Imagine a huge symphonic work with double choir that details all the world’s major religions and ends with them singing in harmony. Now imagine a contemporary music work that sets to music the goals of a charitable foundation – in this case Switzerland’s Weltethos, which aims to promote intercultural understanding. Cross these with each other and you have Weltethos, Jonathan Harvey’s new 90-minute work for the Berlin Philharmonic and the London 2012 Festival.
Tepid applause rewarded last Thursday’s world premiere of this sprawling piece under Simon Rattle’s direction. Berlin’s Philharmonie hall was packed to the rafters. On stage, an armoury of percussion, a huge orchestra, an adult and a children’s choir filled every corner. World peace explained in the course of just one concert! It is hard to imagine anyone seriously believing that an idea so grandiose could work.
The main problem with Weltethos – apart from its absurd premise – is its text. Foundation president Hans Kung, modestly described in the programme book as the world’s most famous theologian, has penned a work in six sections; these fail in their attempt to condense the essence of six complex belief systems into a few lines without lapsing into kitsch or pathos. Both are present in abundance.
Each movement opens with a speaker (Dale Duesing) intoning lines about a religion’s origin against a pictorial orchestral backing. Then follows a section in which the adult choir first whispers, then sings texts about and from religious leaders. Each section is concluded with the children’s choir singing, in obedient unison: “We children have a future if we always remain humane . . . Let us humans be humane!” By the third repetition, this has worn extremely thin; by the fourth, it is embarrassing. And still it continues.
Next to Rattle stands Simon Halsey, chief conductor and artistic director of the Rundfunkchor Berlin. In the programme he is billed as “co-conductor”. He occasionally directs the choir, and mostly looks superfluous. Rattle, the consummate organiser, could surely have managed alone.
It is horribly tempting to write off Weltethos as a disastrous attempt to flatter a Swiss sponsor. But Harvey’s music is sometimes exquisite. In a way, this makes it all the more unfortunate – all that effort, so many moments of delicate effect or coruscating orchestral transcendence, at the service of such a hideous text.
For the sprawling London 2012 Festival, UK listeners will also be treated to a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra under Rattle of Wynton Marsalis’s Swing Symphony, despite its disappointing world premiere in Berlin in June 2010. Who chose these doubly disappointing exports? Listeners, please note: not all Berlin premieres are this lumpy!
This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.