MUSIC THEATRE War Child Peterborough

Tuesday 22 April 1997 23:02

This latest project of the remarkable National Youth Music Theatre was commissioned as part of the Year of Opera and Music Theatre for performance in four cathedrals in the East of England. Peterborough's wide Romanesque spaces provided an awesome setting for the premiere of a piece involving over 100 young performers; and also a challenge - that of making any kind of music theatre work in such circumstances.

Starting originally from Brecht's The Children's Crusade, Wendy Cook, Jeremy James Taylor and composer Richard Taylor have devised a meditation on the experiences of children in wartime that aims to be "universal and ageless". Fragments from letters, poems and diaries are combined with the mythical tale of a city and its destruction; echoes of the terror of the wartime ghettos are answered with affirmation and hope in the words of the Psalms. Taylor's mostly lyrical music, reminiscent of the diatonic purities of such figures as Finzi or Aaron Copland, sounded wonderful in the cathedral acoustic, and the piece would have worked perfectly as an oratorio without the distracting need to perceive and understand what was happening on stage. Medieval churches were not designed with sightlines in mind (Britten took this into account, using a raked stage in his Church Parables), and admirable though the diction was, if the audience had not had copies of the libretto, the words would have been very difficult to follow.

When gestures, both theatrical and musical, were strong and simple - like the emergence of the children from swirling mists at the start, or the superb unaccompanied treble solo at the beginning of Part 3 - the effect was powerful. Attempts at more complex movement and intricate, layered music tended simply to be lost in the vastness of the space. Perhaps a clue lies in the composer's confessed "abandoning of any linear story or plot". Surely, in such circumstances, the one thing that is needed is a clear, simple story line?

In its absence, the piece tended to break down into its component parts; touching or striking as many of these were, somehow they didn't seem to add up to the intended greater musico-theatrical sum. That said, the NYMT's young performers were as ever impressive in their total commitment and professionalism; the singing was remarkable, with great use made of different vocal textures - solemn chorales and the warm sound of a trio of young baritones contrasted admirably with some excellent solo performances by the treble (Mica Penniman) in the Psalm setting, the "letter soloist" (Jean Barton) in the heart-rending message from a ghetto child to her mother, and an unexpected but outstanding young counter-tenor (Richard Scott) as Witness 2.

The orchestra was splendid, under the incisive direction of Jonathan Gill, and the massive amount of work that had obviously gone into the whole project was rewarded by an enthusiastic reception from a capacity audience - or should it be congregation?

Further performances: Sat 26 April, 2.30/8pm Ely Cathedral (booking: 01223 357851); Sat 10 May, 3pm/8pm Chelmsford Cathedral (01245 606505); Sat 17 May, 3pm/7.30 St Edmundsbury Cathedral, Bury St Edmunds (01284 769505)

Laurence Hughes

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