On 21 January countertenor Bejun Mehta performed George Benjamin’s Dream of the Song with the Brussels Philharmonic and the the Vlaams Radio Koor, with Kazushi Ono conducting at Flagey, Brussels.
The 20-minute piece sets verse by three major poets who spent formative years in Granada; two – Samuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol – wrote in Hebrew in the mid-11th century, while the third, Federico García Lorca, wrote in Spanish and was killed by Fascists soon after the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936. Despite the centuries which separate them and the difference in language, all these texts were inspired by a common source: Arabic poetry, which flowered in Andalucía from the 9th century onwards.
Benjamin writes of the piece,
In my score the Hebrew texts – in beautiful modern translations into English by the poet Peter Cole – are given to a solo countertenor, while the Lorca – in its original Spanish – is reserved exclusively for a small female chorus. The orchestral palette chosen to surround these voices is specific and intentionally reduced, the only wind being a pair of oboes and a quartet of horns, while a full string section is complemented by two harps and metallic percussion.
The opening song, ‘The Pen’, is energetic and volatile; its highly melismatic countertenor writing suggestive of an almost calligraphic flamboyance. The second movement, ‘The Multiple Troubles of Man’, is more sombre in tone, where antiphonal oboe lines expand over the soloist’s melancholy ruminations.
The chorus enters for the first time at the start of the next movement, setting Lorca’s lamentation as if from afar, while the soloist is given HaNagid’s ‘Gazing through the Night’ in which the poet muses on eternity – and mortality – as he casts his eye across the astral wonders of the sky. The short, though vehement, fourth movement follows without break, the chorus chanting Lorca’s lacerating text fortissimo throughout.
‘The Gazelle’ is set in languorous tones for the countertenor and strings alone, while the final movement combines chorus and soloist again in simultaneous poetic visions of dawn, conceived a millennium apart.
Dream of the Song was written for Mehta, who gave its first performance at the Concertgebouw. It was commissioned by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Festival d'Automne à Paris. A recording of the world premiere, with Benjamin conducting, was released through Nimbus in 2017. He has since performed the work internationally on numerous occasions, including at the Barbican Centre, Tanglewood Music Festival, Philharmonie de Paris, Carnegie Hall, the Concertgebouw, the Elbphilharmonie, and the Philharmonie in Berlin. Mehta also originated the role of The Boy in Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin at the 2012 Aix Festival.
This April George Benjamin conducts further performances of Dream of the Song alongside his Concerto for Orchestra (2021) with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln and ChorWerk Ruhr, where he is joined by countertenor Cameron Shahbazi, as part of a focus on Benjamin’s work. Shahbazi is cast in Benjamin’s latest collaboration with playwright Martin Crimp Picture a day like this, which opens on 5 July at the Aix-en-Provence Festival.