Vocal Futures

Suzi Digby launches a new project for young people with Bach's St Matthew Passion at the core.

Classical music - like every art - has its fashions. And when, back in 1993, Jonathan Miller took the unorthodox step of staging Bach's St Matthew Passion, he started a trend. Sober and spiritual it may have been, but his production in Holy Trinity Sloane Square (revived earlier this year at the National Theatre) placed a sacred work within the secular grasp of the theatre. Where Miller led Deborah Warner's St John Passion followed, as well of course as Katie Mitchell's controversial post-massacre St Matthew for Glyndebourne. Last week, in the subterranean bunker that is the University of Westminster's Ambika P3 space, Bach's oratorio donned its latest costume.

Offering practical solutions while Michael Gove has floundered with postponements and platitudes, Suzi Digby is a serious force for good within Britain's music education system. Her Voices Foundation has been working in and with schools since 1993, and with this St Matthew Passion she launches a new project - Vocal Futures. Focused once again on young people, it places the Passion at the core of an ongoing series of workshops and practical encounters with classical music.

Most of this involvement takes place offstage however, leaving the production a purely professional arena. It's a wise choice, and one that for the most part avoids the mawkish sleeve-tug of sentimentality that can so easily blight Bach's purity. For neither of the Passions is strictly a dramatization of the crucifixion story; characters are fluid and often non-specific, the mood is meditative, cumulative, rather than narrative. It the great strength of Patrick Kinmonth's production that he makes little attempt to "fix" this.

Costumes are contemporary and neutral, framing action that favours an abstract sort of symbolism. Arms and eyes are raised aloft, chalices are passed from hand to hand, collective rituals of washing and mourning are played out with a tasteful lack of emphasis. Amongst the silent physical presence of a troupe of young actors, the soloists carve out more personal encounters with the text.

The alto solos become a timeshare affair, split - occasionally mid-aria - between Robin Blaze and Catherine Hopper. The logic here, exploiting the very different vocal colours for narrative development, perhaps works better in theory than practice, but the dramatic sympathy between the two singers was touching, only exceeded by the two Evangelists. While purists will doubtless object, the duality here worked well, with Joshua Ellicott and Samuel Boden each bringing a different emotional vantage point to the tragedy they recount. It was Boden however whose directness of delivery really sharpened the text (a new and occasionally unfelicitous translation from Jessica d'Este and Patrick Kinmonth) into the piercing blade it can and should be.

Willard White is opera's Morgan Freeman, and his Christus was predictably rich in gravitas. It was however disappointing vocally, and it was White together with bass soloist Stephan Loges who suffered most in the baggier passages of Digby's musical direction. By contrast, the chorus of young professionals - the two choirs split across both sides of the stage - propelled the action and energy forwards every time they sang. While Miller's choruses sing at each other, to the exclusion of the watching audience, here the seated chorus and silent actors offered a much more involving and flexible alternative. Aided by a surprisingly well-balanced acoustic the singers produced a beautiful ensemble tone, flexible enough to encompass both the lightning and thunder and the tragic fragility of the post-crucifixion chorale into a single musical trajectory.

The power of Bach's Passions is surely in what they leave unspoken, unpictured. The uncluttered symbolism of Kinmonth's direction represents an allusive negotiation between action and meditation - a semi-staging in the best and most uncompromising sense. Add to this some really excellent music, and Digby and this inaugural Vocal Future projects have made quite the start and quite the statement. I only hope someone in government is listening.

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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