12th-century Sufi mystic

Three Choirs Festival | Hereford Cathedral
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The Independent Culture

Otherworld, A joint millennium commission by the Three Choirs Festival and The Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota, provided a highlight at this year's concert series in Hereford. Inspired by pictures from the Hubble telescope, composer Judith Bingham has brought together a wide range of texts which span the centuries, illustrating spiritual journeys and the search for Truth and God.

Otherworld, A joint millennium commission by the Three Choirs Festival and The Plymouth Music Series of Minnesota, provided a highlight at this year's concert series in Hereford. Inspired by pictures from the Hubble telescope, composer Judith Bingham has brought together a wide range of texts which span the centuries, illustrating spiritual journeys and the search for Truth and God.

The first movement, a setting of a text by Rumi, the 12th-century Sufi mystic, about the difficult journey of self-discovery through God, has an inexorable, ritualistic feel to it. Dramatic strokes from the timpanist, like a hortator on an ancient galley, added to a sense of spectacular primeval ceremony. The following movement, using a text by Rumi about the stars, is more ethereally scored, drifting through time in its dreamily hypnotic organ ripples and quirky clarinet gurgles.

The third movement, a portrait of Orion the Hunter, contains a text by the composer, spoken in canon by the male chorus. Brass, organ, timpani and percussion set up a dynamic and violent chase. A wind machine leads to an extended setting of an ancient Egyptian poem about God which begins with subtle scoring for strings and tubular bells and uses an off-stage chorus to celestial effect. The movement builds to a jubilant, hymn-like conclusion - the work's core and fulcrum.

The following treatment of a short poem by the Emperor Hadrian includes improvisatory-style organ arpeggios, solid brass choir statements and bold timpani strokes. A piccolo initiates the final setting, a translation by Jerome Rothenberg of a Passamaquoddy Indian ritual. The score becomes increasingly mystic and Holstian, with the closing pages, bright and dance-like, providing that rarest and bravest of commodities in contemporary music, a genuinely happy ending.

Otherworld is a substantial work (lasting about 35 minutes), and instantly communicative. Roy Massey, conducting the Festival Chorus and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, gave the piece a solid first performance, while leaving room for future readings to draw out the myriad magical elements in the score with even greater empathy.

Another work receiving its premiere, Kenneth Leighton's compact and intimate Concerto for Oboe and Strings, was written in 1953 but became overtaken by the composer's subsequent works. The soloist's opening rhapsodic theme establishes the prevailing mood of the concerto (a mercurial juxtaposition of the lyrically contemplative and the intensely passionate) while the central lento molto is the emotional core of the work: soloist Virginia Shaw expertly charted the music's brooding inner landscape. A brief but enjoyably skittish finale brings this eloquent work to a satisfying close. The Bournemouth strings, under Paul Daniel provided a sympathetic accompaniment for Virginia Shaw, whose musicianship shone through in this belated but welcome addition to the genre.

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