Prom 67 – Tongues of Fire

Idmen A & B [UK premiere]
Third Construction
Tongues of Fire [World premiere]

New London Chamber Choir
Amadinda Percussion Group
James Wood

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 8 September, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Provocation galore in this lengthy late-night Prom, opening with two contrasting choral works by Xenakis. Nuits (1968) is protest music raised onto an altogether higher plane by the visceral nature of its abstraction. Few recognisable vowel sounds, let alone words, emerge during its mesmeric 10-minute interplay of voices. It should have set the scene perfectly for the complete rendition of Idmen (1985) that followed. Instead, this substantial (28-minute) alternation of two three-part cycles – for chorus and marimbas, and six percussionists respectively – proved something of a disappointment.

The text, from Hesiod’s treatment of the Creation myth in Theogony, makes subversive reading even today. Xenakis’s approach is not a setting as such, but a dissection of the text so that its emotive force is conveyed by the physical qualities of the vocal writing. Yet the result – at least on this occasion – felt contrived and not a touch distended (despite the audience contributions engagingly rehearsed and expertly cued by assistant chorus-master David Lawrence), while the percussion sections seemed to go-over ground covered in the composer’s earlier percussion works, without bringing new elements into the equation. The sense of fatigue, often encountered in the music of Xenakis’s last decade, was perhaps present here too.

Tiredness of any variety has no part to play in John Cage’s Third Construction (1941), an interplay of polyrhythmic textures that is anything but ’minimalist’ in its lack of inhibition and range of timbral nuance. A work that can be rendered either as chamber music, or as a four-person percussion orchestra – which option the Amadinda Percussion Group (following in the footsteps of such pioneers as Les Percussions de Strasbourg) pursued with relish.

Having directed Xenakis with his customary thoughtfulness and zeal, James Wood then presented the world premiere of one of his own works. Composed in 2001 to mark the 140th anniversary of the Yale Glee Club, Tongues of Fire proved an eventful, multi-lingual treatment of the story of Pentecost – amalgamating vocal idioms with a dizzying impact at times bordering on overkill. The mellifluous sound of oil drums is central to the percussion writing, which latter ranges from all-out barrages in the second and fourth sections to the gentle murmur underpinning the setting of Hildegard of Bingen in the third part. Why the Yale premiere was postponed is unclear, but the loss to New Yorkers of such an intricate yet immediate work – trans-cultural fusion as it should be but so rarely is – was the Proms’ gain. The performance seemed formidably well prepared: not for the first time, the New London Chamber Choir deserves a collective medal for its services to new music.

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