HERTFORDSHIRE WIND SINFONIA
& COUNTY YOUTH CHOIR
Conductor Mark Eager
Baritone Tim Hobman
Cathedral and Abbey Church of St Alban
Friday 21st August 2009, 7.30 pm
Night Journey (World Premiere) Daniel Basford
The generous acoustic of St. Albans Abbey came into its own for the world premiere of the evening, an especially commissioned work for Baritone, Chorus and Concert Band by Daniel Basford, There is no doubt in my mind that Daniel Basford has the potential to become one of the leading composers for wind ensemble and band, and for other combinations, of the younger generation. Perhaps it was the euphoria engendered by a most successful day’s cricket against the Aussies (sorry Percy Grainger), perhaps it was the excitement on the previous day of handling a photocopy of one of Grainger’s famous “round letters”, the one dating from 1943 when he gets so angry with “milksops of sissified darlings” who cannot in 1937 tackle the more complex movements of Lincolnshire Posy, but I suspect that it was because of Basford’s superb handling of his forces, choir, baritone soloist and large wind orchestra in the incomparable setting of St Alban’s Cathedral that I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of this new work, a rare occurrence for me. Not a wink of sleep did I catch, my full attention was engaged from start to finish, and the forty minute span seemed but a moment. Not one movement outstayed its welcome, rare in a wind work, and in fact there were times when I needed to hear a further development, only to be whisked on to the next movement or section.
I like Basford’s music; he has a knack of writing really singable lines for every instrument (well I don’t know about the tubas nor the wood blocks but the climax in the finale with three clashed cymbals was awesome), and of course the choral writing was excellent, in the tradition of the English choral works; Finzi and Vaughan Williams come to mind, later on Britten, but he has his own voice and those who know his terrific wind band pieces, Songs and Refrains, will recognise little finger prints. Grainger said once that he could sing every part in his wind works, and I think Danny could probably do this too. Like Grainger he has an acute ear for colour, colour not only of instruments but also of harmonic progressions, and he has a sure sense of architecture.
PRELUDE: Night is come
The first movement is a gentle pastorale, setting the scene, also laying out the main motifs which are to be heard in various guises, a night motif in the woodwind, a chord progression and another melodic fragment. The inspiration is drawn from Longfellow’s Light of Stars:
The night is come, but not too soon:
O fear not in a world like this
And thou shalt know ere long,
Know how sublime a thing it is
To suffer and be strong
CHORALE RECITATIVE: Into the darkness
The chorus’ brief first entry is accompanied by saxophones, brass, double reeds and low woodwind.Restless shifting chord progressions underpin simple choral lines, mainly in unison – the chorus is seemingly nervous about entering the unknown world of night but realises the moon and the stars are there for company.
The major movement of this first part, Basford builds a really exciting climax which then dissolves as quickly as it appeared. In his programme note:
Initially sounding like a lullaby, with a ‘rocking’ motif comprising a dissonance followed by its resolution, this movement is more sinister than it appears to be…..this is not a gentle night’s rest – the music builds to a forceful climax, with ‘Come, Sleep’ now turning into an angry command. Suddenly the mood changes and the music falls eerily into a slumber.
SOLO RECITATIVE: A Clear Midnight
I wondered whether the fourth movement, a very short interlude for the baritone, was perhaps too perfunctory but the composer has a sure sense of pace, and the more developed solo just before the end of Part 3 makes everything plain – it was well worth waiting for this extended solo passage.
THE DREAM: Birds of Passage
Based on a re-interpretation of another poem by Longfellow, Birds of Passage the composer describes this central movement as a dream-scherzo. There is a Mahlerian intensity in the atmosphere, though the choral writing with its soaring motif of fifths is firmly rooted in the British tradition. In this very generous acoustic, it was impossible to distinguish the three note rhythmic motif which is the foundation of the whole movement. After an energetic climax of great powerthe movement dissolves into a rhythmic patterning with the sound of Boomwhackers scattered around the band, (pitched plastic tubes of various lengths). Perhaps these need to be activated more histrionically to take full effect, perhaps more metallic or wooden utensils might be less subtle but work better, as at the end of Metropolis.
A non-vocal setting of an except from another Longfellow poem this second movement for instruments alone perhaps might cause problems in performance, since it is scored for piano, harp, celesta organ and percussion, with some low woodwind, and I wonder whether so resourceful a composer might engineer an alternative version reducing these requirements. The movement is atmospheric and sets the scene wonderfully for the solo which follows.
SOLO: Break of Day
We are back to the mood of the opening Prelude, described by the composer as a rhapsodic, romantic interlude…With dawn about to approach he wishes a loved one not to wake, since he knows his love will have to leave him if she does. Little wisps of melodic invention intertwine with the solo baritone, and from time to time the chorus sing a simple chordal background.
HYMN TO SUNRISE
The finale is almost Elgarian in its sweep, and takes the form of a bright fanfare to welcome day, with a magically hushed central hymn-like section before a rousing coda. Here I wondered whether the final section was too short a peroration for such a large-scale work. The chord progressions and the harmonic movement just seemed a little hurried, but brevity is a very good fault. Unusually for me, I felt I needed more music. I look forward to hearing it all again in a less boomy acoustic.
For more information about this really terrific score, contact Daniel Basford at firstname.lastname@example.org