There must be other choirs with the vision to commission new works, push back boundaries and have a thoroughly good time while doing so, but I haven’t come across them. The Hertfordshire Chorus, however, constantly surprises – if they aren’t massing 400 Voices to sing Tallis, Holst and Berlioz they’re clapping and stomping in good Flamenco tradition to give the World Premiere of a new work by Howard Haigh.
The composer himself was an integral part of the performance of this new work, Land Of Light – named for the more poetic of the translations of Al-Andaluz, the Arabic name for Andalucia (the other one is Land of Vandals…). Haigh formed the ever-evolving Latino-Blues ensemble Lava in 1999, and the current format comprises Haigh on Spanish Guitar, Guy Morris (blues guitar), Ben McCabe (percussion), Stu Lewthwaite (accordion), Jacqueline Hynes (flute) and Steve Rose (double bass). The latter, incidentally, working harder than I think I’ve ever seen a bass player work, feverishly discarding pages of score as he went… I could hardly take my eyes off him.
Land Of Light is a tone poem, a homage to Andalucia, with Flamenco rhythms constantly mutating, ebbing and flowing, to paint a picture of that ancient, proud and much-invaded region. Thirteen movements, mostly melding seamlessly into one another, take us from the arrival of the Moors, through the turbulent middle ages, the genius of algebra (did you know the Arab mathematician Al-Qarazmi gave us the word algorithm?) to the modern day and the current melting-pot culture of tourism and fiestas.
The music is fast, feisty and inventive, and the choir (remember the choir?) has a ball – clicking, chirping, improvising at times, in languages that include Castilian, Arabic, Latino (Sephardic Jewish) and Calo (Spanish Gipsy). They almost raise the roof of the West Road Concert Hall, surely designed for less ebullient pieces. Its joyous, exciting and moving, and although it probably won’t sound quite as riveting on CD, watch out for the recording that was made at this performance.
How do you follow that? Well, there are worse ways than with the Mozart Requiem – the choir having, in the interval, changed their Flamenco-red tops for sombre black. For the singers this must have been like having a lie-down after the wild excitement of the earlier work, and their smooth but crisp sound was superb.
As were the soloists, in particular two young singers who surely have great futures ahead of them. Sri Lankan soprano Kishani Jayasinghe looks as exquisite as she sounds, and that’s saying something. Having arrived in the UK in 1998 she has gained a Master’s degree in International Commercial Law and is now in her first year of the Opera Course at the Royal Academy of Music. Watch this space. Andrew Ashwin (baritone), a member of the prestigious Choir of the Chapel Royal, St James, looks far too slight to have such a sonorous voice but produces it without apparent effort, the tone soft but penetrating and very, very beautiful. Julia Batchelor (mezzo-soprano) and Robert Carlin (tenor) are better established singers completing an impressive line-up.
Musical Director David Temple is obviously the driving force behind the Hertfordshire Chorus, and all power to him. He it was that commissioned Land Of Light, he it was who held it all together while bouncing on the podium (good thing his shirt wasn’t tucked in during the first half of the concert – it certainly wouldn’t have stayed that way for long) – and he it was who shaped the beautiful and inspiring sound for the Requiem. That serene sound was especially moving following the short silence requested by David Temple, in memory of all those who suffered in the London bombings two nights earlier.