In November 1940, a priest plucked three large medieval nails from the ashes of the blitzed Coventry Cathedral. Fashioned into a cross, they would be at the centre of the altar crucifix in the modernist masterpiece that rose up alongside. That powerful symbol of resurrection and renewal has been replicated several times, sent out around the world as a reminder that wilful destruction need not be the end of the story.
One such cross can be found in Odessa, where recently, as thousands of Russian troops massed on their border, Ukrainians told the dean of Coventry they had found strength and consolation in his cathedral’s support during eight years of fear and uncertainty. It reflects Coventry’s declared desire to be seen as a city that, defiant in the face of destruction, chose reconciliation over revenge; one that offers sanctuary, welcoming refugees, asylum seekers and migrants; a city where today, 27% of the population was born outside the UK.
All these aims and achievements cry out to be expressed in profound music; music that might match the stature of Coventry’s cathedral and its signature work, Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, performed at the opening of the new building 60 years ago. How disappointing, then, that Nitin Sawhney’s Ghosts in the Ruins, commissioned as a “new take” on Britten to mark the anniversary, made such little impact in its attempt to reflect the modern, vibrant city of culture.
Britten dovetailed Wilfred Owen’s devastating poetry into the requiem mass. In his desire to take the story on from the grief and loss expressed by Britten, Sawhney interspersed three conventional motets with instrumental interludes and spoken poetry. But while each section was given a heading (Ashes, Phoenix Children, Seeds of Hope, etc), there was only a vague sense of narrative and precious little to stir our emotions.
A massive projected portrait of Britten had greeted concertgoers as they arrived, while a recording of the Libera Me from his Requiem played softly in the background. Sawhney read Owen’s searing Dulce et Decorum Est before his remarkably tonal Anglican setting of the same words were sung by the cathedral choir. This proved to be the most successful part of the evening, followed as it was by portentously dull recorded orchestral sections featuring violinist Eos Counsell and Coventry singer YVA. New verse from local poets Emilie Lauren Jones, Landry Affton, Tiur Sitompul, Tanisha Chopra and Hawwa Hussain, extolled the virtues of multicultural Coventry, but we were shown only projected photographs of those communities. We heard none of their music.
Counterintuitively, the audience moved out to stand in the ruins of the bombed building for the finale. Here, the cathedral choir was joined by the local singers of Spires Music and the Choir With No Name, which supports and encourages the isolated and marginalised. This warm gesture of solidarity might have been nourished with some thought-provoking music, but instead we had three short, unintelligible, wordless choruses. Such a lost opportunity.