Judith Weir’s newest work, Good Morning, Midnight, is a meditation on night-time. Written for mezzo-soprano, eight strings and two clarinets, it is not a weighty piece, but still a true song cycle in that the whole becomes greater than its five parts. At least, that was the impression given here by the mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon.
Connolly, standing in for Alice Coote, is a mellow-toned soloist, drawing us in to the text. Weir sets the words with characteristic economy, sweet but never saccharine. The title song, to words by Emily Dickinson, grows from a single pitch and into spare but glowing harmonies, Copland-style, the singer weaving the melody into the gaps. Glassy violins conjure up the “cool gaze” of the moonlight, in the words of the Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie; then bluntly plucked strings, wooden knocks and whirring bounces of bow on string invoke the tick-tocking of the household clock that, in Charles Simic’s central poem, is so unsettling when it stops.
The fourth song is a sidestep in that Weir seems to be assuming another persona, writing a love song to the moon with a vocal line, in Italian, that plays subtly with almost operatic styles. But for the closing song – Dickinson again – she steps back again into her own voice.
The eight string players clearly enjoyed playing Mendelssohn’s Octet in the first half; their performance may not quite have solved the balance problems intrinsic in the work, but it had persuasive energy. With Collon conducting snappily, Copland’s Appalachian Spring was more finely graded, the flute projecting beautifully just above the strings.
As one of the many composers who has been so robustly supported by the record label NMC, it was fitting that Weir should have been the one to present them tonight with the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Leslie Boosey award, reserved for contemporary music’s backroom heroes. In this case, the recognition seems especially well deserved.