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Classical work inspired by the story of the Chilean miners comes to Sage Gateshead

Rob Barnes took in James McCarthy's beautiful work, which featured choral contributions from four North East schools

David Temple, musical director of the Hertfordshire Chorus, at the memorial to the victims of the Hartley pit disaster
David Temple, musical director of the Hertfordshire Chorus, at the memorial to the victims of the Hartley pit disaster

There was 17 days of silence before the world knew whether the 33 miners trapped in Chile’s San José mine in August 2010 were still alive, and another 52 days before they were all brought up to the surface.

Composer James McCarthy took this first period of total uncertainty regarding the fate of the miners, as the template for his work 17 Days.

Whilst underground, the miners made a pact of silence not to discuss those first 17 days, leading McCarthy to bring together the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Rupert Brookes amongst others, to tell the story for him.

This results in a work as beautiful as it is emotional and joyful, leading to fulsome and rapturous applause for all of the performers at its conclusion, and especially so for the composer who was at Sage Gateshead in person.

Vital to the telling of this story, is how the San José community responded – from initial despair to eventual ecstasy, wonderfully evoked by the Hertfordshire Chorus together with the choirs of four of our local schools, the Bede Academy, Blyth; St John Vianney, West Denton; Gosforth Central Middle; and Ponteland Middle.

Maria Segovia, the sister of trapped miner Dario Segovia, watches rescue efforts
Maria Segovia, the sister of trapped miner Dario Segovia, watches rescue efforts

From the introductory prayer I Am the Resurrection and the Life, to the use of this same text from the King James Bible in the glorious ending which celebrated the miners’ rescue, it was a fine team effort, and how well the young choirs complemented their seniors.

Meanwhile during those parts where the Hertfordshire Chorus were singing on their own, the children sat in rapt attention as they were still part of the ongoing story, just as those at San Jose must have gathered at the mine listening to any glimmers of hope for their loved ones trapped below.

A truly memorable work that we were privileged to witness.

For the first half of the concert, the Hertfordshire Chorus took us on a journey through five centuries of choral music, from Thomas Tallis’s If Ye Love Me to his Spem in Alium, one of the wonders of the choral world where the singers split their resources into eight smaller choirs, creating a mesmerizing soundscape by singing both with and against each other.

The Chorus, together with the trombones and violins of the North East’s own English Philharmonic Ensemble evoked all the theatre of the world of 17th century Venice for Claudio Monteverdi’s complex Dixit Dominus, followed by Bach’s relentless and expressive Baroque masterpiece Lobet Den Herrn. Bruckner’s glorious motet Os Justi with its soaring harmonies and restrained ending was pitched perfectly by the Chorus.

With the musical style of the Greek Orthodox religion, Sir John Tavener’s best-known work, the Song for Athene, brought the first half to its conclusion, underpinned by the bass singers’ constant drone. Full marks to the tenors in this last piece, for their control, accuracy and sensitivity for the text.

Jesmond-born David Temple, that doyen of choral conductors, and musical director of the Hertfordshire Chorus, led the line magnificently as always, being one of that rare breed of conductors who engages with his audience and performers, and informs about the music in his affable and congenial style.

This was a concert which succeeded on so many levels, and let’s hope that the Hertfordshire Chorus are able to visit us for a fifth time in the North East in the near future, and that we can hear more of the works of James McCarthy, one of our very finest young composers.


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