Cadogan Hall rides the waves, as the sea dominates a glorious and varied orchestral and choral programme, with a very special concert entitled Jonah, Theme of the Sea. All the items in the first half with nautical references were indeed a voyage of discovery, but our destination was the world premiere of the oratorio, Jonah.

First, Mendelsohn’s Hebrides Overture, inspired by the composer’s trip to the British Isles was followed by scenes from Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer. Then G&S favourites, Fair Moon to Thee I Sing from HMS Pinafore and For I Am a Pirate King from Pirates of Penzance, appropriately filled the first half of the evening.

John Andrews conducted the National Symphony Orchestra, and the combined voices of the London Symphony Chorus and the Farnham Youth Choir with verve and vigour.

The second half of the programme premiered a new oratorio based on the biblical story of Jonah, composed by Ian Fletcher, a former city lawyer. You may ask, how does a legal mind convert from law to that of a composer? Is it perhaps the meticulous attention to detail, the clarity of the narrative or the ability to see the horizon on the other side?

A friend and contemporary of mine from the Royal Academy of Music, Roxanna Panufnik (recently commissioned by King Charles to write a piece for his Coronation) describes her role as a composer being like that of an architect: “You have the bare structure knowing your parameters and then you carefully piece it together bit by bit.” Fletcher has done just that with his oratorio Jonah. On this occasion, we were perfect witnesses.

The oratorio is divided into four parts: disobedience, obedience, mercy, and repentance, each section cleverly conveying the story straight from the Bible. Fletcher moved effortlessly from one to another. His rich orchestration and colourful vocal writing clearly reflected these subjects. The final chorus, in exuberant declamation, drew a comparison with the governance at the time of the resurrection and the actions of the people of Nineveh who had repented their sins. The realisation that Jonah’s preaching had made a huge difference in securing this repentance was a revelation and helps us all with the feeling of contrition or regret for past wrongs.

Using a moderate sized orchestra of 47 players with an extensive percussion section, including popping champagne corks (!), soloists and a gentleman’s choir from the London Symphony Chorus plus two children’s choirs from the Farnham Youth Choir, this was a mighty piece in every sense.

Written during the pandemic, Fletcher has used his musical skills and ambition to create something on a large scale, similar perhaps to the symphonies of Mahler or Walton’s cantata Belshazzar’s Feast, though nine minutes shorter by comparison.

Making a Splash - By Helen AstridHelen Astrid

In conversation with Ian, he gave his musical influences to be: “Bach. Walton!”. This was apparent in the contrapuntal sections of the choral writing and in his use of counterpoint, harmonic, and motivic organisation. The last few bars of the work indeed bringing to mind the finale in Belshazzar’s Feast in the often-thick texture created by a rousing brass section.

Ashley Riches as Jonah was in superb voice as were fellow baritone Morgan Pearse and Henry Waddington with his rich bass. It was refreshing that the role of the narrator, usually given to a male singer, was here assigned to a soprano, Katerina Mina, who sang with poised assurance.

The writing for the singers pushed them to their uppermost limits at times and there was occasional over-powering crescendi from the orchestra. Despite that there was some sensitive word-painting aided by a fine libretto by Jeffrey Lewis.

Perhaps this work is a reflection on some of life’s needs today, particularly as war ravages parts of Europe. Fletchers’ music clearly reflects this, and its accessibility is a revelation on its own and as recognisable as the Bible story of Jonah is to many people.

It was surprising that Britten was not included in the programme, given that his music is saturated with references to the sea having spent most of his life by the cold shores at Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Elgar’s Sea Pictures was a contender also though maybe we will hear it at the next concert.

We eagerly await the next choral work from Ian Fletcher.

Review from by Helen Astrid, May 2023

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