Cecilia McDowall: The Girl from Aleppo (CR054)
Review by Nick Boston, Classical Notes
It’s a tall order to cover issues such as child refugees, disability and war in a cantata for children, commissioned for the young singers of The National Children’s Choir of Great Britain, in a way that speaks without coming across as superficial or over-worthy. But Cecilia McDowall’s (b.1951) cantata, Everyday Wonders: The Girl from Aleppo, is in fact highly effective and moving, given strength by the truth of the remarkable story it tells in its five short movements. Nujeen Mustafa, a Kurdish teenager with cerebral palsy, left Aleppo and travelled, in her wheelchair, with her sister, some 3500 miles to Germany, where she found refuge. Her story is told in her biography, co-authored by Christina Lamb, and Kevin Crossley-Holland has drawn on this to summarise her story in the cantata’s libretto. The young singers, directed by Dan Ludford-Thomas, are joined by violinist Harriet Mackenzie and pianist Claire Dunham. There is a musical mix of eastern infused harmonies and melodies, particularly in the improvisatory violin part that opens the work, and simpler, tonal hymnal choral setting, as well as use of some more percussive effects. The work moves from the initial flight from a war-torn Aleppo, with ‘thousands milling at the border’ in the second movement, with effective whispering and chanting repetition, stamping and clapping effects, and shushing sea spray as they make the journey across water (surprisingly rather gently swaying water here – one might have expected harsher conditions, but this isn’t clear from the text). One could easily be cynical about the sweet welcome of the German policeman when they finally arrive safely, greeted with ‘Wilkommen! Welcome to Germany!’, but this is a powerful moment, with the piano briefly quoting Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and the final movement’s depiction of Nujeen’s new life in safety and full of hope is very touching. This must have been a wonderful experience for the young singers here, and they perform with clear diction throughout, with tuning only a minor issue in some of the chorale sections, and a few impressive keening soprano solos going unmentioned. Mackenzie’s atmospheric playing throughout, along with the rocking energy and pace of Dunham’s piano accompaniment provide a strong framework for the singers. A powerful reminder of the power of music to involve young people and communicate strong messages – in these strange times, I only hope the opportunity for young people to get involved in such projects will return soon.
Nick Boston, Classical Notes, September 2020