An epic and acclaimed work gets its UK premiere tonight as the London 2012 Arts Festival begins. Christopher Morley reports.
I’m not convinced as to why “kulcha” should be dragged into the rampant commercialisation of what nowadays passes for the once-noble Olympic Games - perhaps we should have wall-to-wall performances of Erik Satie’s ‘Gymnopedies’ and be done with it -- but nevertheless tonight the London 2012 Arts Festival kicks off, not in the metropolis (the torch hasn’t made its tortuous way there yet), but in Londonderry, Stirling, Bowness-on-Windermere, and Birmingham.
The event here in Symphony Hall is the UK premiere of ‘Weltethos’ by the world-renowned Sutton Coldfield-born composer Jonathan Harvey, and which is a vast meditation on world peace. Principal guest conductor Edward Gardner directs the CBSO and 250 massed voices of the CBSO Chorus, Children’s and Youth Choruses, assisted by associate conductor Michael Seal; the actor Samuel West provides narration.
‘Weltethos’ was commissioned by CBSO chorus director, Simon Halsey (also chief conductor of the Berlin Radio Choir) and ex-CBSO music director Sir Simon Rattle (now conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra) to compose a 90-minute piece work for Choir and Orchestra which was premiered in Berlin with the Philharmonic Orchestra and Berlin Radio Choir in October 2011.
Simon Rattle, its conductor then, and Edward Gardner, conductor tonight, have both personally expressed to me their admiration for the piece, as has Simon Halsey.
“The overarching theme of this new work is world peace, also a major theme of the Olympic movement”, Halsey continues, “so it is absolutely perfect for this concert.
“It’s a complex work, in six movements and with two conductors, so will be quite a spectacular concert.
“We are looking forward to it immensely. And as Jonathan was born locally, it is also fitting that the UK premiere of the work will be on his home turf.”
Founded on texts from six of the world’s greatest religions -- Confucianism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity -- ‘Weltethos’ shares with the audience a complex yet heartfelt message of balance and harmony through layers of German text (written by theologian Hans Kung), traditional writings, and sounds evoking each of the six religions.
“This is a thought-provoking, delicately woven piece which brings together the world’s great cultures in the search for goodness through our shared spiritual humanity”, says CBSO chief executive Stephen Maddock. “Whilst epic in scale, it conveys a tender but powerful message about moral purpose, through which we hope to bring the London 2012 Festival to life, in Birmingham. We’re thrilled to be giving the UK premiere of this work by one of the world’s best contemporary composers.”
And London 2012 Festival Director Ruth Mackenzie adds her own recommendation. “Sir Simon Rattle commissioned ‘Weltethos’, and I heard the first-ever performance in Berlin – it is a huge and ambitious piece which lives up to the themes of World Peace it tackles, and offers the huge orchestral and choral forces a challenge that is thrilling for them and audiences alike.