Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

Mar 06, 2015
Gavin Bryars in rehearsal for Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Photo: Shane Reid / Adelaide Festival

Gavin Bryars in rehearsal for Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet. Photo: Shane Reid / Adelaide Festival

The final performance in Gavin Bryars’ composer-in-residence stint at the Festival concluded with his most famous work, ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’.

It’s an intriguing, challenging and, for many, moving piece, based on a repeating 13-bar loop of a homeless man singing part of a religious song.

Bryars came across the recording in 1971, when a friend was producing a film about people sleeping rough in London. The singer, whom Bryars told the Town Hall audience was not drunk, just down on his luck, sings tunefully in a slightly lilting perfect A.

The piece begins with the loop playing quietly: “Never failed me yet, never failed me yet, Jesus’ blood never failed me yet. This one thing I know that he loves me so.”

His voice is hopeful, insistent. Then the violins, led beautifully as usual by concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto, start gently, layering complexity on top of the loop. Eventually the whole orchestra joins in gently swelling and retreating embellishments.

Bryars conducts with minimal direction, at times simply leaning on the podium, head bowed. He says that even though he’s heard and conducted the piece thousands of times, he is still moved by this nameless, unknowable man, whose enduring legacy will forever be these 13 bars of faith.

Many in the audience are also moved, offering a standing ovation.

The first half of the concert also had some emotional moments, particularly the sensitive work of the orchestra on Howard Skempton’s very beautiful ‘Lento’.

Bryars’ ‘The Porazzi Fragment’ is based on a few bars sketched by Wagner and mysteriously picked out by the composer on a piano in Venice on his last night alive. As with all of Bryars’ work in this week of performances, it is restrained, elegant, mysterious.

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Arvo Part’s ‘If Bach had been a Beekeeper’ is fun, with a cut-down version of the ASO creating shimmering aural swarms of bees amid snatches of Bach-like formality.

Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet and selected orchestral works was a one-off concert on 5 March at the Adelaide Town Hall.

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