Rehearsing new works
Just come back from rehearsing for this Sunday’s concert with the orchestra. Of course, having them makes a huge difference to the music.
Performing contemporary works is relatively unusual for a classical choir and orchestra, and these are very modern works: John Rutter’s Magnificat, and Karl Jenkins’s The Armed Man.
Rutter is of course known for various arrangements and collections, and lightweight pieces like his christmas carols (the first Rutter I ever sang in, back at school, was the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol – possibly his best-known piece). This Magnificat, whilst recognisably from the same stable, is a more substantial work. One would scarcely describe Rutter’s as great music, but it’s very, very good. Lightweight yes, but in much the same sense as Schubert was a lightweight, with a lot more to it than just a pleasant, tuneful sound. As befits a contemporary composer, Rutter uses plenty of dissonance and complex rhythms, yet his music is always beautiful and ravishingly tuneful. And he’s a master of making the music a natural fit to the words. I’m very happy to be singing in this piece.
The Jenkins is harder to describe. It is described as “a mass for peace”, so naturally I was inclined to expect something in the tradition of the War Requiem and Child of our Time. People familiar with the work described it as closer to Carmina Burana. Having rehearsed it, it’s none of those things: it’s not remotely in the same league as Britten’s and Tippett’s masterpieces, and the resemblence to Orff’s work lies in its repetitive building on simple themes, but it lacks the driving energy that brings Carmina Burana to life.
It does draw on a lot of traditions. The opening movement, which gives the work its title, is the mediaeval French “l’homme armée”. It uses what appears to be an original mediaeval melody, which it builds into an ironic march with echoes of Mahler. Later movements include one of plainsong, and one described (by the composer) as like Palestrina. Alas, the comparison to Mahler or Palestrina is like the comparison of Salieri to Mozart, as presented in Shafer’s Amadeus.
In choir rehearsals I found this piece very insubstantial and more than a little boring. The orchestra is heavy and exciting and brings it to life. It gives us some very big sounds, and I am put in mind of the transition music between scenes 2 and 3 of Das Rheingold (descent into Nibelheim). And that gives me a soundbite summary: it clings to the coattails of great music. But too much of it is pop-ish: four-square and harmonically *very* conservative, except for some isolated and self-conscious use of dissonance.
This is also an unusual concert in that we have only one professional soloist: a soprano. She will sing the soprano solo part in the Rutter, which has just the one soloist. The Jenkins has so very little solo in it that instead of hiring a quartet, our soprano is joined by three choir soloists to sing the other parts. Yours Truly is honoured to be the Bass.