Peter Copley, Salamanca 1936, review: St Bartholomew’s Church, Brighton, March 1

Peter Copley’s Salamanca 1936 has had a considerable gestation period and its emergence into the light at the weekend for its world premiere was very much due to the enthusiastic endorsement of Sir John Tomlinson, for whom it was written.

The Oratorio was performed by Brighton Youth Orchestra and a junior chorus from Trinity Laban Conservatoire under the direction of Andrew Sherwood.

The text focuses on an incident during the Spanish Civil War when Miguel de Unamuno, at the time Rector of the University of Salamanca, stood up against the fascist General Millan Astray.

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The text tries to stay as objective as possible but the score brings to life the conflicting emotions of the philosopher even as he is trying to keep his feelings under control. John Tomlinson’s superb diction brings out the internal struggle for Unamuno in a series of extended arioso passages, which both reflect on the action and move the narrative forward. The chorus are essentially little more than background noise in the poet’s memory until we came to the final section which proves to be both beautiful and deeply moving.

Unamuno is under house arrest and writes La Nevada es silenciosa – the snowfall is so silent. This is set in English for chorus and suddenly we are inside the emotional and intellectual life of the poet. It works surprisingly well and brings us into the heart of the dilemma. How does an intellectual stand up to ignorance and abuse – a problem which is universal and here given its universal context. Let us hope that the score is heard again soon as it has immediate relevance as well as being musically engaging in its own right.

In the first half we had heard Handel’s Zadok the Priest which all but disappeared within the cavernous acoustic of St Bartholomew’s, but John Tavener’s Ekstasis was more successful. The work was written for Brighton Youth Orchestra in 2000 and explores the mystery of the Trinity through three solo instruments above the gently undulating orchestra. Violinist Ayla Sahin was placed by the altar, trumpeter Tsz Cheung on the west gallery and oboe player Emma Sims in the pulpit. Tavener weaves the musical line between them without any sense of obvious interplay or overlap, yet always a deep sense of harmony and unity. It made a fitting companion piece to Peter Copley’s oratorio.

A unique play set on Beachy Head. Click here to read more.

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