Southwark Cathedral, London
Tenor William Morgan was the soloist in Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s powerful song cycle based on the work of the teenage nature writer
Last year, Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist revealed a compelling new teenage voice in nature writing and conservation. Scenes from the Wild is an 80-minute song cycle with music by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, setting words by Amanda Holden that distil the essence of McAnulty’s book into 26 succinct poems. It was Holden’s last completed project before her sudden death in early September and, as performed by the tenor William Morgan and the City of London Sinfonia in this premiere conducted by Geoffrey Paterson, it’s a captivating work, marrying insightful words to gently powerful music.
It begins with a recording of a blackbird’s song, lingering long enough so that we really listen to its detail. There are a few lines of speech from the tenor soloist, in character as McAnulty; then a low bass note sounds and, with a characteristic lack of musical preamble, we are into the first song.
The work is economically scored and often very beautiful, never more so than when the soloist is singing about the oak tree (McAnulty’s first name means “oak”), which forms a steady touchpoint. The descriptions of wildlife are pithy yet evocative: we hear about “the monochrome suit of a razorbill; the art deco lines of a northern gannet”. Occasionally, the music is onomatopoeic, but more often it’s allusive: a solo viola in an off-key jig disperses an elegant crowd of wading seabirds; an angular, swooping violin tune traces the ballet as researchers are hoisted up to a goshawk nest to tag the chicks; a chattering piccolo moves behind us as if making a bat’s squeaks clearly audible.
In among all this we get a strong sense of McAnulty’s character – his defiance as his autism draws the attention of the school bullies, his “solar flare” of anger at humanity’s careless destruction of nature, and, in a passage of especially skilful musical storytelling, the way in which those angry mists can be cleared by both his mother and by nature itself.
The potential for staging the piece could be more extensively explored than it was with the lighting changes and small moments of interaction between singer and players here, and the reverberant, word-swallowing acoustic of Southwark Cathedral made things harder for Morgan, but thanks to his tireless performance those words communicated as surely as if they were McAnulty’s own.