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)