sat 28/01/2023

Elysian Singers, SPCMH, Sam Laughton, St Luke’s, Chelsea review - John Cage and friends given a rare airing | reviews, news & interviews

Elysian Singers, SPCMH, Sam Laughton, St Luke’s, Chelsea review - John Cage and friends given a rare airing

Elysian Singers, SPCMH, Sam Laughton, St Luke’s, Chelsea review - John Cage and friends given a rare airing

Adventurous choral modernism alongside entertainingly anarchic postmodernism

Versatile London chamber choir the Elysian Singers© Huw Morgan

In my reviewing for theartsdesk I like as much as possible to ski off-piste, reaching areas of repertoire, performer and venue that mainstream coverage doesn't. There is much great music-making that flies, to mix my metaphors, under the radar, but which is well worthy of being written about.

Saturday night’s collaboration between the Elysian Singers, a notably adventurous London chamber choir, and the undergraduates of the St Peter’s Contemporary Music Happening was one such, showcasing repertoire more often written about than played, in committed and adept performances.

The title of the concert – “John Cage and Friends” – was, as the Elysian’s conductor Sam Laughton (pictured below) conceded, a bit misleading. The composers featured were so various that finding a unifying thread would be impossible, but Cage’s status as, in his own term, the great “permission-giver” made his as good a banner as any for this ship to sail under. The concert fell into two halves, with first the Elysians singing some knotty and at times challenging music that was nevertheless conventional choral music, followed by the SPCMH recreating a '70s postmodernist vibe in its “anything goes” free-form set. The finale was both groups coming together for Eric Whitacre’s Cloudburst, which calls for a panoply of percussion, from handbells to bass drum.

Elysian Singers conductor Sam LaughtonThe Elysian Singers opened with Per Nørgård, whose Wie ein Kind derives from his long-standing obsession with the writings of Adolf Wölfli, a Swiss writer and artist who suffered from schizophrenia, and whose often fantastical and nonsensical writing have been the basis of several pieces by Nørgård. A sample of the text for this piece gives a flavour: “G’ganggali ging g’gang, g’gung g’gung!” It is given a chordal setting, interrupted by outbursts of shouts and cries – Helly Summerly giving a particularly striking solo here amid a steadfast performance. The central movement is a very challenging sing, the Elysians dealing with the chromatic lines unhesitatingly.

The Elysians have a long association with James MacMillan, who is their patron. His Changed was accompanied by three muted trombones playing a solemn ostinato, the choir overcoming a slightly uncertain start to reach a full-voiced climax, while The Rising Moon was augmented by handbells and vibraphone, deftly played by Matt Venvell.

The two pieces by Jonathan Harvey were both written for Winchester Cathedral. I love the Lord has a lovely smudged sonority, as half the choir sustains a pedal chord while the rest move to an adjacent harmony. The Eliot setting The dove descending was strident and dissonant, the choir focused and stern, organ scrunches supplying a fiery redemption.

The John Cage choral piece, Four2, showed perhaps why he is more talked about than performed: the piece was fine, but more interesting in conception than in aural experience. Aleatoric, allowing the conductor freedom in bringing parts in and out, the harmony that resulted from long sustained notes was banal, and lacking the magical simplicity that someone like Howard Skempton can conjure.

Conductor and SPCMH leader Jeremy SummerlyJeremy Summerly (pictured left) is well-known as the conductor of the Oxford Camerata, whose recordings for Naxos of early choral repertoire are much-loved staples. In his time as Director of Music at St Peter’s College, Oxford, he initiated the St Peter’s Contemporary Music Happening, the group comprising the four final year undergraduates performing alongside Summerly himself. As Summerly admitted in his introductory comments, a lot of the music featured is no longer contemporary, dating from the 1950s and '60s, suggesting perhaps that today’s experimental musicians are working in different media, such as computer music or film.

But there was no doubt this half-hour set – put together with a care that belied its chaotic surface – was entertaining and enjoyable, even if it felt more museum-piece than cutting-edge. (Perhaps this school of music went so far down the road that it reached a dead-end?) We started with John Cage’s antic Solo for sliding trombone, played here, with appropriate perversity by two trombonists, Joe Smales and Felix Fardell, who explored a range of ways of making sounds from the trombone, from playing with mutes, actually playing the mutes themselves, deconstructing the instruments and even, on the odd occasion, blowing a normal note through the instrument.

One of the two rules of the SPCMH (pictured below) is that they always include the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves” in some form. Here it came mashed-up with an In Nomine by Robert White (1538-74) arranged for a “broken consort” of two trombones, recorder, harpsichord and vibes, slipping into barbershop harmonisation and finally plainchant (both very impressively sung). Finn Blakey gave an exceptional, virtuosic reading of Georges Asperghis’s Récitations op 46 no 8 from the pulpit, while Summerly and Matt Venwell clapped their way through Pascal Zavaro’s Kino-Klapp, with its nod to Steve Reich’s Clapping Music.

The St Peter's Contemporary Music HappeningThey finished with a combination of two of LaMonte Young’s famous “instruction” pieces from 1960. One gives two pitches which have to be sustained “for a long time” and the other consists entirely of the words “most of them were very old grasshoppers”. The latter part was interpreted by Felix Fardell bouncing out through the audience, while the other players reiterated the B and F-sharp (although I’d question whether it qualified as “for a very long time”).

The set was performed with the necessary deadpan seriousness, allowing the moments of humour to emerge better, and the musical juxtapositions were a revealing collage. Ending with the Whitacre was – for all its strengths – something of an anti-climax, bringing us back into the world of conventional performance. Cloudburst sounded good, as it usually does, but for me needs a bigger choir, both for the vocal climax and the clicking and thigh-slapping that recreates the rainfall: in this case more is more.



15 pieces on the bill. Not a single one of them by a woman. The experimentation in the 2nd half felt more Monty Python than La Monte Young. This music deserves more respect than these posh boys afforded it.

A comment such as this demonstrates its own limitations all too clearly, and takes away the chance of it having any respect. To describe the jazz musicians in a sweeping phrase of "posh boys" is particularly insulting as one of them is my son. My wife and I are music teachers in the state sector. Need I say more. Congratulations to all involved in the concert - we were sorry not to be there, as we also know Sam Laughton, but we were looking after grandchildren.

Nevertheless the first question does need some addressing when there are no less than 15 pieces on the programme, don't you think? Especially when you don't need to root around to find excellent choral music by women composers.

‘Most of them were very old grasshoppers’. The very (and only) substance of La Monte Young’s composition Piano Piece for David Tudor No. 3 from his Compositions 1960. I found the seriousness of the interpretation thoroughly appropriate to the seriousness of the composition. Might I refer you to Young’s composition no. 13 from the same collection? ‘The performer should prepare any composition and then perform it as well as he can.’ These young lads did it with the serious panache and nuance required by the score. I also strongly agree with Tim on the problematic nature of your assumptions about said performers and their backgrounds. While I understand your concerns about the lack of female composers ‘on the bill’, I for one interpreted the focus of the second half to be based on the work of the New York Hypnotic School (minus Cloudburst), unfortunately a group in which women did not feature. Finally, I pose the question: should we be actively searching for female composers of this group or does this somehow belittle their work, implying they need ‘special treatment’ when compared to their male counterparts? I should add that Mrs Nibs was deeply moved by the whole spectacle. Twitter: @ChristopherNibs

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