The centrepiece of this one-off concert was ‘Jonah’, a new oratorio by Ian Fletcher. But the evening as a whole was devoted to music inspired by the sea, represented in the first half by three composers of highly contrasted characters – Mendelssohn, Wagner and Sullivan. The National Symphony Orchestra put their toes in the water a little tentatively in the opening swells of ‘The Hebrides Overture’, but this evocative work soon began to exercise its spell on the audience. Indeed, just as much as Britten’s ‘Young Person’s Guide’, this work beautifully showcases the picture-painting powers of each section of the orchestra in sequence, with some especially blustery showers from the brass in the more animated sections. Next up were three segments from Wagner’s ‘The Flying Dutchman’ that introduced three of our soloists. Katerina Mina, resplendent in emerald green, offered a plangent and intense performance of ‘Senta’s Ballad’ where the famous themes of the overture are set against a declamatory statement of the Dutchman’s dilemma. This was well matched by Henry Waddington’s elegantly resonant delivery of Daland’s aria, and concluded by Ashley Riches joining Mina in the key duet where Senta’s love and redemption of the Dutchman is made manifest. All these numbers have tough demands which were well met by the singers with some support from the LSO chorus where needed. A couple of items of lighter fare from ‘Pinafore’ and ‘Pirates’ reminded the audience that the sea can be as much fun and adventure as grand tragedy.

Oratorio is a not a genre that often attracts composers these days but this new work by Ian Fletcher is a remarkable achievement that needs further performances before its qualities can be properly appreciated. It lasts nearly an hour, divided into four sections which set the two main stories that make up the Book of Jonah – his dramatic swallowing and re-emergence from the belly of a whale and his mission to Nineveh to call on the city to repent of its debauched way of life. There are large forces – four soloists, a full orchestra, chorus and children’s chorus. There are of course also whale-sized predecessors to contend with in the form of famous works by Britten (‘Noye’s Fludde’) and Walton (‘Belshazzar’s Feast’), among others.

What is particularly impressive is that Fletcher’s new work establishes its own individual identity early on and sustains it through to the end. The orchestral palette is broad, beginning with a delicate solo harp but quickly progressing through to elaborately concerted pictorial effects with an abundance of jaunty percussion. The choral writing is equally varied, with complex contrapuntal structures alternately with more intimate unaccompanied sections. A particular delight is the children’s chorus, here placed in the balcony of Cadogan Hall, with its gleeful depiction of ‘lascivious Nineveh.’ The four movements have a symphonic layout to them with the middle two acting as a slow movement and scherzo contrasting with the outer movements which present a greater variety of moods and themes.

Jonah - Theme of the Sea by Tim Hochstrasser - International Theatre Reviews

Photography by Robert Garbolinksi

In the first section, ‘Disobedience’ which takes us through to Jonah’s encounter with the whale, Mina puts an authoritative stamp on the enhanced recitative of the Narrator’s role, and Waddington and Morgan Pearse, make notable interventions as God and the ship’s Captain. Ashley Riches really comes into his own in the second movement, ‘The Belly of the Fish’, which is Jonah’s meditation and repentance inside the whale, accompanied by a warmly glowing, brassy orchestral foundation. ‘Obedience’ is the real choral showpiece moment that I would love to have heard again as an encore to appreciate its synchopated variety in more and repeated detail. The final movement, ‘Mercy’ gave me a little pause for a number of reasons. Firstly it ended well before the end of the printed text in the programme which suggests it may still be work in progress – often the way with world premieres. But also the fragmented nature of the story makes a bold and unified conclusion hard to come by. The saving of Nineveh, Jonah’s peevishness in the face of God, the appearance and withering of Jonah’s gourd and the prophecy of Christ’s death and resurrection is a miscellany of events and information it is hard to frame, though Fletcher does summon up a truly eloquent peroration.

However, this really only adds to the arguments in favour of further performances which will allow for more work on the ending and the resolution of some of these outstanding issues. Conductor John Andrews coordinated these substantial forces with considerable skill. The history of music is littered with notorious first performances that have gone off the rails, whereas this was an outstanding well-oiled success that left us wanting more.

By Tim Hochstrasser

Photography by Robert Garbolinksi

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