Avebury’s world premiere: standing ovation for 'Atlantic Odyssey'

Written by Jan Williamson on .

Robin Nelson (left) and Mike Polack (Photo courtesy Andrew Williamson)Robin Nelson (left) and Mike Polack (Photo courtesy Andrew Williamson)Atlantic Odyssey – a Journey through Music had its triumphant world premiere on Sunday evening (October 20) in St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, Swindon.  The performance received a standing ovation from a packed audience of around 450 people.  

The new work for mixed chorus, soloists and orchestra was performed by the Swindon Choral Society and Warneford School Choir. It was conducted by Robin Nelson and accompanied by a slide show.

The Odyssey is the result of an extraordinary creative collaboration between composer Robin Nelson and writer Mike Polack.  The two are next door neighbours in Avebury and share a passionate interest in birds.  

The piece takes its inspiration from the astonishing migration of the Arctic tern, a bird that weighs little more than an apple, but travels 40,000 miles a year.  The ‘bird of light’ follows the path of the sun from pole to pole and back during the course of the year.

Atlantic Odyssey depicts the journey superbly from tottering fledgling, through shrieking frenzy, to gliding and resting.  It begins with a rippling song Perpetual Light and ends with a joyous hymn of praise Oh the world sings to the movement of birds.

But Atlantic Odyssey does much more than that. Many of the places the tern passes over and the activities of humans beneath its path are presented in Mike Polack’s striking words, sometimes gritty, sometimes soaring and feathery.  

The narrative covers a huge span – from the early arrival of seafarers and fishermen, through the darkest activities of the slave trade and up to today’s oil drilling and pollution of the oceans.   Mike draws on a range of myths and legends including Anglo Saxon, African and Inuit.  

This is a big political story with depth and weight, as well as a celebration of nature. It is timeless and right up to date.

The joy of this piece is the way music and words combine.  Robin Nelson’s music contrasts light and dark and uses folk song, nursery rhyme and shanty.  It is approachable, harmonious and above all brilliantly orchestrated.  

You can hear the rattle of chains on the slave boat, the crack of the whip, the sweep of starlings roosting. Harp, piano, keyboard and percussion formed part of the excellent chamber orchestra and suited the piece perfectly.  Voice is also used as percussion: the choir hums, speaks and blows.  

The choice of the girls’ choir was inspired. They clearly loved taking part as did the Swindon Choral Society.  The soloists were Charlotte Mobbs soprano, Eamonn Dougan baritone, and Steve Cass tenor.
Atlantic Odyssey is thought provoking and moving with wonderful words and music. It deserves to be heard many more times.  

[For more information see our preview report.]