This article by Rowena Swith appeared in the Glasgow Herald on March 9, 2006. A review of the concert by Keith Bruce appears below this article.

It was in 2002 that two former choral scholars from Clare College, Cambridge, spending Christmas in Jerusalem, one studying, the other visiting, had the idea of persuading musician friends from back home to come to the region and give concerts aimed at fostering links between Israeli and Palestinian musicians.

Most unlikely-sounding projects never make it beyond idea stage, but with plenty of determination – and even more planning – the Choir of London was formed. In December 2004, the group gave its inaugural concert in London, the next day it travelled to the Middle East for a week of concerts and workshops in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Though it isn’t the first such group to take music to one of the world’s trouble zones in the belief of music’s capacity to transcend social barriers and help build bridges between communities, what is notable about the Choir of London and its companion orchestra is that it is a voluntary organisation made up of professional musicians, all of whom give their time and expertise for free – which can mean a considerable sacrifice for the average freelance singer or player.

“One of the ironies of being a professional musician is that the things that are best remunerated are often easy and not particularly fulfilling,” says conductor Jeremy Summerly, who has been involved with the choir since its inaugural concert. “On the other hand, everything the Choir of London does is incredibly fulfilling, except that you don’t make any money from it.” While staying in Jerusalem, the choir and orchestra worked on both sides of the divide, singing in Ramallah, in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and working with Palestinian and Israeli musicians of all ages and backgrounds. The choice of repertoire for such a project was always going to be important and one work that assumed particular significance was the Lament for Jerusalem, by John Tavener.

Commissioned in 2002 by an Australian organisation that promotes the involvement of young people in the arts, the piece is dedicated to “all Australian young men and women striving to make a difference in the performing arts” – appropriate sentiments for the aspirations of the Choir of London. Described by the composer as a mystical love song, it is a typically meditative, quasi-religious Tavener work, which brings together texts from the Christian, Judaic and Islamic traditions, placing them in the melting pot of Jerusalem.

The original version was scored for enormous forces, and an early coup for the organisers of the Choir of London was persuading Tavener to create a reduced arrangement that could be performed by the group going to Jerusalem. This version, which Summerly believes in some ways surpasses the original because the greater transparency increases the impact of the music, has subsequently been recorded by the choir and was released by the Naxos label at the beginning of this month.

The release is being marked with two concerts, the first tonight at St John’s, in Smith Square, London, the other on Saturday in St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh. Tavener’s piece forms half the programme, alongside a new work by young New York-based British composer Tarik O’Regan, Triptych, the first movement of which was written for the Choir of London’s inaugural concert, and a pair of motets by Renaissance composers William Byrd and Phillipe de Monte, setting the psalm By the waters of Babylon – the same text with which Tavener’s Lament begins.

The concerts also see the launch of a bursary scheme that will enable young Palestinian musicians to attend summer schools in the UK; part of the choir’s ongoing work in the Middle East. In May, it will be working in Gaza; at Easter 2007, it will return to Jerusalem to do a project with Israeli and Palestinian musicians.

Closer to home, in December, the group worked with the choir of London’s Central Synagogue. “We have to be seen to be fair,” says Summerly of the choir’s work. “It’s very easy to give the impression that you’re favouring one side over the other, and it’s crucial to our role that we’re seen not to be doing that.”

This review by Keith Bruce appeared in the Glasgow Herald on March 13th, 2006

Choir of London, St Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh (*****)

Perhaps it is the perception of piety that surrounds composer John Tavener, but any attempt at informality of presentation by the very youthful Choir of London and Orchestra and conductor Jeremy Summerly were doomed.  A good-sized house was in a devout mode, electing to eschew applause until it was embarassed not to give it up.  It was a compliment, of course, and a tribute to the clever construction of the programme, but perhaps a little disconcerting for the performers.

Primarily a launch event for the choir’s benchmark recording of a chamber version of Tavener’s Lament for Jerusalem, the concert had a significant bonus in the premiere of Tarik O’Regan’s Triptych, for which the composer was in the audience.  With solo singing of moving purity by soprano Isabelle Adams and filigree harmonic playing from the violins, O’Regan’s settings of some very familiar texts is a composite triumph, from the haunting use of Milton to the funky syncopation that accompanies Wordsworth.

Naxos should book studio time for Summerly and his voices for this piece very soon.  Sales of the Tavener disc will help fund a bursary scheme for Palestinian musicians and Sir John’s piece reflects the religious diversity of the city of Jerusalem.

This is Tavener at his most ecumenical and accessible, but requires playing and singing of great delicacy and dynamic control, yea, even unto the trumpets and tubular bells.  Repeating subtly altering musical material in a captivating structure in which soprano Angharad Gruffydd Jones had a crucial pivotal role, counter-tenor Peter Crawford was a model of presence and projection, and the chorus’s role is often literally that of reiterating a refrain, Lament focuses attention, inescapably and wonderfully, on its details.  An experience to treasure – and roundly applaud.


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