Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at King’s Place review *****

Bang on a Can All Stars, BBC Singers, Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

Kings Place Hall One, 19th January 2019

I had heard a few snippets of Julia Wolfe’s compositions but freely admit this was a bit of a leap into the unknown. Still what I had heard seemed interesting, I was keen to take in a few of the excellent looking concerts programmed as part of the year long Venus Unwrapped season at Kings Place, focussing on women composers, and Anthracite Fields is an acclaimed work that won a Pulitzer Prize.

It is an oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble which was premiered in Philadelphia in 2014 by the Mendelssohn Club Chorus and the Bang On A Can All Stars, Julia Wolfe being on of the founders of BOAC, alongside Michael Gordon and David Lang. It is scored for bass (acoustic and electric and here played by Robert Black), keyboards (Vicky Chow), percussion (David Cossin), cello (Mariel Roberts), guitar/voice (Mark Stewart) and clarinet/bass clarinet (Ken Thomson) and, as well as the choir, also requires the services of a sound engineer (Andrew Cotton) and accompanying visuals (Jeff Sung and Don Cieslik).

The piece is a tribute to those who “persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region”. Julia Wolfe grew up in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania which lies to the South of the coal producing region, Anthracite is the purest form of coal, was mined from the turn of the C19, and by the turn of the C20 the region was powering much of America’s heavy industry. However through the first half of C20 the region declined in importance as the reserves were exhausted and, by the 1960’s, mining had essentially ended. It plays an important role in American industrial and labour history and Ms Wolfe is not the only artist to have explored its legacy. Less than one week later, the Tourist was privileged to see another top drawer, Pulitzer Prize winning, creative work which took inspiration from near this region, Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, based in Reading, Pennsylvania, which, over a century, turned from one of the richest to one of the poorest cities in the USA.

Julia Wolfe herself had previously addressed the plight of the American worker in Steel Hammer, her “art ballad” about the folk hero John Henry. Her text for Anthracite Fields is drawn from various sources, oral histories and interviews (including her own), local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, a list of contemporary daily activities that use coal power and an impassioned political speech by John L Lewis, a past head of the United Mine Workers Union.

It is made up of five movements together lasting just over an hour. In Foundation, a kind of dark chorale, the choir intone the names of miners killed in accidents, but only those named John with one syllable surnames, there being so many who died. It ends with further chant of representative polysyllabic names which give a flavour of the diversity of countries from which the miners emigrated to this small corner of one State. There is also a poetic passage drawn from the geology of coal formation. Breaker Boys takes a series of nervy rhymes and an interview and describes the painful work of the Breaker Boys, children employed to sort debris from the coal as it came down the chutes from the heads of the mine-shafts. Think folk-rock. The third movement Speech takes the aforementioned John L Lewis’s powerful oratory, “if we must grind up human flesh and bones”, sung here by BOACAS veteran Mark Stewart with choral responses. Flowers is inspired by the list of flowers Barbara Powell, literally a coal-miner’s daughter, recited during an interview with Ms Wolfe. It is gentler in tone than the other movements and, over its memorable rhythmic base, the choir explores some haunting harmonies. The last movement is another list, of activities followed by a rhyme about Phoebe Snow, a fictitious NYC socialite created for an advert whose white gown was unsullied during her railway journey, so pure was the coal fuelling the engine.

Now there is nothing difficult about Julia Wolfe’s music in Anthracite Fields. Quite the reverse. It is almost alarming in its immediacy. At its core it is a minimalist work, driven by the dirge-like rhythms laid down by the various members of the ensemble, and it is not afraid of grungy rock’n’roll. There is plenty of instrumental colour and the 20 or so strong choir have plenty of opportunities to show off. Here, in the well-balanced but enclosed acoustic of Kings Place Hall One, initially at least the band had the upper hand but this seem to be corrected through the second half of Foundation, or maybe it my ears adjusting.

It packs a huge emotional punch and there is nothing subtle about its messages. Bearing all this mind, and if you are prepared to be immersed in the concept, music and projections, you are in for a treat, should this return, as it should (this was its UK premiere). I should imagine it would be even more powerful in the version for a larger choir, 150 strong. It certainly deserves a bigger audience than this though I get that this sort of fusion, which is at the core of the Bang on a Can ethos, lies a bit beyond normal musical boundaries.

