Ars Nova Copenhagen

Early evening sunshine shone on the audience arriving at All Saints Church, Penarth to hear the acclaimed chamber choir Ars Nova Copenhagen, presaging an evening of musical delight.

The concert was the penultimate in this year’s Vale of Glamorgan Festival, founded by Swansea-born composer John Metcalf in 1969, to celebrate contemporary classical music.  Concerts are held in a variety of familiar and less-known venues across South Wales, this year over a period of 11 days in May, and attract a loyal following.

Under a splendid red, white, green and gold barrel-vaulted roof, the twelve singers of Ars Nova Copenhagen took their places and were, before they sang a note, an energetic presence. Under the direction of their regular conductor Søren Kinch Hansen, they started their programme with Three Stages by the Danish composer Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen.  Each singer took an independent line in a work which echoed the Cries of London, but with the inclusion of material from Jannequin’s Le Chant des Oiseaux and some 21st century language. The English translation of the words of the cries in the piece included “Toyota! Mazda! CO2! CO2!” and “Oil! Bastard! Trouble!” While it was not possible for a non-Danish-speaker to follow the nuances of the text, the piece was enchanting.  The vocal dexterity of the singers in their bird cries was both a visual and an aural delight. While the piece may have been very clever musically, it gave the listener a pleasure which was immediate and uncomplicated.

Ars Nova Copenhagen, All Saints Church, Penarth review
Ars Nova Copenhagen,
All Saints Church, Penarth

 

Arvo Pärt was featured composer in the 2010 Vale of Glamorgan festival, in celebration of his 75th birthday. The appeal of his music is in its calm simplicity, sometimes referred to as “holy minimalism”. Three compositions by Pärt were included in this concert. They were in serene contrast to the sometimes frenetic sounds of the opening piece, and enabled the choir to show off their ability to sink into rich harmonies.  The mark of a fine choir of this size is that the listener can, should they wish to, focus in on the sound of any particular performer within a perfectly balanced ensemble. This was certainly true of Ars Nova Copenhagen in this concert.

The music of Danish composer Per Nørgård – a particular focus of this year’s festival – is of course home territory for this choir, but less familiar to many British ears and his fragmented and chaotic harmonies are more challenging to the ear than those of Pärt. While interesting at the time, this is not the most memorable of music, perhaps because Nørgård’s work seems to be rooted in the intellectual rather than the emotional.

It is always thrilling to be present at the première of a new piece of music, on the occasion when music is, like a baby, born into the world, and this concert featured two such births.  It is also fascinating to be able to listen out for musical connections between pieces in a concert. Peter Bannister’s  work Spiritus divinae luci gloriae was here given its first performance.  He wrote in his programme notes about following a musical path hinted at by Arvo Pärt in The Deer’s Cry.  This was one of the Pärt compositions performed earlier in the evening, a setting of a Celtic prayer known as “St Patrick’s Breastplate”.  There were certainly shades of Pärt’s harmonic language in the Bannister piece, notably repeating tonal clusters. The choir performed it in the choir of the church, a physical distancing from the audience which emphasised its liturgical nature.

Ars Nova Copenhagen also used spatial separation to good effect in their performance of the Australian composer Anne Boyd’s work As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams.  With four singers on each of three sides of a square, they enveloped the audience – or at least the front section of it – in a dream-like sound bath.

Before that, the second première of the evening, Gavin Bryars’ setting of Psalm 141, was a fascinatingly emotion-filled piece far removed from the wild nature of some of Bryars’ earlier compositions.

The inclusion in the programme of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, in an arrangement for men’s voices by ArsNova Copenhagen’s Musical Director Paul Hillier, seemed to serve only to give the women in the choir a rest. Interesting as a musical exercise, maybe, but without the impact of the original piece.

That quibble aside, the evening was a wonderful experience. The singers, dressed in black enlivened with gold and bronze, had both the appearance and sound of precious metals brought to life in ringing clarity in the clean acoustic of the church. Their singing had vigour and huge skill and their enjoyment of their own achievement was palpable.