Esenvalds' 'City Songs' at the Roundhouse by Martin Slidel, Whats On London

Esenvalds' 'City Songs' at the Roundhouse by Martin Slidel, Whats On London

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The closing concert of Roundhouse’s ‘Voices Now’ Festival was a new commission by Latvian composer Eric Ešenvalds with libretto by Australian poet Emma Jones. Six outstanding choirs were joined by the superb City of London Sinfonia under the direction of Stephen Layton. This new song cycle, appropriately enough, concerns the wide-ranging and cosmopolitan experiences of London life entitled ‘City Songs’.

Its opening section, ‘The Radio’ employs all choirs dotted around the performance space. The rhythmic and repetitive chanting rises to a gradual and inevitable crescendo, and is surprisingly good. Bell-like tunes are perfectly offset by jazzier instrumental sections. Ešenvalds’ ringing melodies are suitably accessible yet just challenging enough for the children’s ensemble. St Mary’s School Choir is wondrous and their soloists deserve high praise.

Narrator Imogen Heap arrives – quite literally – complete with suitcase. Her relaxed and earthy presence, combined with her breathy, speechy voice, is ideal. There is the slight trace of Björk to her vocalisations, and Ešenvalds heaps-on experimental aspects that suit the Digital Diva well. Later come some spellbinding inter-weavings as Heap speech-sings alongside a vocoded oration from Emma Jones herself (who sadly does not appear to receive her richly-deserved applause well). Only at times do Heap’s freer and looser improvisations not sit quite comfortably enough with the more formulaic choral rounds.

The majority of songs are creamily melodic and a little like Jonathan Dove. The ‘Pedestrians’ section for example is filmic and tends to stage musical idioms. Perhaps it is difficult to escape the essential theatrical aspect of the piece. The relentless drum-kit in ‘Traveller in the Afternoon’ does not add to the composer’s trademark sing-song repetitions. But the best of these songs are not only attractive but genuinely moving and any Londoner can relate to their narrative arc. The chanting of the ‘Workers’ successfully communicate shared knowledge of city life, thanks in no small part to Jones’ uncluttered and unromantic verse that reinstates how “the Devil’s in the details…”

The overall effect is a conceptual pop album à la Kate Bush, stitched together with intermittent narrations rather than woven-through as a whole tapestry. This may be unimportant. We do experience a pleasurably whole picture traversing programmatic themes of journey, time, people and place. The churning, chugging, train-like ‘Parade’ is terrific. Its subdued, quietening, section prior the ‘Finale’ is extremely effective. This blends into the remaining and merest sounds of audience presence in an immediate reminder of John Cage, and a simultaneous mirror of its subjects, as all choirs again disperse into the space. Ešenvalds would not have done better than to have left us there.

The Roundhouse production and the City of London Sinfonia are faultless. More people should get to experience this and let’s hope it’s re-staged in future. The exceptional choirs who each deserve equal praise were Codetta; Holst Singers; Funky Voices; St Mary’s School Choir; Green Street Blues and the excellent Roundhouse Choir.

By Martin Slidel