The John Armitage Memorial, or JAM, is a charity which commissions and performs new music for choir, brass and organ, and its season traditionally starts with a concert at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street. I was there on 24th March to hear this year’s pieces.
The highlights were both in the first half. JAM always repeats pieces in the year after they have been commissioned – providing welcome further performances for the composers – and here things kicked off with Paul Mealor’s 2010 commission Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, a gentle and reflective setting of four poems about roses. The writing was mostly syllabic and based around broad consonances, inflected with telling dissonances. The Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge, conducted by Nicholas Cleobury, produced an appropriately weightless, floating sound, although there were some moments of indiscipline at the end of lines, with the consonants a bit scattered. The ending, on a basement B-flat, was beautifully hushed.
The centrepiece of the concert was Philip Cashian’s All Things Wear Silence, his first major work for choir. Cashian’s piece comes very much from outside the mainstream choral tradition, approaching the genre from an tangent, but not the less effective for that. Particularly deft was the handling of the brass quintet and organ, which operated more as a commentary than a conventional accompaniment, the brass’s interjections subtly working in parallel with the choir’s longer lines. The choir was rarely used as a concerted force, except in the final, a cappella section. The choir, sometimes slightly tentative, coped well with an extremely challenging score, full of complex harmony and few clues for their notes from the instruments. The text was fascinating, and it is a shame it wasn’t more audible.
The finale was Tarik O’Regan’s nocturnal The Night’s Untruth, again commissioned last year. It started marvellously, with sinuous vocal lines moving to and from unison, leading to a haunting brass interlude. The second movement had a welcome change of tempo and tone, featuring some powerful rhythmic writing. The piece ended with sleepy sustained chords below a weaving pair of soprano soloists, rounding off a very satisfactory piece.
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