This is pretty rarefied stuff. Six pieces, half of them vocal, all created in sparse, chamber textures. The majority were written in the last two or three years although overall the style has a distinct feeling of 1970s mainstream English avant-garde about it. That is not a criticism but an observation. All are inspired by musically extraneous ideas: literary (Shakespeare and Blake), locational (the islands of the Venetian lagoon), a work in six movements named after winds of the world and a solo piano memorial for Usher’s composition teacher at York, Robert Sherlaw Johnson.
Julia Usher, now in her late fifties, is not a name widely known to the music-loving public although her “winds” piece did win an award and found its way onto a syllabus of the British examining body, the Associated Board. Metier Sound and Vision, a small, bold organisation dedicated to the proselytising of British contemporary music, is to be congratulated on producing the first commercial CD of Usher’s music. On the strength of the disc she certainly deserves to be better known and I hope it does well.
The name of the disc, Sacred Physic, is taken from the first and most substantial work. It is a dramatic monologue for soprano and three solo instruments (cello and two musicians playing recorders, oboe and cor anglais) and harpsichord based on the moving dénouement of Shakespeare’s Pericles where Marina, supposedly drowned as a baby, discovers Pericles as her father. The subtitle is “a dramatic madrigal” although Usher, in her own notes, calls it, more appropriately, “a miniature, solo opera”.
I found this an admirable piece. Written two years ago it seems to me to be part of that fine tradition of dramatic arioso-type English word setting that goes back to Purcell’s “Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation” and comes to the 21st Century via the Church Parables of Benjamin Britten. Throughout the ten sections, Usher achieves an extraordinary range of mood, supporting the highly flexible vocal line with imaginative textures wrought from the most skeletal of means. For example, take the fourth section “Arioso”, where Marina calls upon her musical skills with which to get through to Pericles. This starts by evoking “the still and woeful music that we have” with subdued voice and cello, then presses onward in mounting tension as the other instruments enter in dialogue with the voice, the harpsichord increasingly providing atmosphere and jagged rhythm. What particularly impressed me was how this pacing in one small section is replicated in the sweep of the work as a whole. Part of this success is due to the extraordinary skill with which Usher has adapted the Shakespeare text and created this powerful, free-standing scenario. Lesley-Jane Rogers sings with great conviction.
The next piece listeners may find the most uncompromising. A Reed in the Wind is about as far away as you could go from Elton John’s Candle in the Wind in the accessibility stakes. An unaccompanied oboe, changing places with cor anglais, describes six winds beginning with the two most well known, the Mistral and Sirocco. I remember from school geography that the first was a northerly cold blast that funnelled down the Rhône valley into the Mediterranean while the second was a sort of hot, dry, southern adversary that blew off North Africa into the same area of the Med, sometimes carrying grains of Sahara right across it and dumping them on the poor inhabitants of France who had already suffered the Mistral. Well somehow I just could not connect these dramatic meteorological events with the music I was hearing in spite of the oboe’s rhapsodising, perky figurations and the way the instrument is stretched to its limit. But I must accept that this may be me just not tuning in to the right wavelength. The music is in a style very much in vogue when I was a student. I was a founder member of a small composers’ club (with little collective talent I may say) and we probably talked more than composed about the Second Viennese School, Darmstadt, Messiaen, Cage and so on, not to mention the up-and-comers like Maxwell Davies. If you wrote for an instrument it was important to make it do things it was not designed to do. Funnily enough I wrote an oboe piece and I tried very hard to make sure it never accidentally sounded tonal. It had piano accompaniment though, and that was my downfall because it had conventional, easy-to-listen-to rhythms. Not the thing at all in those days.
Just as Nikki Bloomfield wonderfully negotiates the oboe and cor anglais difficulties and special effects in A Reed in the Wind, so the veteran virtuoso recorder player, John Turner, does with his instruments in the “Island Contemplations” of Le Isole della Laguna. Accompanied by piano (in an equally difficult part), the combined, contrasting effects I found convincingly atmospheric in this impressionistic piece.
The last two pieces are vocal and recently composed, William Blake’s powerful text in What is the Price of Experience? is given suitable treatment with piano accompaniment while Poor Naked Wretches is taken from the aftermath of the storm in King Lear. The latter is for small ensemble and the alto vocal part is sung by Nikki Bloomfield who lays down her oboe to show what a talented and versatile musician she is. This piece was specially written for this recording and is the shortest on the disc. I enjoyed it the most, together with the longest piece, Sacred Physic. Together, they show the sensitivity Julia Usher has for the English language and what talent she has for the dramatic situation. In these recent works she has broken from some of the straight-jacketing rigours of those 1970s conventions, showing genuine flexibility with a voice more her own. On the strength of these two pieces I only wish she would write a full scale opera, well at least a chamber one. Go on Julia, you can do it. If I were a rich man I would commission it myself.