The deliciously dark double act of Tommy Smith and Kurt Elling creates a grand spectacle.
The origins of Tommy Smith's first composition for the SNJO in seven years were debated in a good-natured double act between the saxophonist and the orchestra's guest, the rich-toned vocalist Kurt Elling. They agreed that Spirit of Light took root three years ago and there would be no doubting its difference from its 2010 predecessor, The World of the Gods, which pitched the orchestra with a Japanese taiko (drum) team in exuberant, flamboyant communion.
Once again, though, Smith corralled his resources with skill and if this latest work was at times darker than its title might suggest, especially in the first half, then it also created a compelling flow and an understated atmosphere of grandeur.
It began with Smith moving through the cathedral playing a lovely folk-song-like air over a low drone and the humming voices of the ten-strong Cappella Nova. Elling's characterful recitation of Liz Lochhead's words on Spirit of Light then led into the sound world Smith had constructed, incorporating works by poets including Robert Frost, Norman MacCaig and Rainer Maria Rilke.
The core band was reduced to three trumpets, two trombones, double bass and drums, and enhanced by pedal harp, flute, bass clarinet, tuba, percussion and the cathedral organ. As well as conducting, Smith was the featured soloist alongside Elling and, while assuming his role sparingly, he played beautifully, luxuriating in his superbly burnished tenor tone and allowing carefully chosen notes to breathe in the cathedral's acoustics.
Elling was commanding without claiming the spotlight and the marching impetus given to Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, the transformation of Rilke's For the Modern Person into a natural jazz ballad, the insistent, massed voices chanting of the prayer song Introit, along with a parting melody that stayed in the mind long after the final note gave evidence of Smith's powerfully creative imagination.
Four stars: * * * *