The Crouch End Festival Chorus has, over the years, presented many intriguing programmes – “intriguing”, in this instance, being a euphemism on the one hand for musically worthwhile concerts and on the other for unfortunate ones, into which latter category, one regretfully has to say, this latest event is placed.
Neither work is, essentially, a choral piece, with the new item presented as supplementary to a kind of travel film, prefacing Andrew Litton’s ‘greatest hits’ version of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess which makes any genuine operatic characterisation well-nigh-impossible.
Nonetheless, however one might have welcomed the organisation mounting the first performance of a CEFC commission, Laura Bowler’s navigating the dog watch (the absence of capitals in the titling recalling Pierre Boulez’s almost sixty-year-old e e cummings ist der dichter) our goodwill was soon stretched to the limit by a growing realisation in terms of what we experienced that the piece cannot be regarded as a successful work of musical art.
Leaving for the moment the two screens on either side of the platform, showing somewhat amateurish and often unfocused colour travel film of what one assumed to be a sailing ship in the south Atlantic Ocean, as a piece of music the result was wholly unconvincing, soon becoming boringly predictable in the sense that our expectations were all-too-readily, and all-too-easily, met. The vocal writing, such as it was, barely ventured beyond the fully choral in texture, never challenging the singers. With a score that possessed virtually no melodic, harmonic or rhythmic variety, in an apparently ceaseless 4/4 beat (to judge by David Temple’s somewhat exaggerated gestures) and partnered by an orchestra, the strings of which were playing in free-bowing throughout (one longed for a simple, meaningful instrumental gesture from the players), one’s attention was momentarily held by other events – the Crouch End Festival Chorus gently slapping their left thighs at one time, followed by equally gentle slapping of their right cheeks with their mouths open, such passages and motives reminiscent of other recent ‘choral’ pieces in a distracting attempt to appear ’up-to-date’. The effect is not totally disagreeable (although visually bizarre), even to the non-believer – but what is impossible to ascertain is any kind of creative method, albeit profoundly unmusical, even if this may be an appreciative error. Doubtless a deal of thought has gone into these sound-patterns, and what to get the chorus to do – other than sing – but to what end?
Certainly not as a partnership with the somewhat amateurish sailing film, to which the music (such as it was) bore hardly any relationship, made manifest by a sudden sequence of bright-red colour for quite a few seconds – the ship, the sky, the sea all at once – a dramatic and utterly unexpected change in image which brought no change at all in the meandering music, rendering both – at the same time – irrelevant, and totally unrelated one to the another. The programme book told us that the work arose from a three-week voyage “in a tall ship from Cape Town ... to explore the landscapes of two of the remotest British Overseas Territories: Saint Helena and Ascension Island”. To judge by the results, it must have been a particularly uneventful voyage. In the programme book, Bowler (born 1986) is described as Professor of Composition at the Guildhall School of Music.
Porgy and Bess needs no special pleading, and if you are going to cut it down to just over an hour (the opera is, admittedly, at just over three hours, about twenty minutes too long), then Andrew Litton’s concert edition is rather more than the aural equivalent of Readers’ Digest condensed books.
It works well, and in so doing enables soloists and chorus to shine – or should have done here, had we not had a chorus of well over 100 singers for the residents of Catfish Row against the four excellent singers. The result was an almost inevitable un-balance between soloists, chorus and orchestra – but as the music itself is now so well-known our inner ear provided what our other senses might have considered lacking.
With the conductor concentrating on directing the Chorus and orchestra, and the soloists placed between him and the audience, the protagonists in this drama had little chance at individual personification, with the result that many solo and duet passages were too fast – ‘My man’s gone, now’, especially – as if the soloists were a bunch of cantata singers obliged to exhibit little or no role-interpretation.
In addition, whist the orchestral-choral balance was acceptable, that between soloists and orchestra was not: too often, it was difficult to hear them, especially in ‘I got plenty o’ nuttin’ ‘, where Rodney Earl Clarke’s fine baritonal timbre failed to carry to the back of the auditorium, although in ‘Bess, you is my woman now’ both he and Abigail Kelly were exceptionally fine.
Ronald Samm’s Sportin’ Life was outstanding – a true characterisation by an artist who, like his three companions, knew the part inside-out – and brilliantly sung. Whilst one may regret omissions from Litton’s concert version – the Kittiwah Island Scene in particular – on the whole, his highlights version works well enough.
But in terms of balance and Temple’s consistently fast tempos failing to yield at the most expressive moments, one’s not inconsiderable reservations remain: Porgy and Bess is not a choral work, nor ought it continue to be thought of as an ‘issue’ for only black singers to undertake these roles.