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Mortal and immortal confections

Royal Festival Hall
03/20/2000 -  
Judith Weir We are Shadows
Olivier Messaien Eclairs sur l'au delà

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus, City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus (Juniors)
Simon Rattle (conductor)

David Niven hoped there would be dogs; Olivier Messaien knew there would be songbirds; Judith Weir sees a wryly grinning skull beneath the skin.

We are Shadows, Weir's twenty-minute work for choir, children's choir and orchestra, sets six texts. All reflect on "the impermanence of life" with a kind of sceptical horror: Emily Dickinson's "What Inn is this...", a vision of death as a deserted inn with hidden horrors downstairs, two acerbic inscriptions from Scottish gravestones, two extracts from Chang Tzu in Arthur Waley's translations, and the title text in Latin, inscribed on the Brick Lane Mosque in London. The reflection is perhaps less on the impermanence of life than on our total inability to imagine being dead except as life with an added unnamable horror which might not be justified.

The text settings are all straightforward, often in unison, but Weir's orchestral accompaniments form a febrile, strangely exhilarating macabre dance suite. The first gravestone inscription, a wry precursor of Maynard Keynes ("If life were a thing that monie could buy/The puir could not live and ye rich wold not die") is set with an infectious modal melody, driven on by Scotch snaps that might be cracking bones. The first Chang Tzu poem, on death the transformer, has an obsessive bell-laden "Oriental" pentatonic backing. The second, with its talk of dreams and butterflies, has a more complex, minor-sounding texture of counterpoint. The second gravestone inscription, about dry bones, is introduced with a terrifying drumming of the string players' fingers on their instruments, which sounds like something coming to get you or a violent storm. The final setting of the words "umbra sumus" is the most monumental movement in the work -- Weir notes that it is similar to the finale of a Bach cantata -- suggesting that the only solid thing is illusion.

Weir also notes that her approach in We are shadows is based on that of Buddhist funeral music, which is generally cheerful. It is a kind of baroque pleasure in paradox and undeceiving, in contrast to the look into Gehenna leavened with humour in Louis Andriessen's superficially similar Last days. Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra found the twisted humour in Weir's work, and delivered a surprisingly enjoyable performance.

Humour is not exactly something you associate with Olivier Messaien, or a sense of illusion with a view of life that sees God in everything. But there was something camp, Busby Berkleyish even, about the synchronized percussionists at the start of Eclairs sur l'au delà, and the big-band trombones in the sixth movement, "The seven angels with seven trumpets", that dissolved wonderfully into visceral musical assertions suggesting the sublime and into the pure joy of birdsong.

The only reasonable response was a contented grin.

H.E. Elsom



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