St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 19 July 2016
Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Military Wives Choir, Cardiff Ardwyn Singers, Cardiff Polyphonic Choir.
Conductor: Owain Arwel Hughes
Vaughan Williams: Old Hundredth
Paul Mealor: Wherever You Are
Paul Mealor: The Shadows Of War (Welsh Proms commission)
Karl Jenkins: For The Fallen
Holst: The Planets
War might be expected to inspire the loftiest sentiments for the damage it does and the millions who have been its victims. Music especially, when not martial or jingoistic, has played a role in its aftermath as both eulogy and elegy, often depicting its menace on route. Even when upbeat in illustrating what might be called audacious friendly fire, as with Walton and Shostakovich in modern times, it marks heroic defence against the aggressor, though in the latter’s case there was always a sub-text related to the corruption of the body politic. Owain Arwel Hughes’s Welsh Proms did well to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme with music by Welsh composers, including a new piece commissioned from Paul Mealor, and crowning it all with Holst’s suite The Planets – if only for that composer’s opening take on war’s brute relentlessness. At the start, it might have been thought pushing it somewhat to suggest that the rest of Holst’s journey to the stars could have been made relevant to the concert’s theme by invoking blind galactic turmoil, but the music is closer to ancient gods than astronomy and maybe there were qualities to be marshalled on the night; a sense, perhaps, that our historical killing-fields no less than our puny selves are pretty much invisible from outer space.
The Welsh Proms are now more populist than ever (though, it has to be said, not more popular), catering to an audience for whom little composed after 1945 would be of interest and only then if it were well-known, cast in a familiar mould or had some other attribute that caught the ear. It is thus the natural home for what’s called ‘accessible’ music, the sort written by Welsh composers Paul Mealor and Karl Jenkins, sometimes defiantly. It’s fashionable to dismiss such music if only in terms of how uneasily it sits beside other contemporary music being written in Wales and elsewhere, and of its signficance as work by leading Welsh composers – and indeed of what the expression ‘leading Welsh composer’ actually means. Jenkins himself says its popularity is his justification.* As a credo this is too glibly espoused. Accessibility is different from quality, though they can often amount to the same thing, a fact hardly needing illustrations from the history of music. That estimations of quality are personal does not invalidate the proposition. Suffice to say, that an open gate is not always a guarantee of wading into a field of harvestable bounty.
The centrepiece of this concert was Mealor’s The Shadows Of War, a joint commission from the Welsh Proms and the John Armitage Memorial. Armitage was a music lover and advertising man who wanted to promote work by living composers. On retirement he became a mature music student at Christchurch College, Canterbury, but during his third year, in 1998, he died of cancer, aged 63. Although so described in the programme, the Cardiff performance was not the world premiere: that was given on July 14 in New Romney, Kent, by the Mousai Choir and the London Mozart Players in a concert conducted by Daniel Cook. The work is scored for four-part mixed choir, strings, percussion and timpani and sets episodes of the Mass with poetry by Grahame Davies. Seeing the combined Cardiff Ardwyn Singers and Cardiff Polyphonic Choir poised phalanx-like above the platform, we might have expected a choral tour de force. In the event the piece turned out to be timid and unfocused, an unsettling mixture of Old Testament formality, occasional gaiety, viola-inspired restraint, plainchant, poetry that failed to make itself enunciated let alone felt, and some interesting ‘renewal’ music towards the end reminiscent in a similar location of the Delius Requiem (recently performed in Cardiff at another Somme concert) but without Delius’s brave, anti-religious feeling. That said, Mealor has avoided an overtly Christian approach in constructing a concert piece with a light, if kaleidoscopic, touch – too light for this reviewer on a night demanding a certain amount of sustained gravitas.
The prosaic in Mealor’s 2011 hit, Wherever You Are, was partly effaced by the poignancy it attracted in being sung by a version of Gareth Malone’s Military Wives Choir, which recorded it so successfully and reprised it at this concert to give its words a meaning they would not ordinarily have suggested. The three choirs and full orchestra combined for Vaughan Williams’s elephantine version of the psalm tune Old Hundredth, raising the spectre of faint ante-bellum rejoicing, though it was composed for the coronation in 1953. (RVW did compose a Thanksgiving for Victory in 1944 but that wouldn’t have been good Proms box office even though written by a composer who served in the First World War). In the bombastic stakes it fared better than Jenkins’s For The Fallen, a piece for full choir and orchestra that destroys the quietude of Laurence Binyon’s poem by incorporating it in an over-cooked and tiresomely gestural score.
Little of this so-called ‘accessible’ music repaid serious attention; on a night of remembrance for human beings senselessly slaughtered on the battlefield, that was a disappointment. The orchestra’s seemingly effortless playing and Hughes’s sympathetic conducting only served to underscore these reservations.
Hughes as a commander-in-chief of powerful orchestral and choral forces is sometimes taken for granted but the way he sent Mars, the Bringer of War to the front in The Planets and raised the juggernaut for a second wave augured well. It was soon obvious that the work and its detailed unfurling was a choice vindicated not only by its opening salvoes. He located a dissipating stillness in Venus; created a telling combination of winged motion and urgency in Mercury; made a virtue of Jupiter‘s patriotic jollity; turned Saturn‘s eventide into the old age of the survivor; invoked a spellbinding charm in Uranus; and, as if it were the only way to end the commemoration, allowed Neptune to float quietly away with an appropriate feeling of regret, accompanied by a distant offstage choir strategically located. Then the lights dimmed and applause held for a dignified silence. It could have been theatrical but it was unexpectedly moving; a farewell, no less, to those long gone but still remembered.
* ‘Top Composer Jenkins Defends “Accessible” Music’, by Michael Roddy (Reuters, March 3, 2010)
Header photo courtesy of the Welsh Proms. The festival continues at St David’s Hall until 23 July.