Morality Takes to the Stage

Henrietta Bredin joins in the preparations for Vaughan Williams's 'The Pilgrim's Progress'

The Spectator, 14 June 2008

'Come, thou blessed of the Lord' sing the sopranos and altos, and now the tenors and basses are joining them, with a wondrously layered swelling of sound. The hairs on the back of my neck are standing on end - this is the first rehearsal and the first music I've heard from Vaughan Williams' The Pilgrim's Progress, which will be given two performances at Sadler's Wells, on 20 and 22 June.

VW, as some people matily refer to him (personally, I wouldn't dare), died 50 years ago, and celebrations of his life and work are abounding. One of the composer's most passionate and articulate admirers is Richard Hickox, who is conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in a series of concerts of his music, including a complete cycle of his symphonies, throughout 2008. As a splendidly ambitious step-up from their concert-hall activities, he and the Philharmonia are tackling The Pilgrim's Progress in a realization that will put the entire orchestra on stage, plus a 50-strong chorus and 15 soloists.

I have been called in to co-ordinate the final phases of this enterprise, a responsibility which I view with what is, I hope, a healthy combination of excitement and alarm. There are a great many people to look after but something I am consistently impressed and delighted by in the world of music and theatre is the level of trust involved and, closely intertwined with that, the level of skill and professionalism. From the outside it may appear as if putting on performances is a freewheeling, happy-go-lucky sort of affair - 'Let's do the show right here!' - but in reality it all hangs on rigorous discipline along with complex scheduling and careful allocation of time. Commitment to achieving the highest possible standards is a given and everyone is expected to come up with the goods.

In the case of the chorus members who I heard at their first rehearsal, this meant being musically prepared and ready to refine and develop their interpretation. In my case, it meant, among other things, making sure that their vocal scores were waiting for them, in the right place and at the right time. As I watched each of them arrive and casually pick up a score from the top of the pile, I realized that they of course had no idea that the Philharmonia's music librarian and I had been chasing the publishers for weeks, and had been by no means certain that we could provide the scores when needed as they were in fact in Australia until frighteningly close to the deadline.

Thankfully, the singers were all equipped and ready for action when Richard Hickox (whose seemingly bottomless reserves of energy and stamina make him resemble one of the more rarified characters straight from the pages of Pilgrim's Progress itself), picked up his baton and set to work. The detail and precision of this preparation process is remarkable and you can hear the difference, the way in which each instruction changes the overall sound, shaping and tightening and honing every phrase. This session is accompanied by piano and Hickox is constantly reminding the singers of the effect that the orchestra will eventually make, adjusting the balance to take that into account. 'A little more length on the consonants there,' he urges, more 't' on 'treasure' and lots of 'j' on 'joy'.' And that's exactly what he gets.

The next phase of preparation will add dramatic interpretation to the mix, with director David Edwards working with the soloists to create a staging which will bring the narrative to life. Vaughan Williams never called this piece an opera; his referred to it as a Morality, and what most appealed to him in the original text by John Bunyan was the story's universal significance. He transformed it from an exclusively Christian story to one with relevance to all faiths and creeds and it inspired him to write music of a lambent simplicity and directness, shot through with his own particular, devoutly humanist, spirituality.

Edwards is devising a way in which the singers, most of whom are portraying more than one role, will take on their characters, threading their way through the thickets of instrumentalists to emerge as a Heavenly Being or Superstition or Madam Wanton as occasion demands. At the first gathering of all the soloists in a large airy rehearsal studio near Waterloo station, the volume cranks up as introductions are made and acquaintances renewed. Gidon Saks (Mistrust/Apollyon/Lord Hate-Good) lets rip with a window-rattling, black treacle laugh that I hope he gets a chance to employ during the course of the action and Roderick Williams (one role only - the central one of the Pilgrim) leans thoughtfully on the rough wooden pilgrim's staff that Edwards has helpfully brought along with him. Hickox walks through the door and hands me his mobile phone so that I can talk to a colleague of his in Sydney about a so-far intractable problem concerning a performing licence. My nerves have become increasingly finely shredded over this particular situation but at the end of the phone call I sense a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Apologies are made for Pliable, who has a throat infection, and then that hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck thing happens all over again. Despite being so slim and finely made you wouldn't have thought he could have it in him, Roderick Williams sings his opening line: 'What shall I do? What shall I do to be saved?' with a voice of brazen, trumpet-tongued vigour that is truly thrilling.

I want to stay and keep listening but there are phone calls to make and e-mails to send, queries to be raised about whether music and music stands can stay in place between the dress rehearsal and the first performance, box office figures to be checked and a schedule to be updated. All the stuff that has to be quietly and doggedly sorted, to underpin this act of communal musical endeavour, the steady building of notes and text to create a complete performance.

Vaughan Williams is ripe for reassessment, a process that has been happening for a while now but should continue until his music finally shakes itself free of the trappings of nostalgia and English folksiness that it has acquired. This year, Classic FM listeners voted - again - for Lark Ascending as their favourite piece of music. It's a piece that has frequently been slammed as clichéd and hackneyed but played as it was by Anthony Marwood with the Philharmonia at the end of May, with an exquisitely controlled tenderness and precision, it acquires a keen freshness and, as in Gerard Manley Hopkins' phrase, 'does so rinse and wring the ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing.'