This was a Creation that took rather longer than the six days. Vocal Futures, the foundation set up by Suzi Digby, has been working on Haydn’s oratorio since October. It’s the follow-up to the company’s 2011 St Matthew Passion, and a similar model has been used. Some 300 “young ambassadors” with little or no experience of classical music have been gathered from schools and colleges and given the “full Haydn”, working with musicians, musicologists and even scientists (the original creation did require some physics, after all) to understand more about The Creation but also about what it takes to create it. They’ll now get six months to attend more concerts and workshops free of charge.
From my seat in Ambika P3, which is what the University of Westminster’s industrial basement is now called, it was pretty clear who in the audience were the backers and who were the ambassadors. The good news was that the performers were also bolstered by an infusion of youth: both the chorus and orchestra — grandly but precisely conducted by Digby — included young performers who were being mentored by professionals alongside them.
I’d have liked to have heard those zesty players and singers with a bit more immediacy than this performance allowed. With the orchestra shunted to one side to accommodate Patrick Kinmonth’s production, they were provided with “ambient amplification”, which tended to flatten out the score’s range of colours and dynamic contrasts. The radio mikes attached to the excellent singers, among them David Stout, Mary Bevan and a particularly lovely Adam and Eve from Jonathan McGovern and Charlotte Beament, certainly sent their arias and duets pinging around the vast space, but reduced the character of their voices.
Kinmonth’s abstract, inoffensive staging is full of many thoughtful moments — I particularly liked the dancers’ slowly waving hands as grass growing on the third day — although it ultimately draws on a limited range of line-ups and gestures. It left me basking in Haydn’s humanist glow, but not continually arrested. One more performance tonight (Friday).
There were two forces of nature at this dramatised version of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation. One was Suzi Digby. She was the prime mover behind this latest stage of her campaign to get young people involved inclassical music.
The other was the work itself. The story of the Creation over seven days is pictured in Haydn’s oratorio with awe-inspiring power, and delightful naivety.
The idea that this could somehow be represented in the very bleak surroundings of a disused industrial facility — just a bare concrete box with some raised platforms and metal stairways — seems pretty far-fetched.
But this is to reckon without the gifts of director Patrick Kinmonth. The only set he needed was a newly constructed raised walkway, bisecting the audience. The only materials he needed were human bodies in motion. These were provided by members of the chorus, the five soloists, plus nine actors and dancers. Kinmonth used these minimal resources with endless inventiveness.
In the gloom of the opening Representation of Chaos, the writhings of bodies represented inert matter. As light dawned, they appeared to be woken by Gabriel, played and sung with lovely radiant guilelessness by Mary Bevan. When Haydn referred to the firmament, the chorus’s pointing fingers, tracing a slow arc, raised it up in our mind’s eye. Later, when the “winged fowls” came on the scene, a single feather stood in for them. This represented wings, flight, and finally a quill pen (in the hand of David Stout, vocally impressive as Raphael).
Only one of Kinmonth’s ideas contradicted the music, but in such a thought-provoking way one couldn’t object. As the chorus and orchestra rejoiced at the creation of Man, a baleful-looking figure placed an apple in Gabriel’s unwilling hand, which she displayed to us with a meaning look. The sin that would lead to Man’s fall was lying in wait.
“…there were some vivid images, such as Christ’s half-naked torso being wrapped in cloth, that achieved potent fusion with the music. The very simplicity of Kinmonth’s approach worked in Bach’s favour, and might have achieved more in a church…
“The outstanding musical performance came from the ABRSM Vocal Futures Consort, a beautifully tuned and balanced group divided into two choirs of 16, creating a surround-sound effect across the performance space…Willard White’s Christ oozed dignity…Samuel Boden and Joshua Ellicott were the excellent Evangelists.”
“I had better come clean at once. I subscribe firmly to the reactionary view that the emotional impact of great oratorios is diluted rather than intensified by attempts to stage or illustrate them: they are works of meditation not dramas, and the composers’ intention was that we create the scene in the theatre of our imaginations.
