Otherwordly Sound: New Oratorio Considers Age-Old Mystery of Life After Death
by David Lewellen
Over the centuries, composers have written many choral works on the themes of death, mourning and the afterlife. But the Music Hall audience on May 17 will hear something distinctly different in British composer Mark Simpson’s The Immortal, an oratorio for baritone soloist, double chorus and orchestra. This piece, which makes its U.S. debut at the May Festival, presents a unique twist on the mysteries of life and death.
The Immortal draws its text from the life of Frederic Myers, a 19th-century Englishman who co-founded an organization to investigate the possibility of life after death through séances with mediums. But few people during his lifetime knew of his personal tragedy—a woman he had loved as a young man committed suicide, and her loss always haunted him.
May Festival Principal Conductor Juanjo Mena points out that a great deal of choral music was written for religious purposes, and The Immortal, too, is “talking about what is there and what is waiting for us.” Programming it with pieces by Brahms and Vaughan Williams helps place it in that tradition, he said.
Simpson, a 30-year-old clarinetist and composer, cites the slightly older generation of English composers as influences: Thomas Adès, George Benjamin, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Oliver Knussen. He’s also a big fan of John Adams, the foremost living American composer. “The kind of music I like to write is also the music I enjoy playing,” Simpson explained. “I like to take risks with things that are flamboyant but also have depth.”
He and his librettist, poet Melanie Challenger, visited historical archives to find their source material for the “very emotionally charged, tragic stories” of English spiritualists in the late 19th century. Simpson set the transcripts of the séances to music, recited by a small choral group— performed by the ground-breaking octet Roomful of Teeth in the May Festival concert—but in a way that is deliberately unintelligible. More dramatic moments are punctuated by the full May Festival Chorus. The music, Simpson said, is meant to be “an otherworldly sound from beyond the grave. It’s dense and overladen and almost indecipherable.” Interspersed with those sections are selections from Myers’ writings, set for solo baritone, performed by guest soloist Rod Gilfry.
For audiences hearing The Immortal, Simpson said, “I want people to be knocked over by the piece and kind of overwhelmed. I hope people can be drawn into that world and suspend disbelief for a bit.” The work has elements of a requiem text, he said, but he resists calling it a secular requiem. “I settled on the term oratorio because of the large scale.”
Mena conducted the world premiere of The Immortal at the Manchester International Festival, as well as a subsequent performance at the Proms in London. “Juanjo is an absolute dream,” Simpson said. “He understands the music so well.” Before the first rehearsal in 2015, Simpson had written down a list of 20 or 30 notes for the orchestra, but upon meeting with Mena, “he already had the same list,” Simpson remembered. “Everything I wanted to discuss, he had already marked in his score with those little Post-Its that are shaped like arrows. It’s his kind of piece, and he has a strong relationship with it.”
Programming something as new as Simpson’s work in his second season as May Festival director might be seen as a statement, but letting audiences hear a full spectrum of choral music is important to Mena. “We mustn’t forget what we are or what we did in the past,” he said, “but we also look to the future and what there is to discover.”
Roomful of Teeth provides an entry point for a new generation to listen to performances at Music Hall. Nathan Bachhuber, CSO and May Festival director of artistic planning and administration, explained that The Immortal requires “eight very talented singers familiar with working together and contemporary music,” and Roomful of Teeth fits the bill perfectly. The Immortal is only the second piece they have performed that was not specifically written for them. The group’s solo concert on May 15 at Woodward Theater will help broaden the choral tradition of the May Festival by “presenting possibly intimidating new music in an unpretentious, accessible way,” Bachhuber said. “They perform it all with dedication and passion, and their love of the music is palpable to audiences.”
And because of Music Hall’s Victorian architecture and its own history of ghost stories, “I can’t think of a better venue for the piece,” Bachhuber said. “Hopefully the audience will feel those kinds of energies in the hall.”
Simpson will be in Cincinnati for the rehearsal and performance of The Immortal, which represents only the second presentation of his music in the United States. “This is a huge deal for me, because I think it’s my best work to date,” he said. “It’s representative of what I’m about.” After receiving the initial commission, “I’m very lucky that it ended up morphing into this grand epic thing. Sometimes the universe is good to you, and you’re able to write something for two choruses and baritone and full orchestra.” n