Friday, 30 November 2018

CD Review - November 2018

Composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s (b.1980) strength in imaginatively setting words to music shows no sign of slowing. Magic Lantern Tales, which gives her new disc its title, is a setting of poems by Ian McMillan, which were in turn responses to interviews and documentary photography by Ian Beesley.  Beesley was Artist in Residence at a psychiatric hospital, and his interviews with elderly people document stories of love, loss and in particular, the impact of the First World War.  McMillan’s poetry, and Frances-Hoad’s expressive settings, capture the poignancy and intimacy of these tales, as well as their humour and human drama.  Tenor Nicky Spence, who premiered the cycle, sings with full-toned immediacy of communication, from the folk-like idiom, almost troubadour style of the opening ‘Marching through Time’,to the romantically poignant narrative of ‘Lily Maynard’, and the loss of her love in the Somme. Frances-Hoad cranks up the tension here, with ever-richer harmonies, and even gunfire from the piano (played here by Sholto Kynoch) as events take a tragic turn.  Even the bouncy ‘Ballad of Harry Holmes’, with elements of music hall and even drinking song, has moments of pause for bird song effects, but here again, the story telling is key, and Spence is captivating throughout.  The sadness of ‘Mabel Walsh’, with its insistent, pecking piano part under a long, lugubrious lyrical vocal line is followed by the opening song’s return, and throughout the cycle are references and allusions to music associated with the First World War period, such as Butterworth’s ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’, and songs such as ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ and ‘Pack up your Troubles’.  The Thought Machine sets ten children’s poems by Kate Wakeling, and the contrast of tone could not be more different, yet story-telling remains central.  Soprano Sophie Daneman and baritone Mark Stone, with Kynoch again on piano, share the task of portraying the silvery, ethereal atmosphere of the New Moon, the motoring rhythm of a mysterious Machine (with added egg shakers played by the singers!), and the strange, leaping extremes of voice and piano in the Telescope.  Humour and rollicking fairytales are here too, with great comic timing in Skig the Warrior and Thief, and some fabulously fun word-painting in Rita the Pirate.  Contrasting yet again, in Scenes from Autistic Bedtime, both parent and autistic child are given voice, with Edward Nieland (treble) as the boy and Natalie Raybould (soprano) as the mother, with cello, vibraphone and piano accompaniment.  There’s much repetition of text and musical motifs, and the frailty of the boy’s anxiety, as well as the tiredness and frustration of the mother are expressed skillfully by both singers.  The text (by Stuart Murray, himself a parent of two autistic boys) and Frances-Hoad’s music capture wonderfully the conflict of intimate and at times playful experiences of boy and mother, with moments of clear distress for both, particularly in the last of the three scenes.  Space does not allow me to do justice to the other material here, including two sensuously jazzy and dreamy solo piano miniatures played expressively by Kynoch, the wonderfully sombre Lament sung by Anna Huntley (mezzo-soprano), with low bell tolling on piano from Alisdair Hogarth, and the Britten-esque intoning in the trio for soprano, mezzo-soprano and countertenor (Verity Wingate, Sinéad O’Kelly and Collin Shay, with Hogarth again on piano), Invoke Now the Angels, with its dazzling outburst on the words ‘extraordinary angels’.  The same three singers, this time unaccompanied, deliver a beautiful close blend for A Song Incomplete, Frances-Hoad’s short Aristotle setting, written for her own wedding.  Finally, Love Bytes, for soprano (Wingate), baritone (Philip Smith), vibraphone (Beth Higham-Edwards), cello (Anna Menzies), conducted by George Jackson, is a mini-opera, a modern tale of a virtual romance that is perhaps doomed before it starts.  Frances-Hoad combines elements of almost musical theatre style with imaginative instrumentation, once again showing her knack for authentic communication of contemporary situations and emotions.  A highly impressive collection, striking in its sheer variety, emotional impact and communicative expression.

