For 10 years, the John Armitage Memorial Trust has been promoting and nurturing new music and, most impressively, without any public funding to date.It’s not surprising, then, that there should be a self-congratulatory feel about JAM’s 10th birthday concert, held in their regular venue of St Bride’s, Fleet Street (and to be repeated the following night in Hythe, Kent).A period of celebration is well-deserved.
John Armitage was a trumpet player who died in 1998, after which his son Edward set up JAM in order to commission works by up and coming composers. The brief is to write for the unusual combination of brass, organ and choir, a stipulation that is both limiting and challenging, but “in a good way,” according to Tarik O’Regan, in a pre-concert talk.
The organisation is fortunate in having had a long association with Onyx Brass, a leading ensemble in brass chamber music, and the BBC Singers. Other loyal contributors include the soprano Claire Seaton, returning on this 10th anniversary having sung in the very first concert, and the distinguished conductor Nicholas Cleobury, who has just agreed to become JAM’s conductor-in-residence.
Over the decade, the organisation has commissioned some 50 works and, while continually forging ahead, it has sought to add to the existing repertoire, so it’s apt that this celebration should include earlier works alongside several premieres.
Timothy Jackson’s No Answer was JAM’s very first commission back in 2002 and its performance then set a standard for the years to come. It’s a moving piece, based on poems by a variety of writers on the theme of imprisonment. By turns exuberant and plaintive, it recalls the tone of Shostakovich’s later, choral symphonies, especially in its central movement Terror describing a “sticky, crawling” fear that invades the soul.
Tarik O’Regan’s The Night’s Untruth explores aspects of sleep through settings of poems by Keats, Shakespeare, Samuel Daniel and Hart Crane. It’s not just Keats’ “soft embalmer” and Crane’s “mistletoe of dreams” that are evoked but some pretty terrifying episodes of brassy outburst too. The work has the distinction of being a co-commission with the US group Vocal Essence and will, therefore, be heard on both sides of the Atlantic, taking JAM’s work to a wider audience.
Also commissioned for this year were two works by younger composers, who have previously had submitted compositions performed. Richard Peat’s Fiery the Angels and Hannah Kendall’s Fundamental are both hugely accomplished works, the latter’s Ligeti-esque choir stalked by squawking brass particularly affecting.
The programme finished with Jonathan Dove’s 2003 The Far Theatricals of Day, a work showing all the assurance and sense of the theatrical one would expect from a composer with more than a dozen operas under his belt.
JAM has every right to feel proud of its work over the past decade and this concert proved the quality of its continuing contribution to new music. Happy birthday to them and may the next 10 years be as fruitful.
This concert is repeated at St Leonard’s Church, Hythe on 26 March, which will also be recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3. More information about the organisation at www.jamconcert.org