Trialblazers11:00, 21st April 2016
A new work marking the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London is just the latest in a chain of imaginative commissions from the New London Chamber Choir.
Helen Cocks helps to fan the flames.
One of the reasons for my lifelong love of a cappella choral music is an abiding wonder at the extraordinarily diverse range of sounds which can be produced by the human voice. After a performance by a really first-rate choir, I find myself struggling to remember why instruments might ever be needed, when such vivid colours and intense emotions can be portrayed simply by a group of human beings. Composers similarly in thrall to the human voice, wanting to portray a speeding car, irate crowd, storm at sea or indeed a lovely melody, have long chosen the fearless members of the New London Chamber Choir (NLCC) as their interpreters.
The NLCC has long been known and respected as an ensemble committed to premiering new works, and to working with living composers. Founded in the 1980s by the Nadia Boulanger-trained composer James Wood, the New London Chamber Choir has new music at the heart of its output. It has worked extensively with many giants of late 20th-and 21st-century composition; Pierre Boulez was a patron of the choir until his death in January this year and the group has commissioned works from major composers including Jonathan Harvey and Michael Finnissy. Iannis Xenakis was a close collaborator, and a recording of his music released by the NLCC in 1998 was described as ‘phenomenal’ by Gramophone magazine. The choir performed music by Xenakis at the 2003 BBC Proms and in 2011 presented a special concert marking ten years since the composer’s death.
After the group’s second music director, James Weeks, moved on in 2014, Matthew Hamilton took over with the remit of a relaunch of the choir and a return to the vitality which so characterised its earlier years. Hamilton, recently appointed choral director of the Hallé, has worked extensively with new music, giving him an excellent background to bring into his position with the NLCC. Aubrey Botsford, long-time choir and committee member, feels that the group has made the right choice in appointing Matthew: ‘He has developed a good rapport with the choir – we see that he is a very fine musician with an excellent ear, and we’re looking forward to working with him to develop a long-term vision for the group.’ Hamilton himself is equally complimentary about his singers, speaking warmly of their fearlessness in tackling repertoire and compositional techniques that would be beyond the reach of many ensembles. Tenor and committee member Sam Wilcock echoes this; an experienced chamber choir singer, Wilcock was struck by the unusual attitude of the ensemble as soon as he joined the choir: ‘The remarkable thing about the choir is that the more extreme, the more outrageous, the wackier, the more apparently impossible, the better! That’s the main raison d’être of the group; to do new things.’
The most recent of these new things is the latest in the NLCC’s long line of commissions. London’s Fatal Fire is a 20-minute cantata for unaccompanied choir and two soloists, a joint commission by the NLCC and Spitalfields Music from composer Iain Bell. Marking the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London in 1666, the new work will be premiered at St Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch on 11 June as part of the Spitalfields Festival, when the NLCC will be joined by solists Julia Sitkovetsky (soprano) and Andrew Bidlack (tenor). It was an initiative from within the choir that kick-started the upcoming project, a member not only proposing the partnership but also contributing significantly to the financial element of the commission. Iain Bell is a prolific writer of vocal music, especially known for his stage works, which have been commissioned by companies including Houston Grand Opera and the Welsh National Opera. Bell has also written extensively for the concert platform, and a good relationship with the Wigmore Hall has seen several of his song cycles premiered there by major artists including Diana Damrau.
The Great Fire project had been in Bell’s mind for several years before the partnership with the festival and choir came about. With the 350th anniversary of the fire approaching, Bell decided that he would like to mark it and began to research texts. The work that stood out – ‘I just knew it was the one,’ the composer says – was a poem by Samuel Wiseman, written just after the fire in 1667. Wiseman arranged the verses day by day, charting the progress of the fire, from the peace before the event, then the fire’s beginnings as a spark, the terror as it spread throughout the neighbourhood and then the whole city, and finally the mourning of the lost lives and the city destroyed.
For Iain Bell, such a vivid text gave him the most positive possible starting point for his new work: ‘The poem is in a seven-movement structure, each with its own feel and part of the story to tell in charting the progress of the fire. This inherent structure was essential, as it would focus each movement of the work as I composed it, preventing it from being 20 minutes of frenzied blaze while ensuring that each movement cried out for its own soundworld.’ After abridging the text from its epic complete length of nearly 3,000 words, Bell used this clear structure to guide the composition process: ‘I then decided which of the movements would be chorus only, and of those, which would be more male- or female-heavy, and also which of those would lend themselves to a more homophonic or polyphonic treatment.’ Bell chose to let the chorus provide most of the atmospheric background and underpinning of the tale, portraying the fire itself and the atmosphere it engenders, while the two soloists evoke the human experience.
More experienced in composing for the stage or for solo voices in a chamber setting, Bell found he needed to consider clarity of text – an important issue with so rich a source – and allowing the singers to keep hold of a tonal centre during the more dense harmonic writing. Hamilton, having studied the score and looking forward to starting to rehearse it, feels that Bell has achieved an excellent balance between interesting writing and ‘singability’: ‘What Iain’s done, while not at all conservative, is actually very vocal, graceful writing.’ He went on to comment that, while the choir enjoys ‘making bonkers, crazy noises’, it will be fascinating this time to be able to ‘focus on creating a beautiful, cantabile sound.’
The premiere concert in June will also include Berio’s The Cries of London, which uses the calls of London street vendors to evoke the atmosphere of the old city, and Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen’s Three Stages (2003), which also uses a cacophony of voices to represent a street scene. Both Hamilton and Bell are clear that the pieces with which a premiere is paired can make or break that critical first hearing. ‘We talked a lot about what pieces would support and reflect well upon Iain’s piece,’ says Hamilton. ‘I think it’s really important to give new pieces the best chance of coming over well at their first performance, and that has got a lot to do with what else the audience hears.’ Also appearing on the programme will be Sven-David Sandström’s eerie arrangement of Purcell’s Hear my prayer, in which the familiar melancholic suspensions of the original are subverted and deconstructed, and the Pavane Fantasia by Bo Holten, which takes as its source material a pavane by Orlando Gibbons.
As well as this very particular sense of time and place evoked by the carefully chosen programme, the location of the concert – St Leonard’s, Shoreditch – is one which will resonate strongly with the concert’s subject matter. Although the present building dates from the 18th century, there has been a church on the site since at least 1185. At the time of the fire the area was a slum on the very outskirts of London, spared the conflagration itself, but undoubtedly caught up in the drama and tragedy of the event. Iain Bell finds this sense of being at the heart of London past and present inspirational, calling the Spitalfields Festival ‘awesome’ and ‘a beacon for composers’. ‘London has formed the centrepiece of so many of my pieces, so to have a relationship with an organisation slap-bang in the centre of the City that is as committed to new works as Spitalfields is,
Helen Cocks is a writer and singer based in London and Cambridge. She is particularly interested in music education and liturgical choral music and also writes regularly for Classical Music magazine.