ChoralNorth East & YorkshireReview

Byrd-Cage: The Shape of Sound – Leeds Art Gallery

Choir: Chorus of Opera North

Conductor: Oliver Rundell

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

There are many ways in which different art forms can merge and identify with each other, from the Wagnerian concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk to people who sense music in terms of colour. So to programme a short concert by the Chorus of Opera North to fit into the Yorkshire Sculpture International festival was a challenge, not an impossibility.

As Chorus Master/Conductor Oliver Rundell explained in his introductory talk, what music and sculpture have in common is the use of space, so the concert, made up of music from the 14th -16th centuries and the 20th century, found ways to make the acoustic of the Tiled Hall a factor in the musical event, with the Chorus moving, dividing, coming together to offer a variety of auditory experience.

As a programme it worked very well, though one or two of the pieces were more successful as part of the pattern than in their own right as music. William Byrd’s Haec Dies, heard as if far off, recalled the cloister, echoing around the Tiled Hall before the Chorus processed into a 14th-century chant. Arvo Part’s Nunc dimittis was the perfect choice of piece to bridge the gap between medieval and modern, building from the sparsely devotional to an intensity that gave the Chorus their first opportunity for the dramatic.

Then we were on the move again. A female sub-choir detached themselves for David Long’s I Want to Live before the whole chorus (and Oliver Rundell) went walkabout for the most interesting, the most controversial but probably not the most musically satisfying part of the concert: Cornelius Cardew’s Paragraph 7 of The Great Learning.

Cardew, committed Communist and avant-garde composer, combined the political and the musical by allowing singers to choose their notes to set two long lines of Confucius, sing and move and choose new starting notes from what they heard. As founder of the Scratch Orchestra and devoted to answering the question “Art for whom?” Cardew would probably not have expected the professional accomplishment the Chorus brought to this largely improvised piece. And it used the space: there behind you was a drone of many voices joined together, dramatic soprano phrases spiked up from somewhere on the far side, while in front of you a wandering chorister found a note he liked and began declaiming Confucius.

It was often as interesting to see as to hear, a privilege to encounter such a remarkable work by a unique figure in modern music, but it will never be the most favoured way of approaching music. Wisely Rundell finished the concert in more conventional style, John Cage’s ear for EAR sandwiched between two rousing 16th-century pieces, Jacob Handl’s Hanc dies, resounding from both ends of the Hall, and Andrea Gabrieli’s Alla Battaglia, all drama and attack, before the Chorus processed out, their chant gradually fading into the walls of the Art Gallery.

Reviewed at Leeds Art Gallery on June 28, 2019 | Image: Justin Slee

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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