The Crouch End Festival Chorus has come a long way since its beginnings as a North London amateur choir. Back in 1984 they had to hand out leaflets outside the local supermarket to drum up interest in membership. These days singers are queuing up outside the audition room to get in.
With the backing of the London Orchestra da Camera under the direction of its regular conductor David Temple, the Chorus presented a short but ambitious programme of twentieth century choral works. John Adamss Harmonium dates from 1981 and sets to music poems by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. The music is clearly minimalist in style, with repeated melodic cells, but it also shifts between different rhythmic patterns and contains passages of great drama and expression. The chorus proved its mettle with some astonishing vocal techniques, including the rapidly repeated syllable utterances at the opening of the first poem, Donnes Negative Love. The final poem, Dickinsons Wild Nights, was a mildly erotic tour de force in which the chorus seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. The sizeable orchestra wasnt left standing idle. The richly developed harmonies of the piece drew in all sections of players, and there were some particularly striking percussion effects.
Roberto Gerhards The Plague of 1964 works less well as a piece of music than as a monologue drama with musical accompaniment. Indeed, it was commissioned and premiered by the BBC in what was presumably a radio broadcast. The text, spoken in this performance by the actor Paul McGann, is taken from Albert Camus novel La Peste and recounts the sufferings and bravery of the citizens of the Algerian city of Oran during an outbreak of bubonic plague. In several passages The Plague is too literal in its response to the text scuttling figures on strings to represent the diseased rats; crashing and sharply rising motifs on percussion for moments of high drama and horror. But it also has its subtler moments. The opening chatter of the crowd, for example. worked well, and the wails of grief that accompanied the suffering and death of the young boy in hospital were genuinely moving.
The semi staging with McGann suitably attired as the doctor narrator, and some clever lighting effects helped bring the drama and music to life. Surveying the whole thing, conductor David Temple not only directed the Crouch End Festival Chorus and the huge orchestra, but even prompted McGann when he almost missed one of his lines. Pretty impressive.
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk