Ona’s Flood

Commissioned by Bradford on Avon Community music. A companion piece for Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, first performances 12 + 13 July 2013. For 3 solo voices (Mezzo, Tenor, Bass-Baritone) with Adult Choir, Junior Voices and instrumental ensemble (String Quintet, Recorder, Handbells, Organ, Piano, Timpani, Percussion).

Performed by Vox Holloway, March 29 2015

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programme

“The fact that the music was so beautiful, unusual and inventive and the words were all so heartfelt and were about something so important was very moving. The whole event with all the participants coming together and growing in confidence throughout, made it a very special evening. Simon Schama was charming and charmed. He said to me he was going to badger a contact to have it at the Proms. I have to agree with him - it'd make a wonderful piece with even bigger resources. You made a patron very proud.”
- Lee Hall (patron)

“What an inspiring occasion and uplifting experience to hear those choirs give their all, and to hear your beautifully crafted music.”
- Harry Bicket (conductor of The English Concert)

“Bravo both - a great enterprise carried out with Schwung, panache (what's the Spanish for that?). I was truly moved by the spirit behind it and by the achievement itself. I do believe that, in an age when we no longer bond with each other in communities as we used to, you have managed to bring people together in a quite remarkable way. You only had to hear the reception at the end to realise that you had touched the hearts of all who came along to that local church on a Sunday evening.
I hope you are proud and happy (Harvey, did I hear a hint of Veni Creator in the opening and closing numbers?), and that you will move on in the creative direction you have taken. And Clara, your words reflected the issues which loom so large today.
God bless, thank you for thinking of asking us along, and here's to the next great one!”
- John Rutter (composer)

Last Sunday found me heading with a light heart to St. Luke’s on Hillmarton Road for a concert by Vox Holloway, my local community choir, of two works composed by their director, Harvey Brough.
If the words ‘community choir’ conjure up images of slightly off-key renderings of ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’ or ‘All in an April evening’, you couldn’t be farther from the reality that is Vox Holloway. I approach an evening of music by Brough and his crew like the child of an eccentric family approaching the presents around a Christmas tree. I know I will find something beautiful, something funny, something disturbing, challenging, charming, surprising … and maybe just a bit scary. But I definitely won’t find anything boring.
The first half of the concert was the premiere of ‘The City under the Sea’, a setting of poems on the theme of flooding, of being overwhelmed by water or life. The second was ‘Ona’s Flood’, part oratorio, part opera, with a libretto by Clara Sanabras about our collective responsibility for global warming.
The 90-strong choir was supplemented by children from Parliament Hill School and William Ellis School. The inclusion of these young voices reinforces the central notion of the choir; after all, what kind of a community choir wouldn’t include local children?
For soloists, the peerless soprano of Sanabras and the powerful, rich tenor of Mark le Brocq were joined by Bevan, a last-minute but brilliant replacement for Nick Garrett. The band was a delightful collection of strings (2 violins, viola, cello and contrabass), recorders, piano, organ, bugles and, heaven help us, hand bells!
What an evening. The overture for ‘City under the Sea’ was an orchestral Tallis-like wall of sound by strings and organ with melodic fragments spontaneously and unpredictably leaping out via brass and bells. It gave the feeling of swelling and surging tides and breakers, setting the emotional foundation for the evening, a sort of cross between a sound picture and a tone poem.
There followed a set of four poems featuring brilliant vocal solos with exhilarating choral and orchestral sweeps. The highlight was the youth choir’s performance of Sanabras’s ‘Infinity Pools’. Hearing these clear young voices sing intelligent and witty lyrics to challenging music, both of which they clearly understood, was a powerful antidote to any danger of patronising their youth. It was quite wonderful.
In ‘Ona’s Flood’, Sanabras’s libretto was more fantastical than surreal, embracing colloquial and idiomatic modern speech, blending the story of a coach-trip and the relationship between two young people with observations about our unquenchable urge to consume combined with our refusal to recognise that we are destroying our world. It sounds grim, but the story includes adventure, whimsy, profound wisdom and moments of sheer comedy.
Both pieces presented a challenge to Vox Holloway and the choir more than met that challenge. I have heard this choir grow in competence and confidence over the last few years and now I have come to expect the level of skill and ability I heard on Sunday evening.
In the past I have detected influences in Brough’s music from British, Irish, American and European folk music, New Orleans jazz, bebop and blues. In these pieces I reckon I spotted some influence from Kurt Weill and perhaps Walt Disney. That said, whatever influences I may fancy I find, Brough’s music is unique, challenging and very satisfying.
- Ian Jentle