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Rising Stars

World premiere of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Scenes from the Wild. Southwark Cathedral, London (online broadcast)

Paul Conway



Cheryl Frances Hoads

Commissioned for the City of London Sinfonia's 50th anniversary season, Cheryl Frances-Hoad's dramatic song-cycle, Scenes from the Wild, for tenor and chamber orchestra (2021) was premiered in London’s Southwark Cathedral on 25 November 2021. Soloist William Morgan and the City of London Sinfonia were conducted by Geoffrey Paterson. The text, by librettist Amanda Holden is based on Dara McAnulty's 2020 memoir, 'Diary of a Young Naturalist'.

The diary covers the teenage Dara's real-life experiences during the year 2018-19, such as his autism attracting the hatred of school bullies. It also celebrates his love of all flora and fauna, and his pain at their destruction results in conservationism and activism. The tenor’s role reflects McAnulty, and the orchestral musicians paint a vivid picture of the changing seasons of the natural world around him, a series of eloquent solo passages representing various birds and animals throughout the 26 songs.

The piece begins, not with music or recitation, but with the recorded sound of a blackbird singing, a statement of intent that Nature is at the forefront of this project. The tenor soloist addresses the audience in character as McAnulty and a sustained note on double bass signals the end of the prologue and the start of the first song.

Orchestral forces are modest (three violins, three violas, three cellos, double bass, flute/piccolo, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, trumpet and percussion), but the richness and variety of the instrumentation, including a wonderfully delicate application of percussion instruments and an imaginative deployment of string effects, including harmonics and strumming, ensures that the ear is constantly intrigued by the changing sonorities. The inherent spontaneity of the writing ensures there is a freshness to the players’ responses to their solos and ensembles throughout the piece.

There was a theatrical element to the presentation, as both players and stage were festooned with autumn leaves, and a dynamic aspect, too, as both tenor and wind players moved around during the course of the piece. The vocal writing was varied, from declamation to lyrical arioso. Cheryl Frances-Hoad's musical voice is sufficiently flexible and varied to embrace an array of different emotional states and she is always herself, even when warmly invoking the spirit of Britten in the second song, entitled 'Seabirds and Seals', with its ecstatic, wide-ranging vocal line and whooshing, arpeggiated wind figures.

William Morgan rose magnificently to the many challenges of his role, making the narrator a distinctive character with real emotions, from frustration and anger at humanity’s cruelty to awe and wonder at the beauty of nature. Addressing the audience directly, with scarcely a pause in the work’s 80-minute duration, Morgan succeeded in holding the interest at all times, yet never drawing attention away from the important orchestral contributions.

Geoffrey Paterson maintained the narrative flow, ensuring that the music unfolded cogently, while allowing the players space to perform their many solo passages and taking his lead from the tenor's ever-changing dramatic energy. Cheryl Frances-Hoad has gifted the City of London Sinfonia a deeply-felt, deftly written song-cycle that also serves as a dramatic showcase for tenor. I hope there will be many further performances of Scenes from the Wild, perhaps developing its inherently dramatic aspects, and a recording would also be highly desirable so listeners can savour fully the score's numerous subtleties of instrumentation.

Photo:www.cherylfranceshoad.co.uk

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