World premiere days are lifetime occasions for composers, but the sensation of hearing your brand new work exactly as you first imagined it – in the golden glow of inspiration – is even rarer. The rehearsal period can often be a conceptual struggle as you come to terms with performance problems, themselves so often these days caused by too little, or no, rehearsal time.
I’m glad to say that problems of this kind were not even glimpsed on the horizon during the week I spent with the BBC Singers and Nash Ensemble, preparing my new oratorio In the Land of Uz for its Proms premiere at Southwark Cathedral. I have conductor David Hill to thank for this. Even with a huge, challenging Palestrina Mass to prepare for the same concert, David’s instinct was always to spend more time on the new work, to inquire more deeply within it. At a reception after the concert, his last as Principal Conductor with the Singers, he was asked to mention his most cherished memories of ten years with the group; and immediately started talking about composers, and the programmes he had done, in Aldeburgh and Orkney, of Britten and Maxwell Davies. Later on, David (who, as a cathedral musician and symphonic chorus director, may not be initially perceived as a 'new music person') said to me that he believes contemporary music is vital for the growth of all musicians, which is why he has always placed it at the centre of his career.
One aspect of the performance which delighted me, and which I never thought would be allowed for broadcasting reasons, was the fulfilment of my wish to dispose the six instrumentalists in the piece around the Cathedral, rather than having them sit in a bored-looking group in front of the chorus. But David, together with producer Jonathan Manners, was way ahead of me. So it was that Job (sung by wonderful Adrian Thompson, a plain, honest figure reacting patiently to the terrors in the text) was towered over throughout the piece by the almost Pre-Raphaelite presence of violist William Coleman, standing protectively at his side. Towards the back of the cathedral, organist Stephen Farr and trumpeter Huw Morgan were hidden amidst the complicated architecture of Southwark’s fantastical organ, thundering away at appropriate moments. Meanwhile on stage left, things appeared a little more louche with the alto ladies reposing next to soprano sax and string bass. These little ongoing tableaux seemed to add something friendly and human at the edges of the work’s intensely serious theme, the possibility and necessity of resilience in the face of evil.