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13 November 2014

Hear their voices: a choral celebration of Malala Yousafzai

Young British composer James McCarthy and Pakistani writer Bina Shah have collaborated to produce Malala, a dramatic work for choir and orchestra that attempts to capture the spirit of her story.

By Caroline Crampton

Malala; A Child of Our Time 
Barbican, London EC2

When the gunman boarded a school bus in the district of Swat, Pakistan, in October 2012, he was trying to accomplish two things with a single act. By shooting Malala Yousafzai, he was trying to end the life of a girl who was standing out against the Taliban’s wishes. At the same time, the shooting was an attempt to stifle an idea. Because of her writing, Malala was a visible symbol – a girl trying to get an education in spite of everything terrible that was happening in her homeland. That ambition had to be snuffed out.

The Taliban failed on both counts. Malala survived the attack, is now recovered and is living safely with her family in Birmingham. Her existence as a symbol endures – even before she was awarded the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize this autumn, she was travelling the world (as much as her schooling permitted) to share her ideas about peace, dialogue and the right of girls to be educated.

Now, her story lives not just in words but in music, too. The young British composer James McCarthy and the Pakistani writer Bina Shah have collaborated to produce Malala, a dramatic work for choir and orchestra that attempts to capture the spirit of her story. The piece was premiered at the Barbican in London by the Crouch End Festival Chorus on 28 October and was preceded by an introduction from Malala herself, which was read by one of the schoolgirls singing in the chorus.

Perhaps surprisingly for a piece that is trying to embody such a range of emotions and issues, Malala is relatively simple. The instrumental accompaniment is cinematic in tone, all swooping strings and heart-tugging melodies with the odd burst of percussion. The large chorus sings in harmony but in a clear rhythm so the words of Shah’s libretto come across well. It was a challenge, McCarthy says, to avoid making the music too “childlike”, for although Malala Yousafzai was a child when these events took place, she is also a very strong young woman.

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The piece starts by setting the scene in “Swat, the valley of flowers”, and then moves on to describe how the war came: “the pounding of guns and shouting of men”. And then the feminist subtext of Malala’s experience is explored: “They say that girls only need to know/How to cook, and clean, and sew/To get married at 12, to be someone’s wife.”

More than 100 girls from three different London schools were among the performers for this piece. Seeing them up onstage, concentrating fiercely on the conductor David Temple’s baton as they sang of Malala’s story, was an inspiring sight. It was hard not to be moved to see her message of inclusion, action and education enacted by fellow schoolgirls. The only part of the piece that jarred was the extended tenor solo in the middle – Andrew Staples has a strong voice but, given the context, it would have been much more welcome to hear a young woman’s solo featured.

For this programme, Malala was paired with Michael Tippett’s secular oratorio A Child of Our Time. The composer began work on it in 1938 in response to the Kristallnacht pogroms against Jews in Nazi Germany; it was first performed at the Adelphi Theatre in London in 1944. It has since come to stand for the struggle of oppressed peoples everywhere. The piece shares the three-part structure of Handel’s Messiah and also draws inspiration from Bach’s St Matthew and St John Passions, although crucially the Lutheran chorales are replaced by arrangements of African-American spirituals.

This wasn’t an outstanding rendition of the piece, by any means – the soloists didn’t blend very well and the pace was frustratingly slow at times. But as a foil to Mc­Carthy’s new work, it’s hard to think of anything better. If ever there was a child of our time, it is Malala.