thu 14/11/2019

Prom 66: In the Name of the Earth review - John Luther Adams's ambitious choral spectacular | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 66: In the Name of the Earth review - John Luther Adams's ambitious choral spectacular

Prom 66: In the Name of the Earth review - John Luther Adams's ambitious choral spectacular

Massed choirs fill the Albert Hall with ecological contemplation and rattling coffee-cups

Eight choirs perform the European premiere of John Luther Adams’s 'In the Name of the Earth' at the BBC PromsAll images © BBC/Mark Allan

This is the kind of thing that the Proms does well – indeed, where else would it get an outing? A "big event" piece of massive scale in terms of size and duration, in many ways a modern Spem in Alium, but where Tallis’s 1570 piece demands 40 singers, In the Name of the Earth ups the ante to 700-plus voices, led by eight conductors and arrayed around the Royal Albert Hall. Both the title, with its nod towards the Christian sign of the cross, and the scheduling for Sunday morning, made this feel like a secular meditation with the natural environment substituting for a traditional God. As the composer John Luther Adams says: “In place of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, I want to invoke the roots of my own faith, in the earth, the waters and the holy wind.”

Some of Adams’s techniques would have been familiar to Tallis, although dressed in modern harmonic clothes: massive blocks of sound, contrapuntal lines overlapping and intertwining in close contact, slow moving chord progressions evolving gradually, and a use of space to surround the audience with sound. There are also some that would not have occurred to Tallis: singers bringing out from their branded BBC Proms tote bags various homely percussion instruments – shakers made from reusable coffee-cups filled with stones, clay pots as scrapers, tiny handbells. There was also a choreographic element. For the last 15 minutes the choirs moved from their original positions onto the stage, flowing like water through the arena and across the stage apron, progressing from four atomised groups at the beginning to a single mass of people by the end. Once in these final positions, in a section that named the oceans and was redolent of Adams’s Pulitzer Prize winning orchestral piece Become Ocean, the choirs swayed and leaned like coral pulsating in the water.

Choirs sing the European premiere of John Luther Adams's In the Name of the EarthThere was also in this final section an audience participation element as we were invited to join in with the final canon, helped by printed music. But this fell a bit flat as the parts were quite hard to pitch, and impossible for non-music-readers, and not many people, certainly near me, actually joined in. For the most part, the piece works as a contemplative soundscape, cluster harmonies ebbing and flowing with occasional chanted phrases – the text is made up of place names and geographical features of North America, in a range of local languages. Adams’s music does not deal in melody nor, notably, in rhythm, and neither does he much explore contrast – although in fact the most striking and memorable moment of the piece was when, after a fairly continuous, mid-range texture for about 30 minutes, there was a sudden introduction of very high soprano notes accompanied by hundreds of tinkling bells to herald the final section.

The eight choirs were led by eight conductors, and it made a fascinating sight to see the conductors (David Temple and Laurel Neighbour, pictured below) all beating at separate speeds, with the groups going in and out of sync. There was a terrific mix of groups familiar to the Proms, such as the BBC Symphony Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, London Symphony Chrous and Crouch End Festival Chorus alongside community choirs the London International Gospel Choir, Hackney Empire Community Choir, LSO Community Choir and the Victoria Park Singers. For such groups to tackle music of this difficulty and length is ambitious and the performances were committed and inspiring.

Conductors David Temple and Laurel Neighbour at the BBC PromsThe kaleidoscopic aural effect was very impressive in the hall (it doesn’t sound nearly as arresting on BBC Sounds, unfortunately), and Adams controls the elements with a puppet-master’s skill. And if it was a bit hippyish and New Agey, there’s no question that Adams’s environmentalism is sincere (he has long been a campaigner as well as composer) and I believe ecological issues are worth exploring through art as well as science and politics. In the final moments, as the lights faded to blue and the singing gave way to vocal susurration, I was genuinely carried along on its tide.

@bernardlhughes

Comments

I think you missed out the other major choir singing, that being the London Philharmonic Choir

Apologies, Ian - all choirs now name-checked. Bernard

If you've name checked all choirs why is London Symphony Chorus not mentioned ?

Apology for the omission, now rectified, no offence intended. Bernars

In Bernard's defence, when you have so many choirs involved, naming them all risks turning a review into a shopping list. That would seem to be the nature of this peculiar beast.

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