Dove’s work for the stage, and the main ingredients of his compositional life, if Scots music-lovers were minded to explore it, although his full catalogue stretches into many other areas of orchestral and chamber music, as well as songs.
“I am always happiest if I have an opera project on the go or on the horizon,” he told me on the day James Bonas’s production of Flight at the RCS finally opened. “I describe myself as a musical story-teller, even when it is not an opera, like Gaspard’s Foxtrot with Zeb Soanes and the RSNO.
“The RSNO co-commissioned it and they’ve done a lot with it. Writing songs and choral pieces is also story-telling, but it is a Peter and the Wolf kind of piece – that is very obviously the model.”
As for Flight, it is a work that has been performed all over the world since 1998, with Scottish Opera’s adapting an Opera Holland Park staging in 2018.
“There have been two productions this year in the US alone, one in Utah and one in Dallas, and over the years people have asked for a slim down version, so I knew there was some demand for that. But I hadn’t had time and I didn’t want anyone else to do it, because I didn’t trust them to do it well.
“I came to Glasgow specifically to hear if the new orchestration works, and I think it helps that it is a bit leaner for young voices. I am obviously very pleased that Flight is seen in conservatoires. There is something for every voice type in it: a stratospheric soprano, a lyric soprano, a counter tenor and a bass alongside tenor, baritone and mezzo-soprano.
“It is quite a good showcase, although that wasn’t what I was thinking when I wrote it. For me the airport was a sort of microcosm of a community. But you get know these people but you also get to hear them singing in quite a lot of states and moods, so you can hear what people can do.”
Making the reduced version of the orchestral score took Dove back to his own beginnings as an opera composer, and to memories of the man who was a mentor in the process, director Graham Vick, who died last summer after contracting Covid-19.
“A very important part of my musical education in my twenties was re-scoring masterpieces of the operatic repertoire for his touring company. I rescored La Cenerentola, The Magic Flute, Falstaff, La boheme and The Ring for orchestras of between 15 and 18 players.
“Graham was a shockingly late victim of the pandemic, just when you thought the world was getting safer. It was really only after he died that I saw clearly how much he had changed my life. Re-scoring masterpieces of the repertoire and seeing him direct them was an amazing education.
“The most important experience was one particular production, an Opera North outreach project with West Side Story in a disused cotton-mill. That production introduced me to so many things. At that point I was assistant chorus-master at Glyndebourne, but the experience of working with 200 people from the community in that production was a revelation – how hungry they were for it.
“That was very different from working with a professional opera chorus – they’ve trained for that, they know that they can do it. That show introduced me to community opera, and to site-specific work and promenade performance. At that moment I never wanted to see another proscenium-arch production, because it was so much more involving.”
If Dove has now rowed back from that position it was not before he had taken the lessons of Vick’s work and applied it to his own practice – a journey that led to his breakthrough opera.
“I wondered what it would be like if the community cast were telling their own story and not a New York story. Around the same time, Glyndebourne was thinking about an opera involving a couple of school and I said: ‘Why not involve a whole town?’ So we did that in Hastings with about 200 people, including any musicians and performers that wanted to be in it. There was the Boys Brigade band, there was a symphony orchestra, there was a yodelling harmonica player and Morris dancers.
“Another one followed in Ashford where there was an accordion club and a guitar orchestra and a rock band, and then one in Peterborough, and I found things for them all to do, and it always felt like the most unquestionably worthwhile thing that I was doing.
“The total experience of everyone in it, and what they learned from it – that was my road to Damascus experience. Those three community operas for Glyndebourne led directly to them commissioning Flight, which is still the work of mine that people most often tell me that they have seen.
“So it was from Graham I got the belief in opera as a medium whose importance should not be restricted to opera houses: that mission that opera is for everyone. He was a unique spirit.”
The relationship with the director continued, notably with 2012’s adaptation of Pedro Calderon de la Barca’s play Life is a Dream for Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company. Dove’s other operas have drawn on classic novels (Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park), the troubled life of Buzz Aldrin (Man on the Moon) and the death of Princess Diana.
Parallel with those have been the works for young people, from Tobias and the Angel in 1999, via The Adventures of Pinocchio in 2007 to 2015’s The Monster in the Maze, based on the classical tale of Theseus and the Minotaur and created in partnership with conductor Sir Simon Rattle.