Hoad, F. 2018. Magic Lantern Tales. Various. Compact Disc. Champs Hill Records CHRDC146.

(Edited versions of this review first appeared in GScene, November 2018)

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Lumen de Lumine - New choral music from the Lumen Chamber Choir

Recently I spoke to Benjamin Thiele-Long, Director of the London-based Lumen Chamber Choir, about their innovative project to record a whole disc of new sacred and spiritual choral music.  Thiele-Long spoke about the inspiration that came to him on a visit to Iceland, seeing the Northern Lights for the first time.  He compared his emotional reaction to when he first heard Howell's Collegium Regale, and this led him to think about how to create new opportunities for choral music to move and excite audiences.  In Iceland, he experienced a genuine enthusiasm for new music, and this was something he wanted to encourage back home. 

The idea for a project with the Lumen Chamber Choir was thus formed.  This was in essence to create a platform that composers of choral music wouldn't otherwise have, and to expand the repertoire of new music available to choirs of all abilities.  They decided to launch a crowdfunding initiative, which proved successful, and approached various record labels to support the project.  Thiele-Long says that Convivium Records were immediately supportive of the project, and instrumental in bringing the recording to fruition.

The composers were found through recommendation, friends and some already associated with the choir as singers or former singers, as well as a successful social media campaign - Thiele-Long's 'day job' PR background coming in handy here.  They ended up with a good number of composers interested, and the selection process that followed, including the aim for a balance of styles, and demographic backgrounds, helped them reduce the chosen number of composers down to the final line-up.  The end result is a collection of music from 12 different composers, with a very broad range of styles.  

You will be able to read my review of the final disc here soon, but for now, do have a look at the above videos in which Thiele-Long talks more about this exciting project.  There are also more videos giving background on the composers and their works - I've included a couple of these below.

You can get hold of the disc here.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Vote 100: Celebrating Women Composers

Saturday 17 November, 7.30pm, St George's Church, Brighton
Vote 100: Celebrating Women Composers marks the centenary of some women gaining the vote. A specially commissioned new work - ‘Lead On’ - by Lucy Pankhurst, a relative of leading suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst, will be performed and music by a diverse range of women composers, with Caroline Lucas MP as a key speaker.
Artists include soprano Polina Shepherdvocal/instrumental group HEARD Collective, choir Women of Note, guitarist Brian Ashworth, flautist Rebecca Griffiths and pianists Evgenia Startseva and Yuri Paterson-Olenich plus multi-pianist ensemble the Zongora Piano Group and the Appel Trio. 
Featured composers include Norah Blaney, Rebecca Clarke, Avril Coleridge-Taylor, Lilian ElkingtonShena Fraser, Augusta Holmès, Ethel Smyth plus present-day composers Litha Efthymiou, Cecilia McDowall and Master of the Queen's Music, Judith Weir.

'Norah Blaney (right) and her partner Gwen Farrar first met in 1917, entertaining troops in a concert party. Gwen played the cello and Norah was a classically trained pianist who had also studied composition at the Royal College of Music. Several of the songs she wrote were published while she was still in her teens and 'Are You There Mr Bear?' is still in print over 100 years later.

Norah and Gwen appeared in the 1921 Royal Command Performance at the London Hippodrome. They went on to star in revues at the Vaudeville, Prince of Wales and Savoy Theatres, becoming household names in 1924 for their recording of 'It Ain't Gonna Rain No More'. They lived together as lovers in a house in the King's Road Chelsea, where they entertained Noel Coward, Tallulah Bankhead, Radclyffe Hall, Dolly Wilde (Oscar's niece) and the lesbian action hero Joe Carstairs, to name just a few'.  
(with thanks to Alison Child).

Alison Child is currently writing a biography of Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar, Tell Me I'm Forgiven (with cover design by Andrew Kay) which will be available in the Autumn of 2019.

Book tickets here.