Thursday, May 12, 2005

Hildegard comes to Norwich via IRCAM and Darmstadt

The Norfolk and Norwich Festival has a long and illustrious history of first performances. Probably the best known took place in Norwich Cathedral in 1899 when Sir Edward Elgar premiered his composition Sea Pictures, while Ralph Vaughan Williams gave the first performance of his Five Tudor Portraits in the Cathedral at the 1936 Festival. (Vaughan Williams noted 'I think they thought they'd get 'O Praise the Lord, but I sent them the Five Tudor Portraits.') Last night, in the very same performing space in the former Benedictine Abbey, the world premiere of James Wood's opera Hildegard was staged as part of this year's Festival.

James Wood (photo below) studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, before reading music at Cambridge (a recurring destination on this overgrown path) where he was an organ scholar, and then going on to study percussion and conducting at the Royal Academy of Music. He was Professor of Percussion at the Darmstadt International Summer Courses from 1982 to 1994, and has had two BBC commissions played at the Promenade Concerts. He has increasingly used electronic and electro-acoustic techniques, and has composed two works for the IRCAM institute in Paris including Mountain Language for alphorn, MIDI cowbells and computer. In 2002 he conducted the world premiere of Stockhausen's Engel-Prozessionen at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

It was pretty clear form those credentials that his new opera was going to be an uncompromising piece. The commission came from the avant-garde Percussion Group The Hague, the New London Chamber Choir, and the Belgian Ensemble, Champ de Action. It was conceived originally as a contemporary version of the traditional liturgical drama, based on the life and visions of celebrated twelfth-century writer, composer and mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. (the concept was inspired by Fiona Maddocks excellent book, Hildegard of Bingen). The score which uses microtonality and multiphonics is for substantial forces, two soloists, mixed ensemble of ten players, percussion ensemble of six players (in this performance the co-commissioning Percussion Group The Hague), chamber choir and electronics. Electronics are central to the work. Sound images are managed by a proprietary technolgy known as the Spatialisateur developed in the research labs of IRCAM. Multiple arrays of speakers from Taguchi surrounded the audience (loudspeakers are the new black in Norwich this year, see my post Tallis' Forty Loudspeaker Motet), and spatial effects are an important part of the score. In some sections the percussionists play from points around the audience, the soloists and choir move around the Cathedral, and one section is delivered by a secondary ensemble with its own conductor from behind the audience.

Doing a staggering job of conducting this complex score was Jonathan Stockhammer (photo below). Originally from Los Angeles he studied Chinese and Political Science before majoring in Composition and Conducting. He is now based in Europe, and works closely with the Percussion Group The Hague. He is also closely associated with the New London Chamber Choir and Critical Band which provided the excellent performing forces. For Hildegard Norwich Cathedral was reversed in layout (the pews are not fixed) so the audience faced the mighty West Door with its magnificent stained glass window above. Starting at nine o'clock at night, and lasting for more than an hour and a half without a break the performance was a challenge for performers and audience alike. (In true Rite of Spring fashion a number of the audience left during the performance. It wasn't their fault, or the composer or performers. It was the fault of the Festival publicists who had inexplicably failed to convey the avant-garde nature of this wonderful and inspiring work in the brochure. Surely better to lose the conservative parts of the audience before they book, rather than during the performance?) . The theatrical elements did support the texts, but this was more staged oratorio (a fashionable concept at the moment) than real opera. At times though the costumes and strobe lighting were more Phantom of the Opera than Pompidou Centre.

Hildegard is at the cutting edge of contemporary composition. It uses voices, instruments and technology to produce some very beautiful sounds. There are also some very ugly sounds, but these were planned as 'inharmonic' music for the Devil, as the composer explained in an excellent programme booklet. (Norwich and Norfolk Festival organisers note, the programme book produced by the performers was exemplary, unlike the meagre offerings for other Festival performances this year). Sometimes though it did seem that the sheer range of performers and technology available to James Wood tempted him to use complexity for its own sake. Less can be more, even when so many sonic toys are available. (Photo above The Critical Band).

The central role of the Percussion Group The Hague brought back memories of Peter Maxwell Davies and the Fires of London in his Eight Songs for a Mad King, and the score for Ken Russel's 1971 film The Devils. The overall atmosphere in the Cathedral, the late hour, the tiredness after a day at work, the range of instruments and electronics surrounding the audience, the buzz of the unknown, it all took me back to the Round House, Chalk Farm in London in the 1970's when Pierre Boulez was at the helm of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and the opera houses were designated for arson.

There are further performances in London (St John's Smith Square), St David's Cathedral Pembrokeshire, and Salisbury Cathedral. The Salisbury performance is being recorded for broadcast by the BBC on Hear and Now on Radio 3 on a yet unidentified Saturday evening at 11.00 o'clock. This should be available as a webcast from the BBC Radio 3 website, check there for more details. More details of the other performances are available on the New London Chamber Choir web site.

Overall a brilliant evening. A great credit to the composer, performers (special mention for conductor Jonathan Stockhammer and Sarah Leonard in the fiendishly difficult role of Hildegard), and to the Norfolk and Norwich Festival organisers (no accusations of 'dumbing down'on this one) for pushing the envelope so far. (But more transparent promotional material next time please). The work was a triumph, and it was wonderful to see the beautiful old Benedictine Abbey with its echoes of Elgar approving. The final effect of the opera was the simplest, and most striking. As darkness fell during the performance the luminous stained glass of the mighty West Window darkened. With Jonathan Stockhammer conducting the closing pages of James Wood's wonderful score (and parallels with Parsifal are not over the top) external lighting illuminated the stained glass. Once again we saw that Art and Truth will always triumph over the everyday, the bland and the unadventurous.

Update 13th May: Andrew Clements, who famously savaged Maazel's opera 1984 (see my post 1984 - the sequel) was less positive in his review of Hildegard in today's Guardian giving it just two out of a possible five stars, and saying "there are moments in Wood's score suggesting what might have been, and what still might be." Open this link for the full review. Different strokes for different folks.....

Update 14th May: Composer James Wood has kindly corrected a couple of facts in his biographical details.

Update 15th May: Richard Morrison's Times review of Hildegard seems to be more on message that Andrew Clement's in the Guardian. Richard Morrison writes...' once you accepted that you were trapped for 90 minutes in a dark nave with a chorus that attacked you from front, side and rear (the brilliantly drilled New London Chamber Choir), six frenetic drummers (Percussion Group the Hague) and an instrumental ensemble (the Critical Band) whose jagged fanfares were bounced electronically a round the nave like aural boomerangs — well, it was all rather ear-popping and thrilling.'

Update 26th July: For the last laugh on this story follow this link Classic misunderstandings - Hildegard

Stained glass in Norwich Cathedral invisible hit counter

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