Andy Sheppard is no stranger to St George’s but surely he has never had to share the stage with as many people before. By the end of The Divine Paradox (of Human Beings in Paradise) he was surrounded by some 160 singers of all ages as well as his own trio, guest vocalist Celestine Walcott Gordon and conductor Sam Burns. A crowded stage representing a big musical piece about even bigger issues and, happily, a great success.
After a brief Q&A session (in which your reviewer has to declare an interest, having asked the Qs) the near-capacity audience returned to a low-lit hall with the Gurt Lush Choir massed silently on stage.Andy made his entrance from the back of the hall, however, halting phrases of tenor sax heralding a projection of the planet dawning on the big screen as two voices recounted the tale of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. This set the themes of this Green Capital commissioned piece in motion - humanity’s presence in a Paradise despoiled in the name of economic growth, the tension between conservation and exploitation, and the ultimate cost of not addressing this.
The Divine Paradox unfolded through seven sections, each with a distinct musical character underlined by Michel Rabbia’s combination of percussion and electronics and Will Harris’s compelling basslines. Andy’s sax was careful not to compete with the vocal music, however, adding nuanced echoes or solo bridges between the sections. Sara da Costa’s projections contrasted the grey human activities of industrialisation, pollution and warfare with vividly colourful wildlife. Crucially, however, it was the choral performance that dominated and the choir gave the music energy and life, navigating the often unorthodox time signatures and cross-cutting parts with precision, contributing even more unorthodox elements like finger-snapping, clapping and general hubbub with enthusiasm.
After the raucous denunciation of the IMF International Mothers and the melodic wistfulness of Death of a Butterfly (led off by two young schoolchildren) Celestine and Andy jousted on the Martin Luther King inspired Dream Cycles and things finally got funky for Revelation, the choir gleefully rattling off the polysyllabic lyrics while the rhythm section grooved along. It was a fine and energetic highpoint, adding drama to the arrival of the World Roots Acapella group and the choir of St Joseph’s School amid a clattering of raindrops for Soft, the words of which had been co-written with the schoolchildren and which celebrated the good things about the world for an optimistic finale.
Or not! The piece really ended with an encore, a reprise of March of the Mud Men, an angry diatribe against those who pursue economic interests at the cost of everything else. The brisk tango beat and catchy bass line, coupled with Andy’s increasingly free flowing sax, made a great soundtrack to the choirs as they sang their way off stage leaving the musicians to wander off into the dark. It was a nice piece of theatre that rounded off a fine piece of music that well-suited both choir and musicians, with the crucial steering of conductor/music director Sam Burns no doubt essential to the pulling together of this project both in rehearsal and on the night. Hopefully, after all that work, there will be more opportunities for The Divine Paradox to be performed - after all, those big issues are not going away any time soon.