fri 20/09/2019

Malala/A Child of Our Time, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Temple, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Malala/A Child of Our Time, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Temple, Barbican

Malala/A Child of Our Time, Crouch End Festival Chorus, Temple, Barbican

New choral work inspired by Nobel Peace laureate alongside Tippett’s great pacifist oratorio

David Temple and the CEFC at the Barbican in 2011

James McCarthy’s oratorio Malala is both a heartfelt tribute to the young Nobel Peace laureate, Malala Yousafzai, and political statement in favour of the education of women. In it, as in its companion piece A Child of Our Time, a persecuted individual is turned into a symbol of all mankind. Indeed, Malala writes in a statement in the programme that “I wasn’t chosen because I am just one girl – I was chosen because of the belief in all girls whose voices can be heard.” This is put more simply in the music, which ends with the full chorus singing “we are all Malala!”

The text of Malala, by the Pakistani writer Bina Shah, opens poetically but for the most part tells the story straightforwardly, often in the first person. At its best the text is direct and powerful, but at times errs on the didactic side. The choral setting is largely declamatory and chordal, ideal for clear communication of the text. The Crouch End Festival Chorus, numbering over 120 singers, was augmented by another 100 girl singers from north London schools, but the diction, for such a large choir, was exemplary. For the third section, based on Malala’s diary, the men drop out, leaving only female voices, dominated by the younger singers, to create a timbre clearly characterising Malala’s thoughts.

Malala YousafzaiThe composer admitted, in a spoken introduction to the concert, that the section dealing with Malala’s shooting (Yousafzai pictured left) had given him the most difficulty, in needing to be “shocking but not cliched”. It was certainly the only passage of any dissonance in a broadly tonal score, and as such was arresting, and effectively arrayed for the orchestra. I felt, though, that this was the weakest part of the libretto, with awkward scansion and intrusive use of rhyme. For the most part the music and text worked together, using abrupt cuts and changes of perspective to enliven the storytelling.

As a work of political art, Malala is a powerful statement of a truth that shouldn’t need stating, and is axiomatic in this country, that young women should be educated. But will this statement be heard by those elsewhere who need convincing?

If James McCarthy’s piece needs more performances to establish itself in the repertoire, A Child of Our Time is a nailed-on classic. It has also been something of a calling card for the Crouch End Festival Chorus under its charismatic conductor David Temple; the choir has sung it numerous times since the early 1990s, including giving the Polish premiere.

HSoprano Erica Eloffarmonically knottier than Malala, and with more counterpoint in the choral lines, A Child of Our Time triumphs despite not compromising in its musical means. The choir was in excellent voice, from the pointedly accented first entries, the anguished chromatic fugue of “When shall the usurers’ city cease”, to the spine-chilling cold fury of “Go down, Moses”. The intonation was flawless throughout, as was the sense of drama.

Mention must be made of the London Orchestra da Camera, nimble accompanists and very accurate on what I presume was little rehearsal of two difficult scores. At times in the Tippett they could have been more dynamically sensitive to the soloists; in particular it was difficult to hear the tenor Andrew Staples, in both pieces. This was not a problem for the individual star of the evening, soprano Erica Eloff (pictured above), whose entry with “How can I cherish my man in such days” was a sit-up-and-take-notice moment. Her powerful voice was also allowed to float, making for a wonderful transition into “Steal Away”.

The final passage, a general ensemble of hope and self-knowledge, followed by a hushed and gorgeous “Deep River”, was superb, and conductor David Temple was able to hold a long and rapt silence at the end.

 

Follow Bernard Hughes on Twitter @bernardlhughes

'Malala' is a powerful statement of a truth that shouldn’t need stating, but will this statement be heard by those who need convincing?

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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