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Classical music

Bach to the future, as Hong Kong choir takes on modern composition

Hong Kong Bach Choir will perform James Boznos’ new piece Nevu’ah, which requires them to use their voices in unconventional ways

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 November, 2015, 6:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 November, 2015, 10:44am

Fans of the The Hong Kong Bach Choir are likely to see them in an entirely new light after the intermission of a concert on November 30 at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

As well as singing conventionally the choir will be required to produce additional vocal sound effects, and some members will be playing small percussion instruments.

They are performing a new work in 12-tone harmony, closer to the work of composers such as Henryk Gorecki and Philip Glass than much of the older classical repertoire with which the choir is associated.

The programme, Lamentation and Prophecy, begins with Max Reger’s Requiem, followed by Franz Liszt’s Via Crucis (Stations of the Cross).

The second half of the concert will be the world premiere of an ambitious and challenging new work by OZNO – the nom de plume of James Boznos, principal timpanist of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, and a noted composer of contemporary music.

Nevu’ah is a cantata composed for choir, chamber orchestra and electronically processed recorded sound. The work was commissioned by Jerome Hoberman, the conductor of the Choir, after hearing Boznos’ Easter cantata, Anesti, his first, when it premiered in Hong Kong last year.

“Originally he had the idea of commemorating the second world war, and then that conception changed. Anyway, I wanted to write another cantata, and that turned out to be this piece,” says Boznos.

“I love the flexibility. A cantata can basically be anything with the sounding of voices, and the music I’ve been writing lately tends to take the form of multi-movement large scale pieces. I’m drawn to that form. I hope to write many of these in the course of my life.”

Bach, he points out, wrote around 200 cantatas, so he has plenty of road ahead of him. Another of the form’s attractions is its proven suitability for devotional music.

Boznos describes himself as “a devout Christian”, and is interested in the idea that all music, including whale song and the sound produced by pulsars in deep space, is a form of hymn.

“For this piece, I based the pitch material on recordings of the pulsar system TUC 47,” he explains.

“The idea of the whole universe praising God led me to find the sounds of this family of pulsars. I was deeply moved by the idea of the celestial objects ‘singing’ praise in the fashion they are able to,” he says.

Nevu’ah means prophecy in Hebrew, and the texts of the cantata come from the Bible and the Torah. The piece is trilingual and sung in English, ancient Greek and Hebrew.

Scored for full six-part choir, soprano solo and 19 instrumentalists including percussion, harp, piano, brass, woodwinds and strings, the 32-minute work also makes use of processed field recordings, made by the composer, as bookends to the piece.

“I like blending the computer elements with humanity. In this work there is not so much in the way of electronic instruments, but a series of church bells that I recorded in Europe and layered on top of each other, and that starts and ends the piece. I’m living in the modern age and trying to incorporate that into my music,” he says.

I have the pleasure of just sitting in the audience and hearing it, which is a magnificent experience for a composer. It’s like seeing one of your children being born
James Boznos, composer

The work is in 21 movements, but performed without breaks. He describes it as “through composed, forming an arch of praise, prophecy and hope”.

The use of virtuosic orchestral interludes, he says, allows him to comment on his own personal reactions to the texts.

“The complexity of the music is intense, especially for the instrumentalists, but also for the voices. It’s a different way of singing for a lot of people in the choir. The intervals are different, and the rhythms are challenging, but there are some very enthusiastic members of the choir, so I’m very lucky to have that [support]. I also ask them at the end of the piece to play percussion, producing effects with their mouths, and they are having fun with that too I think.”

For the composer, this is the culmination of many months of burning the midnight oil.

“It takes a long time, particularly writing for a large ensemble. I have three children, so I usually compose from 11 at night until three in the morning, when it’s quiet and I’m free,” he explains.

Although Boznos is used to performing or conducting his own music, for this performance he will simply listen to the singers and musicians interpreting it.

“I have the pleasure of just sitting in the audience and hearing it, which is a magnificent experience for a composer. It’s like seeing one of your children being born,” he says.

“It’s very different music to the first half [of the concert], but it is interesting to have that dichotomy. The first half only uses the piano. Then in the second half all these instruments come on and there are choir members doing unusual things with their voices. I think it’s going to be a wonderful effect. I couldn’t be more excited.”

Lamentation and Prophecy, November 30, 8pm, Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Tickets are HK$360, HK$240, and HK$120. Inquiries: 5301 1094.