By Robert Croan
It’s an encouraging sign, that the Sept. 18 concert by Master Chorale of South Florida was sold out. It was a free event in Fort Lauderdale’s Sunshine Cathedral, sponsored by the Our Fund Foundation in partnership with Stonewall National Museum and Archives, but reservations were required and there was an overflow at the door, with people hoping for cancellations or no-shows.
This was no ordinary choral concert. The afternoon was devoted to a single work: James McCarthy’s Codebreaker: The Alan Turing Story, an hourlong cantata depicting the genius mathematician and LGBTQ+ martyr who broke the code of the Germans in World War II and became the father of modern computer science. After the war, Turing was persecuted, subjected to chemical castration (as an alternate to imprisonment) for his homosexuality — a crime punishable by a life sentence in England prior to 1967. It’s all the more thought-provoking that his “crime” — “gross indecency” — is the same offense for which Oscar Wilde had been incarcerated a half-century before. Turing died by suicide on June 7, 1954, 16 days before his 42nd birthday.
There’s some significance in the diversity of the audience that turned out for this event. It was a work on a gay subject, performed by a community organization in a venue known to be gay-friendly, sponsored by two important LGBTQ+ organizations. Yet the crowd appeared to be a cross-section of the population: a balanced mixture of gay and straight, old and young, racially varied as well. In today’s political climate, that makes a difference.
London-born composer McCarthy (b. 1979), has a successful roster of choral works along with film and TV projects to his credit. Codebreaker had its premiere at London’s Barbicon Centre in 2014, the same year as the movie — The Imitation Game — that starred Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. The actor, in fact, attended the cantata’s premiere. “I gripped the side of my seat trying not to weep,” Cumberbatch said. “And failed.” Codebreaker has since been widely performed and recorded on the Signum Classics label.
By his own description, McCarthy concentrated on three aspects of his protagonist. Part 1 explores Turing’s youthful love for a fellow student, Christopher Morcom, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 18. Part 2 depicts the war, including Turing’s invention of a decryption machine known as the Bombe. Finally, there is Turing’s tragic persecution and death.
McCarthy’s music is tonal and conservative, but there’s a personal touch that juxtaposes elements of minimalism (frequently reiterated rhythmic patterns with subtle changes in the repetitions) with broad melodic phrases that may be superimposed, or simply exist on their own. His instrumentation is colorful — a chamber ensemble was used on this occasion, but there is also a version for full orchestra — and integrated with the choral sonorities.
The libretto alternates poetry and prose, from Robert Burns and Oscar Wilde, to the early 20th-century Sara Teasdale, Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, as well as Turing’s mother (from her diaries) and Turing himself. A very moving section early on has the chorus declaiming the public apology made by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2009, 55 years after Turing’s death. The choral reiterations of “che-mi-cal-cas-tra-tion” in Brown’s Apology are chilling.
A central segment begins with the actual recorded words of Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war with Germany, then goes on to the mostly orchestral movement labeled, “The Bombe/War.” The soprano solo, “A Mother’s Lament for the Death of her Son,” based partly on Sara Turing’s memoir of her son and partly on Burns’s verses, contains some of the cantata’s most poignant pages. In context, however, it’s anticlimactic, coming on the heels of super-intense settings of words from Wilde’s “De Profundis” and Thomas’s “Lights Out.” Soloist Julia Pinn, representing Turing’s mother, sang clearly and expressively, but her small, whitish soprano lost pitch in the upper octave, while her vocal color was more maidenly than motherly.
McCarthy’s choral painting contains a good deal of verbal repetition, placed to allow for the words to be understood, and the Master Chorale, led by the group’s associate conductor Scott AuCoin, provided clear enunciation and projection of the texts. The combined forces were at their best in the heartrending “De Profundus,” arguably the most advanced and interesting word setting in the score. On the other hand, because of the previous powerful surge, the final chorus — on Teasdale’s “If Death Is Kind” — came off less uplifting than intended.
AuCoin merits praise for the overall precision of the choral singing and integration with the excellent instrumentalists from University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. Silences and cutoffs were scrupulous, as was the transparency of the string playing. The prominent percussion part was also notable and admirably rendered.