Music of Conviction

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The uniformed attendants are uniformly polite as they hand out programs to the concertgoers. Smiling, they check visitors' tickets and IDs, and relieve them of their mobile phones. The door behind them locks automatically before the one in front can open, and an official says, "Welcome to Pentonville Prison."

The audience has come to the prison's Ecumenical Centre for one of the concerts in the festival "Ikons of Light: The Inspirations of John Tavener," currently based at London's South Bank Centre and featuring 16 of Tavener's works and music by composers whom he admires, such as Handel and Stravinsky. The Pentonville concert is the fruit of a collaboration between the educational department of the prison and the London Sinfonietta, to premiere a work commissioned by the prison for its male voice choir and performed tonight in the presence of the composer, Tavener.

Tavener is in many ways an ideal choice for this venture. In the intimidating landscape of contemporary classical music, he has the distinction of being a serious composer whose music is seriously loved by a lot of people. His cello concerto, The Protecting Veil, topped the classical hit parade for over a year, and his Song for Athene written for the funeral of a young friend of the family has become inextricably associated with Princess Diana, at whose funeral it provided the unforgettably poignant climax.

"Music's become so abstract, so out of contact with life, with people, with everything," Tavener says of contemporary classical music. So he is gratified by the evidence of his popularity and by the many strangers who come up to thank him for what he is doing and what his compositions mean to them. Much of his music is tonal and melodic, a relief amid the dissonance which for many typifies modern composition. And Tavener has little liking for abstract music: the majority of his work is choral, and almost everything he writes is inspired by his religious beliefs.

In 1977 he joined the Russian Orthodox Church, whose liturgy and theology dominate his work. The Holy Fool, for example, the inspiration for his music-theater piece The Fool, performed by the musical group the gogmagogs as part of the festival, is a traditional figure in Greek Orthodox Christianity. His absurd, even shocking antics are regarded as evidence of a unique and mysterious spiritual insight denied to more rational beings.

Tavener dedicates this work to the British comedian Norman Wisdom, after whom a hospital in Chernobyl is named. Tavener describes a "quite extraordinary" television film of Wisdom going around a ward of children dying of leukemia, playing the fool with them and making them laugh. The role of the fool that Tavener has written is hugely taxing, requiring a comic virtuoso with an enormous vocal range, the skills of a mime artist and an ability to play the cello at the same time.

But the music he has written for the prisoners is technically undemanding. Many have never sung in public, and few can read music, so the piece had to be either in one part, or very simply in two. It uses few instruments a Tibetan temple gong, handbells for one of the prisoners to ring and a string quintet from the London Sinfonietta. Vocally it seems simple, but Tavener points out that "it's probably very difficult for them to keep the pitch over a long period of time."

The work, In One Single Moment, takes its text from the Eastern Orthodox Good Friday service and refers to the words of Christ on the cross to the penitent thief: "Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise." Tavener's style is restrained, even when he is deeply committed to the spiritual message of a text. He explains that this is the only time that Christ unequivocally refers to paradise: it is our one justification for believing that there is life after death, and when the text reaches the words "Do Thou by the Wood of Thy Cross also enlighten and save me" the music gathers in intensity as the untrained male voices some sweet, some gruff, some a little off-key movingly combine in a heartfelt plea for salvation.

In the light of such commitment inescapably evident in the singers' faces musical analysis is unnecessary. What matters to the audience some of whom are in tears is their involvement in a collective penitence and redemption: a spiritual experience shared, in those moments, by prisoners and audience alike.