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With music by Kate Whitley and libretto by Laura Attridge, the oratorio Our Future In Your Hands was commissioned by the Buxton Festival, and was due to be performed in 2020. It was eventually premiered in September 2021 at Bold Tendencies, the south-east London concert-venue-in-a-multi-storey-car-park, home of the Multi-Story Orchestra that Whitley co-founded. This was the first of two Buxton performances - St John's Church, Buxton, UK, 10 July 2022.
Prompted by Greta Thunberg's activism, it tackles the subject of climate change in a work laid out for a youth choir divided into two groups, three soloists and orchestra. The two choirs are the voices of 'anger and protest' on the one hand, 'optimism and change' on the other. The unnamed characters taken by the soloists represent the elements of sky: soprano Fiona Finsbury taking an astronaut's-eye view of Earth from space; earth: baritone Christopher Cull as a man wrestling with the question of whether or not to have a child; and water: mezzo-soprano Rhiannon Doogan desperately looking for water in a parched landscape. As they tell their stories, alongside the children's protests, the work moves from its sombre opening to a cautiously hopeful view of the future.
On one level, with its mix of amateur and professional performers, and its community involvement, it is heir to the tradition of works such as Britten's St Nicolas and Noye's Fludde. At the same time, its emotional arc from dark to light - the first and last of its ten numbers are headed 'The World Cries Out' and 'The World Awakens' - and the depersonalised roles of the soloists, place it in a direct line from Tippett's A Child of Our Time. Distinguished ancestry indeed!
Children from eight local schools, with an age-range of about six to twelve, made up the choir, singing from memory with, among other things, some sophisticated rhythms to negotiate. To help memorability, Whitley uses plenty of repetition, as well as a deliberately restricted pitch range - 'If I can sing it it's probably going to be OK', as she disarmingly put it in a streamed interview for Buxton two years ago. The orchestra, made up of players from the Northern Chamber Orchestra and from the Festival's Young Instrumentalist Programme, responded to a variety of imaginative sonorities. Conductor Tom Newall did a fine job of keeping everything focused.
The children were occasionally allowed to force their tone, and rather too many of the words disappeared into the St John's Church acoustic. A print-out of the text or, perhaps, side-titles would have helped, especially for any of the children's families and friends in the audience who were experiencing something like this for the first time. But there was no doubting the level of commitment from every single participant, creators and performers. And with Whitley and Attridge's refusal to go for superficial uplift in the final number, the work's urgency was all the more effectively communicated.
Copyright © 29 July 2022