Chancing across one of James Turrell’s epic light shows in an art gallery in Bremen, composer Jonathan Dove began to hear voices – children’s voices, to be precise, blended into the sound of a newborn galaxy.
It inspired Dove to become the first composer since Haydn to base a choral work on the entire history of everything. Whereas Haydn’s Creation amalgamated the Book of Genesis with Paradise Lost, Dove and his librettist Alasdair Middleton have taken the scientific route. Their evolutionary oratorio, A Brief History of Creation, is not particularly brief, as it encompasses an hour’s worth of material. But Dove has a remarkable aptitude for writing music that is challenging to sing, stimulating to listen to, yet simple to remember. The outstanding Hallé Children’s Choir covered almost 14 billion years entirely from memory.
These bright, confident voices created an ethereal soundscape as nebulae boiled and atmospheres formed (“Rain and rain / More of the same” seemed an appropriate sentiment for a damp summer’s afternoon in Manchester). A discordant apostrophe to the shark and a galumphing tribute to the dinosaurs were colourful highlights. The most breathtaking risk, however, was to reduce the choral texture to a single, tiny voice at the moment when the first cell divides.
Given the number of children present it was a masterstroke on Mark Elder’s part to preface the piece with Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Tom Redmond’s updated commentary rendered this even more accessible, though one wonders whether the double basses were entirely satisfied with their introduction as “the best supporting actors, the goalies of the orchestra”.