Acclamation for Auckland Viva Voce’s remarkable performance of enthralling work on pilgrimage: Camino de Santiago de Compostela

Viva Voce, conducted by John Rosser

Joby Talbot: Path of Miracles

St. Peter’s Church, Willis Street

Sunday, 4 June 2017, 4.30pm

The programme’’s sub-title for the work was “Joby Talbot’s stunning choral depiction of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.”  The blurb was right; this was a truly remarkable work, of just over an hour’s almost constant unaccompanied singing (apart from the periodic use of 8 traditional small cymbals,or crotales), with no applause until the end.

Talbot is a 46-year-old British composer who has written in many genres, including opera and ballet, and for film and television.  This work was composed in 2005, a setting of a commissioned text from Robert Dickinson.  Although the printed programme has a photograph and note about Talbot, there is nothing about the poet, but John Rosser did tell us a little about him in his excellent introductory remarks.  The text is quite astonishing, not only for the fact that 7 different languages are used.  Rosser believes that the three performances by the choir (Auckland [the choir’s home city] and Napier before this one) are the first in the southern hemisphere.

Wikipedia gives little information about Dickinson, who is a British novelist.  The work traces both the story of St. James, who tradition says returned from martyrdom in Jerusalem to Galicia where he had previously preached, and that of walkers on the renowned (and now revived) walk to Santiago de Compostela, where the martyr’s bones were found 800 years later.  Dickinson created a brilliant text, printed in full in the programme – though not always easy to follow, due to the variety of languages, and much repetition, particularly of refrains.

Rosser informed us that there are now approximately a quarter of a million people walking the Camino each year; I know people who have done it, and I have stayed in an ancient village in southern France that was on one of the many routes through that part of the country, and bore on a wall the scallop shell symbol of the pilgrimage.

The men of the choir entered the church first, vocalising on low notes.  They walked to the front and stood in a circle, round a circle of stones.  The notes very gradually rose in pitch until they became high, reaching a scream as the women joined in from the back of the church, and the cymbals joined in.

The women advanced up the church, led by a solo voice.  The singing at this stage was quite loud, but dynamics varied throughout the work   The voices were very fine, and the resonance superb.  All were very precise both musically and in incisive enunciation of all the languages, in this sometimes intricate work.  The musical style in this early part was medieval. This first part was entitled Roncesvalles, the name of the place in northern Spain where the Camino starts, though many started in times past in southern France.  As the pilgrimage progresses, marked by the choir by numerous episodes of walking slowly around the church and into different positions on the platform.  The other parts are named Burgos, Leon and Santiago.

Walking and repositioning were not the only choreographed parts of the performance; part way through the first section the choir began swaying.  Then a bass with a very deep, fruity voice intoned from the pulpit while the choir sang pianissimo.  That was followed by a soprano and tenor duet.  The use of the cymbals was quite beautiful here.

In the second section there was a change to a modern style of composition.  The mood here was more conversational, as though the pilgrims were recounting to each other some of the trials of the journey (apparently ‘the English steal’), the tone being more mellow, with a prayerful quality.  Some of the more ghoulish sections of text conveyed a desolate sound, through both vocal tone and the intervals employed.

A reduced choir sang some of the text, and this produced an effective contrast.  Louder passages followed towards the end of the Burgos section and the deep bass made further utterances.

The women began the Leon movement (of which there was plenty) at the back of the church, intoning much repetition of the opening refrain.  Then the men, describing the land they walked through, sang loudly.  Rich harmony ended this section, at the words ‘We pause, as at the heart of a sun that dazzles and does not burn.’  Here as elsewhere there was consistent tone and pronunciation, and the blend was superb.

In Santiago there was more virtuosic singing  All of it was dynamically interesting and varied.  The first passage in Latin sounded like a chant, but was sung in harmony.  With the concluding words the choir faced and looked directly at the audience, singing ‘Holy St James, great St James, God help us now and evermore.’  The choir walked off, each picking up a stone from the stone circle and placing it with the others in a cairn at the foot of the platform.  They continued singing the last passages from memory, fading as they made a wonderful conclusion to the work as they continued to walk into the porch, still singing.

This was a real choir, unlike TV’s ‘Naked Choir’ contest, of which John Rosser is a judge.  What with mikes and costumes, they are not as naked as Viva Voce, which really does rely solely on its voices.

The choir returned to repeated enthusiastic acclamation, some in the audience rising to their feet in tribute to this outstanding and remarkable performance of this complex but enthralling work, which my mere words cannot hope to adequately describe.  This was a unique experience.

For a very cold late Sunday afternoon, there was quite a sizeable audience in the church.  There was some heating on, but it was insufficient on such a cold day.


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