…I thought that Patrick Kinmonth’s realisation of Bach’s St Matthew Passion had dignity and delicacy and showed a degree of good taste. In a bare concrete chamber in the bowels of the University of Westminster, Kinmonth has fashioned a striking theatrical space, separating audience, chorus and orchestra across two steeply raked blocks of seating.
Between them the action is played out impressionistically by the soloists, two Evangelists (why two?) and 15 mute, choreographed actors. Dress is neutral modern mufti, and twelve tables on castors, variously combined to suggest beds, tombs, trolleys and platforms, form the setting…But it’s all very fluently handled, with tableaux that are sometimes starkly beautiful and never insensitive to the music….
Choral wizard Suzi Digby conducted a crisp, swift performance. There was some lovely obbligato playing from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and some first-rate choral singing, enchanced by a hard but resonant acoustic.
Both Evangelists Joshua Ellicott and Samuel Boden had a strong presence and kept Bach’s wonderful story-telling vivid. Among the soloists I particularly liked the heavily pregnant mezzo Catherine Hopper.
But the performance was not primarily aimed at the conventional or converted audience. Suzi Digby’s Vocal Futures foundation had gathered 300 teenagers to follow the project through gestation and rehearsal, in an attempt to bring classical music alive to them. This group also forms a “virtual” choir which sang the great post-crucifixion chorale on tape, with video of their faces individually projected like postage stamps on to the floor.
Their responses and experiences – both before and after the performance – are now being collated as part of academic research into the reasons why modern youth feels so disengaged from the great tradition. I’ll be curious to hear the findings.”
Saturday, 3 December
This week I attended an amazing performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. It was an appropriate time of year to hear the piece: Bach’s thorny harmonies reminded us that Advent is a penitential season. The setting was nicely sinister: an underground warehouse near Baker Street. One choir was behind me, the other opposite, and the staging dragged us into the action. The evangelist would start singing into my left ear, then push past on his way to the action. Suzi Digby conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment as part of her Vocal Futures scheme to introduce classical music to young people. I don’t know about them, but I felt I was hearing the Passion for the first time. I still haven’t recovered.
For a work not designed to be staged at all, Bach’s St Matthew Passion has endured some wacky theatrical maulings in recent years. But this staging, running for three nights in a disused concerte laboratory on the Marylebone Road, adds a new dimension. Several hundred youngsters, who have been immersed in the St Matthew for weeks and invited to these performances, will now have their receptivity to classical music monitered by a professor of music psychology. The optimistic thesis is that Bach will change their lives.
The project has been devised by Suzi Digby and her new Vocal Futures foundation. As well as conducting the piece she also raised what must have been an astronomical sum of money to make it happen, for this is no cut-price kids’ show. The orchestra is the Age of Enlightenment, with its leader Margaret Faultless sublime in Erbarme dich. The superb chorus comprises 32 young professionals. The role of the Evangelist is divided with the outstanding Joshua Ellicott doing an anguished double-act with the promising Samuel Boden.
Willard White, no less, sings Christ: stiffly but with immense nobility. And the aria soloists – Helen-Jane Howells, Robin Blaze, Catherine Hopper, Andrew Tortise and Stephan Loges – are riveting. The ensemble gets a little unhinged at odd moments; otherwise I have rarely heard the St Matthew sung and played so convincingly.
Patrick Kinmonth’s staging turns this austere venue into a rough wooden barricade – orchestra, chorus and audience raised on two sides; the action in between. A dozen silent actors and a lot of wooden tables, evoke (rather than literally deipct) the Passion story. Modern dress – High Priests looking like mafia thugs in their black leather – matches a striking new translation by Kinmonth and Jessica d’Este.
There are no tremendous insights; but equally, nothing jars – and the use of the space, as well as the mingling of soloists and miming actors, is as effective as Digby’s varied treatment of the chorales. None is treated more strikingly than the great Passion chorale itself. We hear a recording of the participating youngsters singing it, while a video mosaic of their faces gradually forms on the floor. What better way to symbolise how the resonances of the Passion, and Bach’s music, have echoed through continents, centuries and generations?