Nobody in Guernsey lives more than two miles from the coast. That fact alone makes us unusually conscious of our dependence on the sea – and the sea’s vulnerability to us. It helps to explain why Saturday night’s Fragile Planet event at St James, the culmination of a decade’s planning, felt so passionate – and so unsettlingly personal.
If attendance were a sign of commitment, Guernsey can feel proud of its green credentials. St James was brimming. Not an empty seat visible, either in the hall or on the balcony, and lots of eager young faces, fizzing with the excited sense that Something Important was about to happen. The performers and orchestra too, included plenty of Millennials in their ranks: it felt fitting that they were involved and advocating for their future.
The evening was launched with Ravel’s La Barque. Lapping, lilting opening phrases gorgeously lulled us into a false sense of calm – which evolved into the realisation that the exquisitely delicate images projected above the orchestra were not waterlilies or jellyfish, but shards and curls of plastic, in a sinister waterborne ballet of death. The rising roar of the brass felt like a terrible warning of the gathering storm of climate disaster.
Conductor Jean Owen must be especially acclaimed for her ability to guide, encourage and discipline the orchestra in this powerful fusion of sound and image. Multitasking of a very high order throughout. Her calm hand on the tiller (apologies!) was largely responsible for the integrated emotional impact of the vast 3d performance.
Stanford’s Drake’s Drum followed. In the light of Guernsey’s (and St James’s) naval connection with Admiral Lord James de Saumarez, Casey Joe Rumens’s rich baritone accompanied by the Elizabeth College Choir, felt fittingly like a call to battle.
For a sense of the unpeopled sea, wild and untameable, Arnold Bax’s Tintagel could not be more atmospheric. Linked as it was here, with images from the magnificent desolation of the polar extremes, added a further dimension. These icy wastes, so hostile to human life, were alive with whales, penguins, albatross, seals – luxuriating, almost frolicking, in their pristine natural environment. It was a beautiful bit of programming, and underlined if that were needed, the perfect self-sufficiency of wildlife without human interference. Hard to forget, though, that lurking tide of plastic…
After interval, we heard Mirror Lake, by Guernsey composer Angus McCrae, with original dance from College of FE students. Then, still sea-immersed, the orchestra performed Grace Williams’s Breakers, from her Sea Sketches. One of Vaughan-Williams’s pupils, Grace is regarded as Wales’s most notable female composer. The swirling, swelling music has an urgency which, matched with visuals of a naked baby circled by rings of pollution, carried a sombre message.
Benjamin Britten’s Sea Interludes were always going to have to be included. ‘Sunday Morning’ is not a cosy brunch-and-newspapers affair: this, and the later ‘Storm’, are works of immense complexity whose timings are super-exacting. Deft and confident, Jean Owen guided her powerful, complex machinery of musicians forward, so all moving parts meshed exactly when and how they were intended to. The result was exhilarating and not a little terrifying: in ‘Storm’, it was hard not to envisage explosions of spray, Guernsey’s coastline (think Fermain!) under siege, the sea as devouring foe as well as generous friend. When Jean lowered her baton I think we all wiped salt from our brows.
Gentler interludes were provided by Eric Whittacre’s tender lullaby, sung by Bel Canto and directed by Christine Anthony, and to close, Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs. This was a thoughtful piece of programming: for all that we’d had our eyes and ears opened to the dangers of polluting the blue Eden we have inherited, the audience was fired up for a bit of Last Night of the Proms participation. Under Jean’s sparkly conducting of the Sailor’s Hornpipe, St James shook to the rafters with co-ordinated clapping and stomping. The audience decanted out into a cold, wet night, energised and full of good intentions.
This was a truly memorable evening, requiring vast resources of talent, planning and co-ordination, and offered plenty to reflect on – long after we stop humming the familiar tunes.
Special thanks to Polygon for their generous sponsorship.
by Julia Meredith