On Saturday at St James’s Church, the Nonsuch Singers presented a captivating programme titled “To the Field of Stars”. It was a compelling mix of recent and old music, predominantly works by living composers and composers from the 16th century. It culminated in the première of Gabriel Jackson’s newly commissioned work To the Field of Stars.

The juxtaposition of old and new was effective and touching, unified by the themes of stars and celestial light. The living composers included John Taverner and Arvo Pärt, who self-consciously draw on older music, and were thus right at home amongst their 16th-century brethren. The other living composers – Osvaldo Golijov, Jonathan Dove, and Gabriel Jackson – were not audibly influenced by 16th-century music in the same way, but their works nonetheless fit well into the evening’s flow. Conductor Tom Bullard deserves much credit for putting together such a diverse yet cohesive programme.

The choir performed beautifully throughout, with a winning combination of clarity of line, richness of sound, and clear diction. All of the soloists – sopranos Jenny Chant, Elena Anastopoulus, and Rowena Clewlow, and baritone Jonathan Roderick – were superb. Roderick’s tone in particular combined lightness and fluidity with richness and depth, as he led the ensemble through the sole 19th-century work, Peter Cornelius’ simple, touching Die König. Organist Richard Pearce provided able and tasteful backing on the works that included organ, and had a chance to shine on his own in Dietrich Buextehude’s solo organ work, the Chorale Prelude “Wie Schön Leuchtet der Morgenstern”.

Among the newer works, Jonathan Dove’s Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars was especially riveting. Setting a short text combining verses from Amos and Psalm 139, a repeated refrain on the text “Seek him” was particularly moving, becoming a sort of mantra throughout the work. It evoked some of the hypnotic quality of American minimalism, but with the rich harmony and counterpoint of contemporary British choral writing. It was a fresh and personal synthesis that was deeply tender and affecting. Gabriel Jackson’s Creator of the Stars of Night was a bit more traditional, but similarly effective. The work showed a great flair for melody and mastery of harmonic voicing that made the choir sound maximally rich and full. The work showed that even within a traditional context, there is plenty of room for a composer to find a powerful and personal voice. Golijov’s “Demos Gracias al Señor” (from La Pasión Según San Marcos) featured percussionists Stefan Beckett and Tim Saxby in music rooted in Latin American folk traditions. I was a bit spoiled from having previously heard this piece performed by the Schola Cantorum of Caracas, for whom it was composed, and who sing it in a full-throated chest voice perfectly suited to the piece’s vernacular roots. Nonsuch certainly sang with spirit, but they are a fundamentally different animal. In spite of their best efforts, it fell a bit flat.

Closing the concert was the première of Jackson’s To the Field of Stars. Inspired by pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint James at the Spanish city Santiago de Compostela, the seven-movement work is more a poetic reflection on the idea of pilgrimage than a literal travelogue. The image of campus stellae (“field of stars”) – a possible etymological origin of “Compostela” – is central to the work as well. Jackson drew on an eclectic range of texts, from a medieval pilgrims’ hymn to poetry by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and William Cowper, to a list of star names, to an account of the pilgrimage by US president John Adams.

Percussionists Beckett and Saxby evoked stars and light with handbells, crotales, and glockenspiel, while cellist Kate Gould added intense yet focused counter-melodies. Jackson again displayed his ability to voice chords effectively for choir, as well as his unique melodic sense. His melodies are floating and tantalizingly elusive, taking unexpected twists and turns that are nonetheless eminently satisfying. It’s rare and refreshing to hear a contemporary composer with such a gift for melody.

The sixth movement was especially striking. The choir softly murmured star names against delicately high cello melodies and tinkling crotales, a luminous conjuring of the “field of stars”. It was a magical moment that suspended time, although it would have been even more effective had it been set up better. The music of the first five movements, though quite beautiful, had a certain sameness after a while, and lacked a clear sense of dramatic trajectory. The final seventh movement, unfortunately, was a bit of a miscalculation. Quoting Victoria’s O Quam Gloriosum (which opened the programme), Jackson added his own original counterpoint lines to it. In the abstract, this perhaps seemed like a fitting conclusion, but in practice, the abrupt stylistic shift was jarring and confusing. It might have worked better had Jackson based the music a bit more abstractly on the Victoria, subsuming it more into his own style, or if the Victoria had emerged more gradually. As it was, the stylistic shift just didn’t quite work. All in all, it was nonetheless a very beautiful piece, and a fitting conclusion to a well-planned and well-executed programme.

Nonsuch Singers
Nonsuch Singers