Stari Most Salisbury Review

Clear water in between
Roderic Dunnett on a work about the Neretva’s crossing

STARI MOST, an extraordinary musical celebration by the com­poser Richard Chew, reminded a packed Salisbury Cathedral last week that the River Neretva — like the Tisza, Sava, Morava, Danube, and Olt — has been one of the lifelines of Eastern Europe since before the New Stone Age.

The Neretva forms a significant modern boundary between the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian states — now countries in their own right — of mountainous Bosnia-Herzegovina and fertile Croatia, with its strip of Dalmatian coast once famed for its pirates.

Friends across religious and geographical boundaries — but not entirely so even today; for Bosnia remains largely Muslim, and Croatia is a bastion of East European Catholicism. And the 1990s civil war has seared memories. Consequently, as two finely considered introduc­tions by Mark Cook, Founder-President of the charity Hope and Homes for Children, and Lord Ashdown, former High Commis­sioner for Bosnia, reminded us, all is not mended yet.

This was a good event in every way. The librettist is the outstanding playwright Peter Cann. He came up with a text that evokes the story of the purely pointless and vindictive destruction of the famously beau­tiful Old Bridge (Stari Most) that for centuries spanned the Neretva, and gives the bridge itself voice. Almost like a tender De Sica or Pasolini film, a poignant scene of doomed love between a girl and boy, one Croat, one Bosnian is evoked with the help of some splendid video and still projections overseen by Alex McEwen.

The visual sequence’s most forceful image is one of swimmers, old and young alike, diving into the waters from the bridge so as to lave themselves — and somehow us, the audience — in a kind of purifying baptism, as if the stains of brutal strife, of our generation and our forefathers’, too, might somehow be cleansed. This last image one could have watched again and again.

But multimedia or no, at its heart this was a musical celebration. Richard Chew in a masterstroke assigned the voice of the bridge to a choir of children. What artists they were! The boys and girls were drawn from Salisbury Cathedral Junior Choir and the choir of Amery Hill School. This splendidly prepared, robust, and keyed-up ensemble delivered the music as if their lives depended on it. Every syllable told, and their vocal projection, audibil­ity, and clarity in so vast a building as Salisbury — the placing of choir and orchestra at the West End paid dividends, as often it does in English abbeys and cathedrals — was superb.

There was no thin sentiment in the music they had to sing: Chew, who has studied with the Australian Peter Sculthorpe and the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen — and teachers don’t come much more objective or wiser than that — has a voice like neither of them: fresh in spirit, rich in allusion, judicious in orchestration, shrewd in his use of musical time and space, and masterly at gauging how to draw the best from his forces.

These are not luxuries in composition, they are the very tools of the trade; I sensed a master not in the making, but one already arrived. Only Chew’s final tonal resolution seemed curiously out of place: for the communities astride the ancient river remain for the moment sep­arated, even hostile, and certainly discordant.

The other hero of the hour was the conductor, Howard Moody (sharing the honours, no doubt, with his various assistant choral directors). The quality of assiduous rehearsal really told. Moody, whose musicianship can be judged instantly from his playing keyboard continuo with the English Baroque Soloists, is a conductor who puts himself last and the music and his performers first. With his Sarum Orchestra, even Beethoven’s Violin Concerto (soloist: Ken Aiso) got an orchestral delivery that ranked as pretty near first-class. Stari Most gleamed in its newly reconstructed state, thanks to a conductor whom orchestras such as the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra should hasten to work with.

The audience gave generously to Hope and Homes for Children, launched from the former Yugoslavia and now spreading its branches across the world. From little acorns. . .

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