Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, November 8 2014
An oratorio by Andrew Wilson-Dickson
Welsh Camerata choir and orchestra
Conducted by the composer
Soloists: Emma Kirkby / Ian Yemm / Paul Carey Jones
Andrew Wilson-Dickson has been making an important contribution to musical life in Wales for many years. Not only is he a composer of repute, but he is a teacher (including at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama for over two decades until 2005), author* and performer, as well as the founder director/conductor of the Welsh Baroque Orchestra and Welsh Camerata. The latter is a 25-strong chamber choir specialising in renaissance and baroque music, but who have never before sung contemporary repertoire. So it was with admirable spirit of adventure that the Camerata commissioned a new work by their conductor to celebrate their tenth anniversary year, 2014.
In the event, Karuṇā was two years in the writing, and is ambitious on a scale which might have overwhelmed the choir but for their enthusiasm under Wilson-Dickson’s vigorous guidance, with solid yet agile support from the Camerata orchestra and three impressive solo singers. At around 80 minutes long, the work is an ardent and sometimes fierce call for compassion – the broad meaning of the Sanskrit title – in a world rife with injustice and atrocities of all kinds. Wilson-Dickson explores the nature of compassion as a simple, human response to others’ adversity, but also draws on the word’s Buddhist sense as a rigorous path of non-selfish devotion to the alleviation of suffering in all its forms. He dedicated the world premiere to those working in charities, hospitals, foodbanks and battlefronts everywhere without whom, and without ‘those who are moved to gestures of compassion, there would indeed be no hope.’
The piece bears an affinity in both sentiment and structure with Britten’s War Requiem and especially Tippett’s oratorios, A Child of our Time and The Mask of Time; landmarks of a British pacifist musical tradition, if you will, to which Wilson-Dickson has now added his own, impassioned voice. Indeed, Karuṇā proved both thought-provoking and humbling in its reminder of the many secular and religious voices who have spoken up on humanity’s behalf through the ages. Its premiere was also timely, coming on the eve of Remembrance Sunday in the 100th anniversary year of the outbreak of World War I.
Cast in fourteen sections, the oratorio is as wide-ranging musically as it is textually in drawing on many cultures past and present. From the 13th century Arab Sufi writer Ibn ‘Arabi, to Martin Luther King and contemporary performance poet Judyth Hill, each section explores compassionate responses in the face of man’s equally unending capacity for inhumanity to man. The piece is unequivocal in its cry for greater self-understanding and, hence, for change. Pain is juxtaposed with joy throughout; not just as emotional and spiritual extremes, but as dialectical opposites. Wilson-Dickson depicts them musically as contrasting but ultimately unifying motifs around which is woven a profusion of thematic material in a variety of styles, incorporating his trademark quotations from other people’s music.
The composer is refreshingly proud to wear his influences on his sleeve. Most effectively to my ears, these include an orchestral sound and an approach to canonic choral writing which show striking traces of Schoenberg (Moses und Aron, for instance, in No. 5, ‘Litany’). There are many other, more direct references – plainchant, Ravel, Holst, Billie Holiday and so on – within a narrative structure also reminiscent of collage pieces from the ‘60s and ‘70s (Berio’s Sinfonia of 1968-9 being an obvious example). However, each style and quote serves in some way to reinforce the over-arching twin, bitter-sweet motifs which are entirely Wilson-Dickson’s own. He employs them here in search of the heart of the ‘I’ without which true empathy cannot exist; an enormous musical and emotional undertaking which was tackled with verve and stamina by the assembled forces.
Overall, the Camerata succeeded in bringing it off, to the enthusiastic response of an evidently moved audience. Wilson-Dickson judged the balance well in the main, with the more complex, contrapuntal textures not surprisingly proving most tricky to realise. In No. 2, ‘Refugee Blues’, for instance, there were some lovely touches with slipping and sliding trombones within a dislocated, neo-classical – and suitably Stravinsky-esque – setting of WH Auden’s 1939 poem. But the pointillist fragmentation at the section’s end was less convincing. Such coming in and out of focus, as it were, proved almost inevitable throughout this challenging work, which nevertheless had moments of real power and beauty, and proved convincing over the span.
A clear highlight was the incorporation of the vocal soloists within the orchestral and choral tapestry, which itself had some lovely writing; yes, in more dissonant sections, but also in the tonal serenity, for example, of No. 10, ‘Is there a place?’ (from The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and his daughter Mpho). Soprano Emma Kirkby, tenor Ian Yemm and baritone Paul Carey Jones each brought their unique vocal colour and temperament to the work. Carey Jones’ rendition of Kathleen Sutton’s ‘Dirge’ on the subject of slavery (No. 4 ‘Southern Trees’) had a chilling potency, whilst Ian Yemm’s ensuing ‘Litany’ was desperately yearning – both were superbly sung. The legendary Emma Kirkby was occasionally overwhelmed in volume by the orchestra and choir, but she sang with heart, and the unaccompanied, penultimate ‘The Elephant’ (No. 13, a poem by Rumi) showed marvellous control and characterisation.
This is a hugely difficult work to perform – even for choirs fully conversant with complex modern idioms – not least because of its scope and intensity. But it was wonderful to hear such an ambitious piece undertaken with integrity in a musical world so often prone to ephemeral sound bites. The Camerata deserves warm congratulations – and so too does Wilson-Dickson; not just for successfully galvanising his performers, but for having the heart to compose the piece in the first place. I hope we get to hear it again – and soon.
* The Story of Christian Music (Lion, 1992, revised and published in paperback as A Brief History of Christian Music in 1997)