The Farthest Shore, a new work by Paul Mealor commissioned by JAM (John Armitage Memorial) which premiered on 28 May at the St Davids Cathedral Festival, will be performed on 2 July at St Bride’s, Fleet Street and 6 July at St Leonard’s, Hythe alongside James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados and Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb.
Performing are the BBC Singers, Onyx Brass, the combined children’s choirs of St Davids Cathedral and Cumnor House School, organist Daniel Cook and soloists Claire Seaton (soprano) and Giles Underwood (bass), conducted by Nicholas Cleobury. The libretto is by Ben Kaye.
‘We’d wanted to work together and this commission came up,’ says Mealor. ‘We decided to try and find something which provided common ground for both of our thoughts, and we turned to a true story ‒ of the Anglesey “Bone Setter” ‒ which we adapted.
‘It’s about two young boys who were washed ashore on the coastline of Anglesey ‒ no-one knows how they got there, they couldn’t speak the language, they had different-coloured skin ‒ and a few of the villagers were threatened by this and took offence. But eventually, through the interaction of the women of the village, they took the children I as their own and started to teach them.
‘One of the boys died, but the one who survived had this amazing skill to heal broken bones, and descendants of this original bone setter are still surviving today, and many of his descendants have had some sort of medical career. I was fascinated by this, that this need to heal had gone down genetically. Whether the person really had the ability to heal bones or not we don’t know, but he certainly had some sort of an ability about him.’
Working with a signature JAM instrumentation of brass quintet, choir, children’s choir, organ and soloists presented its own opportunities and difficulties, says Mealor. ‘It is a very difficult group to work with, because although people think that brass and organ work well together, they really don’t!
‘I wanted the brass to be used in a quite different way to how I normally hear them used, so each of the brass instruments has its own solo and they each individually accompany various parts of the text. They also represent the storm at the beginning of the piece: they’re asked to blow through their instruments without playing a note to create what I call “sea sounds”. When done in various different patterns they create amazing noises.’
The boy’s journey into the heart of the community is mirrored by a choreographed setting of the piece with performers moving around the space. ‘When we did it at St Davids it was extremely effective,’ says Mealor. ‘I was quite taken with it.’
Does Mealor approach something on this scale ‒ The Farthest Shore is 40 minutes long ‒ differently to, say, writing Wherever you are for the Military Wives choir? ‘People will probably know my name for the Military Wives and the piece for the royal wedding, Ubi Caritas,’ he says, ‘but actually I’ve written an enormous amount of music looking at all sorts of compositional and technical issues.
‘There are two different types of composers: there’s one that constantly works at the same piece all the time, turning it over and examining it in different ways, and I’m sure that’s very exciting; but there’s another type, and I’m sure Peter Maxwell Davies for instance fits into this category, that looks at lots of different things at the same time. I also don’t really see any differentiation between what I write. Each piece I write has a different set of challenges to it.
‘They’re compositional challenges and some composers wouldn’t take them on; others do, and I fall into that group.’
- JAM will put on 8 concerts and 2 education projects in July in London and the south east, beginning with The Farthest Shore, James MacMillan’s Cantos Sagrados and Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb (St Bride’s, Fleet Street, 2 July & St Leonards, Hythe, 6 July). Onyx Brass will give a recital in Rye on 5 July and deliver its Sporting Chance programme, developed with JAM, to nine primary schools in Folkestone and Hythe on 3 & 19 July, and the Mousai Singers will perform Faure’s Requiem on 11 and 12 July at St Bride’s, London and All Saints, Lydd. Oboist Michal Rogalski will perform with the Heron Quartet and tenor Adam Sullivan in a concert including works by Beethoven, Britten, Holst and Judith Bingham at St Mary in the Marsh, Kent on 13 July. See www.jamconcert.org/season for more details.
- The Farthest Shore was commissioned by JAM, St. David’s Festival and Edinburgh Royal Choral Union (ERCU) and was made possible with funding through Beyond Borders from the PRS for Music Foundation, Creative Scotland, Arts Council Northern Ireland and Arts Council Wales. It is also supported by The Leche Trust.