Thursday, 4 July 2013

MUSIC REVIEW: At Sixes And Sevens

A lively chronicle of Derry-Londonderry's past, present and future gives the audience plenty to be happy about in the city's Guildhall

Contrasts. That's the name of the game on this celebratory occasion in Derry-Londonderry's centrepiece, the talk of the town, the hall to rule them all. Pop vs. Opera, People vs. Things, History vs. The Present Day, London vs. Derry - all are explored by the Codetta Choir, Camerata Ireland, The Music Promise Choir and The At Sixes And Sevens ensemble in a cantata by Mark-Anthony Turnage that has something for everyone.

Working with poet Paul Muldoon, Turnage has composed a thorough and always interesting musical and lyrical exploration of the city so famous they named it twice, delving into the troubles and benefits that have resulted from Derry-Londonderry's four-century association with London. It's a lively chronicle of how music has shaped, and will continue to shape, the past, present and future of the City Of Culture 2013.

The awe one feels as he or she enters the recently refurbished Guildhall and takes his or her seat is unmistakable. The Londonderry Musical Society ladies sitting near me reminisce about the shows they used to hold here, and we all comment on how the newly painted pipes and organs, and new lights, have really brightened up the place both aesthetically and metaphorically.

But Derry-Londonderry's is not the only Guildhall celebrating tonight. The City Of London Guildhall will be hosting a similar programme of music simultaneously to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James I charter, which saw the City Of London and fifty-five of the London livery companies participate in the Ulster Plantation. It was certainly a troubled association, with more than its fair share of ups and downs. But it also resulted in a new street layout, buildings, St. Columbs' Cathedral, and perhaps most significantly, the unique walls which stand to this day. Will the composition we're about to hear, conducted by Barry Douglas, do justice to all of this?

The Prologue is laden with mournful foreboding, with a gloomy clarinet solo prominent beside unsettling strings. It has a tone reminiscent of horror, and yet, you feel comfortable in the presence of such rich music. Arguably too rich to begin with, for in the early stages of A Stone's Throw, the Music Promise Choir and Codetta are struggling to make themselves heard.

That all changes following our first encounter with baritone soloist Benedict Nelson, on the seventh line of the song. From here on in, the tune is a tribute to both the strength and durability of the Derry Walls, with the jolly woodwind solos leading into a low tempo, "strung out" - that is to say, played by strings - calypso, with powerful vocals from both Nelson and Codetta.

From horror, to dance, to thriller, as Sarah Murphy's At Sixes And Sevens ensemble - the undisputed highlight of the evening - present the first part of their Walls & Windows performance. An instrumental of Mission: Impossible-like nature (Lalo Schifrin would be proud) precedes a harmony of clock chimes which slowly dies out. Weird it may sound, but it is extremely effective, as is a spoken choral recital about the walls with rap on top. If your feet aren't tapping by this stage, then you are enjoying the harmony of the ensemble or the substance in the lyrics. Such substance is built upon in the group's next remarkable recital, which explores the place of various objects and other people - historical artefacts, family, toys, music, fictional characters and so on - in our lives. Does our personality belong to these things, or do these things belong to our personality, the choir seem to be asking? It's food for thought in the midst of what, so far, is a highly enjoyable show.

A breather is taken for the sombre, tongue-in-cheek storytelling of As I Roved Out (which twice references the "skeleton on a mossy stone" in the Derry-Londonderry crest) before we hear arguably the best music of the night. A deceptively bold and strident solo from Benedict Nelson doesn't prepare us for the unexpectedly thrilling and upbeat tone of Worshipful Company. Catchy and intriguing, the song is a good showcase for sharp Codetta singing, well paced conducting by Barry Douglas and extremely contrasting lyrics and music from Muldoon and Turnage respectively. It's a smart commentary on the horrors of the troubles and the banality of everyday modern life - simultaneously.

Songs like this, and the At Sixes And Sevens Ensemble's take on a similar theme - which sees conductor Sarah Murphy bring her choir and orchestra alive in true Sister Act fashion with lots of finger-clicking and a slick 1980s beat - cast such a shadow over proceedings that you have to admire Codetta, the Music Promise Choir and Cantata Ireland for keeping up with them in their own inimitable fashion.

I Wish It Could Be Clear provides the opportunity for Aoife Miskelly's lovely, well-elocuted vocals to shine, even if the merging of opera and Irish music is a little uneasy here. Less uneasy is Against The Wall, where we hear the youthful clarity of the Music Promise Choir come to the fore alongside an excellent trumpet solo, and Derry-Londonderry, which features the involvement of every vocalist and instrumentalist on stage. Concluding with the whispering of voices and the soft tinkling of bells, it finishes the composition in the same mournful, yet hopeful, manner in which it had begun.

Following the interval, it is left for Mark McCauley's film to illustrate the artistic and communal capabilities of city landmarks, particularly walls, before we bear witness to a full performance of Muldoon and Turnage's composition minus the At Sixes And Sevens ensemble. And if the repetition of the piece takes away the element of surprise that was present earlier, at least it allows for careful reflection on the richness of the music and the cleverness of the lyrics.

In the first half of the concert, we bear witness to youthful exuberance versus seasoned professionals, enjoying the abilities of both; by the time the second half of the concert is over, we find ourselves contrasting the first half with the second. And the soprano vs. the baritone. Drums vs. Strings. Guitars vs. Keyboards. Calmness vs. Energy. At sixes and sevens... Suddenly, it occurs to me that there couldn't have been a more apt title for this piece.


Anonymous said...

The prologue was instrumental...there was no singing to hear...

Simon Fallaha said...

Many thanks for your comment, Anon, and having re-reviewed my notes from the night before, you are indeed correct. The absence of an applause following the prologue must have confused me. The review has been amended accordingly.

Thanks again, and I hope you enjoyed reading the review.