REVIEW: CUOS Short Stories

Three remarkable student-written chamber operas performed in Trinity and Jesus College Chapels.

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Given how long it takes me to write three minutes of music, I have no doubt that the composers involved in Short Stories would have to have made some significant sacrifices of time since the beginning of the year when the idea came about.

I also bumped into two of them in the Music Faculty yesterday repatriating a host of obscure percussion, a useful reminder that once a piece of music is written it is still quite an undertaking to get it performed – not in the least when it’s a chamber opera…

Short Stories was the billing for the performance of three chamber operas in succession, under the aegis of Cambridge University Opera Society, by composers Bertie Baigent, Stephen Bick and Owain Park – all final year music students. The three works were performed twice: in Trinity College Chapel on Friday 5th February; and in Jesus the following day. The Short Stories were unrelated, and presented a varied trio in terms of style and content, in the stories themselves and in the musical rendering.

Amber Evans

Amber Evans; Bertie Baigent in the background conducting. (Photo Credit: Sapphire Armitage)

Bertie Baigent selected the poetic story of The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde, in which a student wants to obtain a rose for the girl he loves, only for the nightingale – who does help him get the rose eventually – to die in the process, and for the girl in the end to be ungrateful. The sinewy, imitative oboe and flute melodies were especially well suited to the supernatural setting, in which Peter Lidbetter stood as the rose tree for quite a time before his rich resonance became apparent, revealing the acoustic potential of the area under the tower in Jesus College Chapel.

The Britten-esque orchestral flourishes often preceding the vocal lines were very stylish, and Sidharth Prabhu-Naik was beautifully lyrical and sincere as the Student, Julia Kemp emotive and impassioned as The Nightingale. Izzy Kent was suitably bustling and dismissive for her cameo as the ungrateful girl at the end. Whilst Britten was a musical influence that came to mind, there is something satisfyingly distinctive about Bertie Baigent’s compositional voice, and his orchestration was consistently clear and colourful.

A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor, was the darker literary stimulus for Stephen Bick’s musical enhancement, involving a dysfunctional family, a criminal known as the Misfit, and a car crash: all in all, a striking choice. I believe this was the longest of the three operas, and possibly the most ambitious in terms of story choice and in the musical realisation. The story also had the most characters. Steven scored in a recorded narrator and a clip of the Bessie Smith song “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, both of which were arresting.

Peter Lidbetter

Peter Ledbetter. (Photo Credit: Sapphire Armitage)

The orchestra began to play with the song, gradually subsuming the recording, and allowed a skilful segway into the action.  The rhythmic character of Steven’s work was especially pleasing in its impetus when evoking the moving car, and Alice Webster, Ellie Walder and Emily Myles were suitably chaotic as members of the family in this claustrophobic setting. Generally the writing between the vocal parts and orchestra was more rhythmically contingent than in the other operas, drawing attention to a characteristic feature of Stephen’s style.

Stephen also played the mercurial misfit himself and was especially convincing when describing his prison cell (and its four walls), where the music was scored ingeniously in relation to his physical movement and descriptions, punctuated by the snare drum. Stephen’s work was ambitiously cinematic and was the tense centrepiece foiling the poetic offerings either side of it.

The third and final opera The Snow Child returned to the poeticism of before, with another story in which a rose causes a death. The wintry, drawn-out phrases of the orchestral prologue provided a steady path to the new setting, the chief melodic cell of which successfully book-ended the work. The use of percussion, played by composer Owain himself, was the most varied and interesting of the evening too; the use of high, tuned percussion seemed to successfully evoke (to me at least) images of snow and ice.

Helena Moore

Helena Moore. (Photo Credit: Sapphire Armitage)

Owain’s was also the only opera – perhaps surprisingly so given the choral pedigree of all three composers – to employ a chorale texture in the voices, which was beautiful. The stellar cast was made up of Peter Lidbetter, Amber Evans, Helena Moore, Hannah King, Ollie Clarke and  Krishnan Ram-Prasad, the latter three of whom also played in Steven Bick’s piece, along with Sidharth Prabhu-Naik. This opera also best displayed the full measure of Gareth Mattey’s directorship, and the movement of the characters was haunting at times.

The orchestra, conducted by a poised Bertie Baigent, was a solid ensemble and the coordination in what was in some ways a difficult performing environment was admirable. Bertie, Stephen and Owain perhaps took their lead from Rhiannon Randle, whose chamber opera Temptations was performed in 2014. Chamber opera is a genre that very few places other than Cambridge would be able to put on successfully with students performing and having composed the scores, so it was a great privilege to be witness to this happening.

Hopefully, Short Stories will become a staple of CUOS and Cambridge student composers for many years to come.

4/5 stars