The Silver Tassie at the Barbican review *****

The Silver Tassie

Barbican Hall, 10th November 2018

  • Mark-Anthony Turnage (composer)
  • Amanda Holden (libretto)
  • Ashley Riches – Harry
  • Sally Matthews – Susie
  • Brindley Sherratt – The Croucher
  • Claire Booth – Mrs Foran
  • Marcus Farnsworth – Teddy
  • Alexander Robin Baker – Barney
  • Louise Alder – Jessie
  • Susan Bickley – Mrs Heegan
  • Mark le Brocq – Sylvester
  • Anthony Gregory – Dr Maxwell/Staff Officer
  • Andre Rupp – Corporal
  • Finchley Children’s Music Group
  • BBC Singers
  • BBC Symphony Orchestra
  • Ryan Wrigglesworth – conductor
  • Kenneth Richardson – stage director

B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. B*gger. I never saw Mark-Anthony Turnage’s second full scale opera when it was first performed in early 2000 at the ENO. On the basis of this semi-staged performance from the BBCSO as part of the In Remembrance weekend this was a terrible omission on my part for it is an extraordinary work both musically, and, given the strength of Amanda Holden’s libretto, dramatically. It is intensely powerful and moving even without a full set and staging. It beggars belief that it has not been revived since 2002, (and that it missed out on a run in Dallas thanks to political sensitivities). 

It is constructed as a symphony in four acts, Home, War, Hospital and Dance. Harry Heegan is about to return to the family flat after a football match with his best mate Barney and girlfriend Jessie. Mum and Dad are intensely proud of their son who is about to head off to the war. Next door neighbour Susie joins the party, banging on about God. Mrs Foran from upstairs also turns up escaping abusive husband Teddy. The Silver Tassie, a cup with much significance appears, the men go to war full of optimism. The War act is primarily choral preceded by the mythic Croucher, representing, I think, the war dead and intoning Old Testament-ish doom. An officer complains at the doctors in the Red Cross station. A football game is delayed as the battle begins. The story then switches to the Hospital where an angry Harry is now paralysed, Teddy blinded and Jessie, who refuses to see Harry, is now coupled up with Barney, who saved Harry’s life. The final act sees Harry and Teddy spit out their pain and bitterness at those who still have their futures at the communal dance. 

The opera is based on Sean O’Casey’s eponymous plan and it is therefore we who have to thank for the gripping drama. Whilst it is never made explicit, O’Casey intended that the Heegan family, and the rest of the community, should hail from the East Wall, a working class district of Dublin, adding further pungency to the message of the play (and opera) because, at that time, Ireland was still part of the UK and the republican movement was divided on whether the country should be involved in the war. So as some young men like Harry, Barney and Teddy headed off to war others prepared for insurrection at home. 

O’Casey’s play was rejected by WB Yeats, then head honcho at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, when it was submitted in 1928, reflecting its political sensitivity. This was after the success of his first three major plays, The Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. So it premiered at the Apollo in London’s West End. There have been a fair few plays which rail at the futility of war and its consequences on the individuals who fight in it, but I doubt many match the raw power of The Silver Tassie. 

So Amanda Holden, (to be clear not the airhead judge on BGT), and M-AT had something monumental to work with. Even so, and in no way intending to downplay Ms Holden’s contribution which provides M-AT with multiple opportunities to show off his trademark stylistic jagged juxtapositions, it is the score that takes the breath away. M-AT had already shown his dramatic flair in his first opera Greek, and his compositional skill with orchestral pieces such as Three Screaming Popes, Momentum, Drowned Out, Dispelling the Fears and Silent Cities, especially when it came to percussion and brass, but The Silver Tassie is on another level.

The symphonic structure is inspired by mentor Hans Werner Henze’s The Bassarids, with the first act setting out the main ideas and themes, the second the Adagio slow movement, brought to life by the large scale choral scenes (echoing the more Expressionist feel of the act in SO’C’s play), the third a Scherzo and the last act a “dance” finale with “off stage” band. This structure offers rhythmic backbone and plenty of tunes derived from song, (including Robert Burns’s own Silver Tassie), and dance, as well as repeated motifs, which make it easy to follow and show off MA-T’s uncanny ability to capture the emotional interior of the characters. There are episodes of rich orchestral colour but there are also plenty of more economic orchestration.  The score should give the singers plenty of space, but just to make sure the cast were miked, (though M-AT, a couple of rows in front of me, needed to dash up to the sound desk to get the balance right early on).  The second and fourth acts are up there with the best I have ever heard on an opera stage. Even allowing for the fact that this wasn’t an opera stage. 

Sometimes this semi-staging lark can leave singers looking a little awkward unsure of how much to commit to performance versus voice. Costuming can also, sometimes, appear incongruous. Not here though, at east once the first act go going. There were some outstanding vocal performances, notably for me from Sally Matthews and Claire Booth, and Marcus Farnsworth as Teddy was very persuasive. But baritone Ashley Riches as Harry, even from my two perches (side stalls first half, back of circle second), was bloody marvellous not just in his singing but also in the way, pre and post wheelchair, he projected Harry’s exuberance and then his pain into the whole auditorium. 

Now I have nothing to compare it to but, given just how amazing this was, I have to assume that Ryan Wrigglesworth and the BBCSO, and the BBC Singers and Finchley Children’s Music Group (complete with ensemble writhing) got as close as possible to the heart of the music. 

You can listen to it for a couple more weeks on BBC Radio Opera on 3. Do yourself a favour and do so. 

And can I beg the ENO to find a way and time to revive this. With Mr Wrigglesworth on the podium. I will chip in a few quid if it helps.