Last Thursday, we went to a concert at Lichfield Cathedral — as part of the Lichfield Festival — which celebrated Arvo Part's 70th birthday. The majority of the concert was choral, with the Hilliard Ensemble and Ex Cathedra joining forces for the evening, but there was also an organ piece by Arvo Part called 'Annum Per Annum'.
When the programme notes suggested that the work was "prefaced by a thunderous introduction", they weren't exaggerating; I think everyone jumped a little. That's fine by me. I think that you're probably failing somewhat as a composer for organ if you don't use both the tiny, mouse's whisper high notes, as well as the thunderous bass notes — how else are you going to get the dust out of those big pipes? This piece did all of that, as well as making use of the organ stop marked 'Armageddon with Knobs On1'. I got the impression that it was a virtuoso piece to show off the capabilities of the organ, but it was great entertainment.
There was a camera on the organist, Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, and it was fascinating watching him play. I've never tried playing a church organ, but it looks like terrifying fun. There are no less than four keyboards, as well as goodness knows how many pedals and stops, and we saw him looking where he was putting his feet once or twice. It also seems to be a relatively good cardio workout.
The concert started with Thomas Tallis's 'Spem in Alium'. It's a 40-part motet, and one of my favourite choral pieces, however, it's difficult to do well. Sung badly, it sounds exactly like 40 people singing different tunes. Sung brilliantly — as it was on this occasion — it's like watching a flock of birds swooping around. You see the individuals move as one body, but you can let your eye rest on one individual for a while and watch them melt in and out of the main body. It's uplifting and utterly relaxing at the same time. I got full-body goose pimples once or twice during the piece; it was transporting.
The scores gave some idea of the the complexity of the piece. I don't think I've ever seen musical scores the size of a broadsheet newspaper before. It gave the singers the slightly comical appearance of people reading the paper on the train, but singing like angels at the same time.
There was a world premiere of a piece by Gabriel Jackson called 'Sanctum Est Verum Lumen', which is another 40-part motet, written as a companion to 'Spem in Alium'. I'm so attached to 'Spem in Alium' that I was half-expecting not to like the piece, but I thought it was brilliant. It was clearly modern rather than a pastiche of a 16th century piece, but it had the same feeling of the individual and the body of singers merging and separating, and had a lovely bright feeling to it.
The climax of the evening was Pärt's 'Miserere'. His later work is known as 'tintinnabulism', and is characterised by single, ringing notes, and silences. Miserere starts with a single tenor singing a word at a time, each echoed by a clarinet phrase. Gradually the piece builds for the Dies Irae when the whole choir comes in. If 'Spem in Alium' gave me goose pimples, 'Miserere' brought tears to my eyes. There's anger and defiance in the voices, and after having observed a silence that day for the victims of the London bombings, it seemed all the more poignant.
A day of wrath that day shall be, when the earth dissolves in ashes: so David and Sybil prophesied
How great a terror there will be when the Judge appears to make a stern reckoning.
The whole evening was one of the best live musical experiences I've had recently.
1 That may or may not be the actual label.