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John Adams and Roberto Gerhard: Paul McGann (narrator), Crouch End Festival Chorus, London Orchestra da Camera, David Temple (conductor), Barbican Hall, Silk Street, London, 15.1.2011 (BBr)


John Adams Harmonium (1980)
Roberto Gerhard The Plague (1964)

John Adams has secured a place for himself in the consciousness of the concert-going, and CD-buying, public, as one of the most approachable and attractive of the younger composers working today. He’s written everything from miniatures for the piano to grand opera, indeed, there isn’t a genre which he hasn’t essayed, and he’s won plaudits for his myriad successes. His works are regularly recorded, performed all over the world and a major publisher disseminates his work. Harmonium is an early piece; it followed Shaker Loops, a work which is a success on every level, and it sets three poems – one by John Donne and two by Emily Dickinson – for chorus and orchestra in a work which plays for about 40 minutes. The first two settings are meditative and almost relaxed, while the last is a setting of one of Dickinson’s poems about sex. Or at least her idea of what sexual congress might be like. Harmonium is a pretty piece, to be sure, but the music is far too lightweight to carry the message of the poets, and it’s repetitive, for all the wrong reasons – it’s not a minimalist repetition, it’s repetitious simply because the composer has nothing to say. We’ve been conned by minimalism, it’s a musical dead–end, just like dodecaphony, and here is the living proof.

Roberto Gerhard’s setting of passages from Albert Camus’s book The Plague is one of his most satisfying works, and one of the best BBC commissions of the 1960s. So why do we never hear it? The answer is simple – it requires a huge orchestra, a chorus which is expected to do so much more than sing, and a narrator with a strong personality to tell the story. Tonight’s performance was a total success, indeed, it was one of the most thrilling evenings I’ve spent in the concert hall for some time. Paul McGann was dressed in character, as the Doctor who relates the story of the plague which cripples the town of Oran – the story is an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France during the 2nd World War – sitting at his desk and reading from his diary. Lighting was used to splendid effect, and there was a real sense of foreboding throughout the performance. Here was a great work, there is no other description for it, given a great performance. At the start certain members of the audience laughed at the strange noises made by the chorus but as the work progressed they were won over and at the end sat riveted to their seats as the final onslaught of percussion died into nothingness.

The Crouch End Festival Chorus is noted for bringing unusual and unknown works into the concert hall and we must be grateful to them for this revival. It was timely, exhilarating and essential.


Bob Briggs

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