Arts & Culture Music Other-Feature of the week

The Bach Choir join forces with the Philharmonia Orchestra to perform world premiere

  • May 12, 2024
  • 4 min read
The Bach Choir join forces with the Philharmonia Orchestra to perform world premiere

Thursday 16 May 2024, 19:30
Royal Festival Hall

Roderick Williams Cusp WORLD PREMIERE
Elgar The Dream of Gerontius

Jennifer Johnston mezzo-soprano
Daniel Norman tenor
Roderick Williams baritone

David Hill conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra
The Bach Choir

To celebrate Musical Director David Hill’s 25th anniversary with the Choir on Thursday, 16th May, The Bach Choir will join forces with the Philharmonia Orchestra to perform the world premiere of a new commission by Roderick Williams, Cusp, alongside Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius at the Royal Festival Hall for their season finale concert. Williams has collaborated with poet and scholar Rommi Smith on the libretto for the new work, which considers what it is like to wait alongside someone in their final moments. On the night, he will sing the Priest in The Dream of Gerontius and a solo part in his own work. Williams is one of the country’s best-loved singers, chosen by HM The King to perform at the Coronation. Frequently appearing with The Bach Choir as a soloist, he is well placed to get the best out of this 200-strong ensemble.

Williams was invited by The Bach Choir to write a piece to be a prequel to Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. Whilst Elgar’s work is the story of one person dying and their soul going into purgatory, Cusp is about the people who remain behind. Williams and Smith conducted interviews with several choir members who have experience of palliative care and collated these testimonies into an anonymised libretto, which in turn hands over to the narrative of Elgar and Cardinal Newman’s vision. Cusp will literally segue into The Dream of Gerontius on the evening through a soundscape recorded in an ICU ward.

Unlike Elgar’s work, Cusp is not a specifically religious piece, as Williams explains: “Cusp is written from a much broader standpoint. It is not religious, it is universal, as I expect we will all experience grief and bereavement at some point. It might sound strange to say this, but if we are lucky, we will all experience grief when we lose someone we love. That is part of human existence.”

Smith’s poem is in four sections which represent the seasons. They begin in Autumn and end with Summer, which symbolises healing. While the poems do explore grief, they do so from all sorts of different angles. Williams comments: “There are so many different aspects of bereavement, and there’s a lot of light amongst the shade.”

“I think the most important thing for the audience to hear is the words. To take them away and consider them as individuals and amongst their families. I would love Cusp to prompt conversations about this often-challenging topic.”
Roderick Williams on Cusp

This season finale concert, which celebrates Musical Director David Hill’s 25th anniversary season with the Choir, holds significance as The Dream of Gerontius was the first work Hill conducted upon succeeding Sir David Willcocks in the post in 1998. Cardinal Newman’s poem tells the story of the end of an old man’s life and his soul’s subsequent journey towards God. The poem was a well-known and much-loved work in its own right by the time Elgar came to set it to music in 1900. From it, he created his greatest choral work – if not the greatest by any English composer. Writing for two choirs, soloists, orchestra and organ, Elgar composed music that seemed to come from the depths of his own soul. Acclaimed tenor Daniel Norman sings the moving title role, and Jennifer Johnston is the Angel who supports him on his journey.

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