“It is the opera of mine that was been translated most. It was a co-commission between the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Aix festival, so there were three productions just weeks apart, all conducted by Simon Rattle, in German, English and French.
“It was also done in Taiwan in Cantonese and Taiwanese and I couldn’t get to that, but I have seen it in Swedish, in Portuguese in Lisbon and in Catalan in Barcelona, where it has now been done three times.”
The Dove children’s opera currently on his desk is for Zurich, based on Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, with Act 1 already completed.
Philip White’s students at the Conservatoire staged 2015’s post-Apocalypse The Day After as a sort of companion piece to the Scottish Opera Flight four years ago, and Dove’s most recent work for an adult audience, Marx in London, was first seen in Bonn and could be destined for a Scottish outing soon.
“Marx in London was the idea of director Jurgen Weber, who had directed an amazing production of an opera of mine, Swanhunter, written for an intended audience of teenagers. His idea was that Marx’s life was like a farce and that it would make a good comic opera.”
With a libretto by Charles Hart, whose past work includes Lloyd Webber’s Phantom, Marx in London premiered at the end of 2018, when it was co-produced by Scottish Opera. At the time there was speculation that the production might be seen in Scotland in 2020, and if it is still on the cards, Dove cannot confirm.
“Scottish Opera have made a financial commitment so it would be natural if they were the first to do it here,” he says. “There are still hopes that it will be staged in the not too distant future.”
Approaching a quarter century ago, the premise of the airport-set Flight by composer Jonathan Dove and librettist April de Angelis – a comic opera inspired by the plight of an Iranian refugee who lived for years in Paris Charles de Gaulle – was bold. When it was most recently seen in Glasgow, in Scottish Opera’s 2018 staging, it was an established contemporary classic.
This much-delayed RCS version, with a cast that, doubling five of the roles, draws on three year-groups of students whose studies have been interrupted by the pandemic – some of them now graduated – arrives at a time when Europe has a new refugee crisis and the notion of two of the characters possibly embarking on a new life in Minsk, the capital of Russia-aligned Belarus, has an unintended resonance.
Whether we are in the precise here-and-now is hard to say. Those with more fashion nous than myself might have a precise view on the costuming. The dramatic concrete architecture of the suggested concourse in Tom Paris’s design is certainly drawn from recent airport construction, but the “space age” instruments visible in the control tower have a retro look and the stratospheric soprano Controller herself – Rosalind Dodson in this cast – prefaces her announcements with a few chimes on a glockenspiel, like the Rydell High School secretary in Grease.
Director James Bonas delights in all the details of his staging, in the luggage and the drinks trolley, magazines and make-up, and a disturbingly realistic puppet new-born, but never loses sight of the bigger picture – the classic one of a handful of well-drawn characters confined in a dramatic space.
The weird distant relationship between the Controller and the Refugee (counter-tenor Matt Paine) is particularly well drawn, while Claudia Haussmann and Cameron Mitchell swiftly establish the comic potential of Tina and Bill’s rocky marriage, paralleled by the more hedonistic attitude of the Steward (Jonathan Forbes Kennedy) and Stewardess (Charlotte Richardson).
There is lots of playing with stereotypes by Dove and de Angelis and these young singers are particularly successful in catching the cliches in the roles of the women, the quartet of female passengers completed by Polish mezzo Wiktoria Wizner as a sultry, if stood-up, fiancée, and Scots mezzo Lindsay Grace Johnson following her Mutter in Hansel und Gretel with the infant-producing Minskwoman.
In this cast, completed by baritones Toki Hamano as Minskman and Eoin Foran as the Immigration Officer, there is not a weak link in vocal performance, and while individual arias are all secure and characterful, even when technically demanding, it is the ensemble work that persists in the mind. These young people may not have been studying together, and some now work far away, but they have come together as a coherent company that more than matches the professional performance we saw four years ago, and that goes for their gestural and collective movement as well as their singing.
Dove’s score is terrifically colourful, in its clever depiction of human reaction to stress as much as in the broader scenic depiction of storm and dawn, and the brand new reduced orchestration he has made for this production is superbly performed by the pit orchestra – actually 30 rather than the 19 Covid restrictions at one time demanded – under conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren. His tempi are brisk, but not a detail of the score was lost, and the three percussionists should have their own special mention.
Further performances March 14, 16 and 18.
Picture by Robert McFadzean/RCS shows Lindsay Johnson as Minskwoman