Saturday night at the Barbican Centre was anything but ordinary. Performing two works by composers John Adams and Roberto Gerhard, the Crouch End Festival Chorus (CEFC) and London Orchestra da Camera, conducted by David Temple, achieved harmonic brilliance and chilling dissonance in a single evening.

Marco Borggreve
Marco Borggreve

The first half of the night was devoted to John Adams’ Harmonium. Written for chorus and a large orchestra, the entire piece unfolded like a wave of sound, washing over the audience. Set to three poems—John Donne’s Negative Love or The Nothing and Emily Dickinson’s Because I Could Not Stop for Death and Wild Nights—the Crouch End Festival Chorus and the London Orchestra da Camera achieved wild bursts of sound as well as soft, melodious build-ups. A perfect example of minimalist music, one could even hear Steve Reich’s influences on the piece and trace various musical themes as they were repeated a multitude of ways, both rhythmically and tonally. The end result: a rich layering of sounds that perfectly reflected themes of love, sorrow and erotic passion embedded in the poetry.

In stark contrast, The Plague by Roberto Gerhard was discordant and chilling, with very few moments of tenderness. Adapted from Nobel prize-winning novelist Albert Camus’ book, La Peste, Gerhard’s concise musical drama employed unique musical techniques, alongside a massive orchestra, choir and narrator, to tell the chilling story of a French Algerian town invaded by a lethal rat-borne plague.

During the interval, a variety of props appeared on stage: a 1940s desk, glass whiskey bottle, hat stand, telephone, stethoscope and leather-bound journal. And when conductor David Temple arrived on stage, Paul McGann (Doctor Rieux) followed him dressed in a three-piece suit and hat, already in character and ready to tell the dramatic story.

When the concert began, the choir acted as the townspeople and the orchestra served to illuminate the drama inherent in the story, with particular harrowing effects. The accordion, for instance, was present throughout the piece, playing clusters of notes made to sound like human lungs wheezing. At one point, six percussionists played on wood blocks and metal rods, creating a sound like the chattering teeth of rats. Even the choir sounded distressed. Towards the end of the piece with the opening of the town’s gates, the choir did not rejoice. Rather, their shrill cries revealed their deep-seated fear: that the disease lay dormant and could reappear at any time. Without a cheerful resolution, the choir released an outpouring of grief and horror, and the orchestra concluded with one final, dissonant chord that rang out until the sound ran dry and the lights faded to dark.

Although the concert left audience members with a feeling of unease, it cannot be ignored that the whole programme pervaded our senses with ecstasy, drama and grief. A provocative performance, the Crouch End Festival Chorus and London Orchestra da Camera proved both terrifying and beautiful.