Dear Friends,

Ian Fletcher put the pandemic to good use with his composition of a new oratorio, entitled Jonah. The world premiere of this new piece was performed at the Cadogan Hall in a remarkable evening of music dedicated to the sea. Fletcher is a lawyer in Scotland and England, but classical music has always played a very important role in his life; he is professionally qualified as a pianist, organist, and choral conductor. Unsurprisingly, Jonah had many moments of choral excellence but more of that later.

The conductor John Andrews, a Cambridge graduate, is the principal guest conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra and has conducted opera widely, including at many summer festival venues. His was the most difficult role, pulling together courageously the music of Mendelssohn, Wagner, Gilbert & Sullivan and Fletcher, in a 2-hour concert at the Cadogan Hall. Andrews worked with the London Symphony Chorus and its Argentinian chorus director, Mariana Rosas. Together with Patrick Barratt, the artistic director of the internationally renowned Farnham Youth Choir, Rosas worked extremely well with Andrews bringing together Fletcher’s complex chorus score.

All the pieces of the programme were relevant in one way or another to the rise and fall of the Sea. Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture allowed the orchestra some tentative warm up space before the main section of the first half came into play, with arias and a duet from Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. The British – Cypriot soprano, Katerina Mina, walked on stage dressed in deep ‘storm sea’ green to sing Senta’s Ballad. The intensity of Mina’s outstanding fiery performance kept the audience mesmerised and set the scene for the rest of the evening.

The British international baritone, Henry Waddington followed with a great rendition of Daland’s aria and thereafter, the former Jette Parker Young Artist, bass-baritone Ashley Riches sung The Dutchman in his main duet with Senta. Both he and Mina were in splendid form, with Mina’s powerful vocal presence meeting with ease the very tough demands required from this duet. Thereafter, Riches amusingly tackled the lighter Gilbert & Sullivan music from HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance.

The second half of the programme was dedicated to the world premiere of Fletcher’s oratorio Jonah. The work itself is divided into four sections:

  1. Disobedience
  2. The Belly of the Fish
  3. Obedience
  4. Mercy

It reflects the stories from the Book of Jonah which are so well known – Jonah is thrown overboard by the ship’s crew to appease God and calm the storm; he is swallowed by a whale but reappears with his mission for God to seek repentance from the City of Nineveh for their sins. Jonah’s preaching makes a huge difference in securing this repentance and God’s mercy prevails.

The whole piece is made up by a varied shape of orchestral writing – always musical – with Fletcher using percussion to sometimes quite alarming effect. The four movements are musically contrasting but with a clear symphonic theme throughout. The first and fourth movements show greater strength and variety, with the middle two movements showing more choral elements, both lyrical and dramatic.

Both choruses sung superbly, meeting the constant complex demands of the score. But it was the music for the children’s chorus that joyously took pride of place in the third section of the oratorio, Obedience.

The principal’s roles were all well sung. Mina as the Narrator constantly sets the scene with her substantial soprano. She was always matched by Riches as Jonah, and Waddington as God. The Australian baritone Morgan Pearse eloquently intervenes as the ship’s Captain and the King.

Overall, it was an outstanding evening, and the saving of Nineveh is Jonah’s ultimate triumph. In some ways, this is reflected in Mina’s change of frock for the oratorio, where the storm colour is replaced by a golden sun draped dress reflective of the calmness that prevails with God’s mercy.

By David Buchler

Photography by Robert Garbolinksi

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