The Cuban American composer Odaline de la Martinez is probably better known on these shores as the conductor and founder of Lontano, which has performed cutting-edge contemporary music since 1976.  As well as presenting new music by Judith Weir, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Nicola LeFanu, Peter Sculthorpe and Steve Reich, Ms del la Martinez has long been the champion of composers who are unjustly less well known, has tried to redress the balance by ensuring women composers are programmed and performed as often by Lontano as the men, and by introducing the British public to the work of a wide range of American composers whose music doesn’t always leapfrog the Atlantic. Let us never forget that Chachi (as she is universally known) was the first woman to conduct at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall, back in 1984. Our new Master of the Queen’s Music wrote, “I owe a great deal to this courageous and talented musician who commissioned, conducted and toured three of my earliest compositions, including The Consolations of Scholarship. She is a fighter for musical justice whose own contributions to music should be widely recognized and celebrated.”

2014 not only marks Lontano’s 5th London Festival of American Music, but is also a celebration of Chachi’s 65th birthday. Unusually, in the opening concert we were given a rare and very welcome chance to listen to one of Chachi’s own compositions. As Raymond Yiu, a Chinese-born composer and jazz pianist who is one of the many to be inspired by Chachi when his own music was unjustly neglected, wrote in the programme: “Without Chachi, we would not have had the opportunity to discover the more unusual, and sometimes challenging (and yet necessary) repertoire. Chachi’s reputation as an excellent conductor has slightly overshadowed her role as a fine composer. Her music has as much energy, grace and joyfulness as the conductor that we have come to know, admire and love. In the year of her 65th birthday, it is high time we explored the lesser known side of a unique musician.”

Last night we were treated to the UK premiere of The Crossing, part II of a trilogy on the subject of slavery.  Part I was commissioned by the Caribbean Women’s Writers’ Alliance with funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund. All three parts of this triptych are loosely based on the short novel Oroonoko: or The Royal Slave, a True Story by the 17th century author Aphra Behn. The libretto was created by Joan Anim-Addo and the movement director, whose role in Part II is key, is Yael Loewenstein.  For once, Chachi was a member of the audience, enjoying a performance which was conducted by the ever-versatile Scott Stroman.

The story is of an African prince who falls in love with the daughter of the king’s most senior general. Sadly, for the loving couple, the girl has been promised to the king’s greatest rival as a gesture of peace. When the prince refuses to accede to the king’s decree, both Oko and his sweetheart, Imoinda are sold into slavery and transported to the Americas. Part II of the Trilogy, which was commissioned by The Sophie Newcomb Institute of Tulane University in New Orleans and premiered in 2013, depicts the horror of the slaves being transported across the Atlantic, chained below deck.  Oko is beaten by an overseer when he tries to explain he is a prince and the lovers lose touch in the dark hellhole of the transport ship.

Chachi’s earlier compositions were avant-garde, but I hadn’t heard anything she has written since the late 1990s so didn’t know what to expect. The Crossing features two solo singers, the lovely soprano Nadine Benjamin (formerly Nadine Mortimer-Smith) and tenor John-Colyn Gyaentey. The third protagonist is the choir – on this occasion Eclectic Voices, Scott Stroman’s London choir who are used to singing both jazz and classical music. The choir are the stage set, the weather, the ship and the chorus of imprisoned slaves rolled into one.

The orchestra of Lontano gave a quite meditative, minimalist overture and then the choir, very much driven by the percussion section of Lontano, took over and drove the whole piece. As Chachi herself has said, “I wrote some really experimental pieces, but the more I wrote in that style the more I realised that I had nothing to do with that, what I wanted to write had nothing to do with the European avant-garde or basically with Europeans. That’s when I started to go back to my Cuban roots.” Miss Benjamin sang her role as the lost soul, pining over her separation from her prince with her customary poise and warm beauty of tone. Mr Gyeantey, who trained at the National Opera School with support from the Peter Moore’s Foundation, is a fine lyric tenor with a penchant for singing Rossini. The pair engaged us with their sense of injustice and of the appalling, dehumanising treatment, but it was really Eclectic Voices who were allowed to be the stars of this show.

It is part of my role as a critic to tell you, the reader, what this new music sounds like. For once I can put my hand on my heart and say that in The Crossing Chachi offers us something unique. There are one or two musical resonances for me. I am lucky to have played a ‘classical’ piece by the Internationally famous Cuban saxophonist, Paquito d’Rivera, as well as having heard him play jazz. The rhythmic impulsion of The Crossing spoke to me of Cuban dance rhythms, to such an extent that I found myself virtually dancing in the pew and wanting to clap along with the wood block on the fourth beat of the bar.  The second resonance the piece offered me as I watched Eclectic Voices sing, clap and wave their arms in rhythmic polyphony was Jonah Man Jazz, by the much-underrated British composer Michael Hurd, which was ubiquitous as classroom music back in the 1970s. This was clever, rhythmic, unison writing for children, so posing nothing like the musical challenges proferred by The Crossing. However, what Chachi’s music (and Mr Stroman’s conducting) coaxed out of this choir was a kind of bodily commitment to the music I haven’t experienced since the year Lontano was founded.

My conviction that this music owes a lot to African drumming filtered through the prism of Cuban dance rhythms is confirmed by Chachi’s description of how she composed the opera: “I spend quite a lot of time on the libretto – which is usually much longer than you want or need. Once I’ve cut it down, I get a sense of the shape and write the rhythm before I do anything else. Then I start adding the harmony – which is the opposite way round from most composers. But they’re Europeans and I’m not!” I went to this performance not knowing what to expect and came out dancing.

As Chachi says, “I have become a tonal composer, but am also highly rhythmic on many levels – tonality with a twist, you might say. I would like to describe my music as visceral, sensual – I’m hoping that it moves people physically, that they get carried away by the music.” Of course it would be wonderful to hear the triptych complete, probably somewhere like the Roundhouse where there would be the potential for the audience to get up and dance as part of the performance. For now, focusing on The Crossing alone, I think this work has the potential to fly as a choral or glee society piece throughout the English-speaking world, especially in the brave new world of community singing, post-Gareth Malone. I’m very tempted to enthuse the powers-that-be at Youth Music and Sing-Up to replace watered-down unison pop songs on the choral curriculum with stimulating, challenging and inspirational music such as this.

4 stars

Miranda Jackson