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S & H Festival Review

"Songs from the Exotic", Weir, Flanders and Swann, Bennett, Woodforde-Finden, Holst, Browne, Tippett, Coward, Philips, Berkeley, Jack, Stevenson, Muldowney. Susan Bickley (mezzo), Roderick Williams (baritone), James Gilchrist (tenor), Iain Burnside (piano) The Assembly Rooms, Ludlow, 5th June, 2004 (AO)


In his book "Orientalism", the late Professor Edward Said studied western European depictions of Arabic life. He concluded that they told more about nineteenth century western attitudes than about the subjects themselves. This programme, titled Songs from the Exotic explores similar territory through song.

The title comes from Judith Weir's group of folk texts. A frenetic, hyperactive piano part underlines the droll desperation of the Serbian peasant in Sevdalino, my little one. In contrast, the voice part was curiously reticent. Even more dramatic was In the lovely village of Nevesinje. It is a song of revenge and murder, coming to an eerie denouement that ends, hanging in silence. Bickley has a well modulated voice, but her innate gentility limited the flamboyance these uninhibited songs call for. This passionate music needs passionate treatment. The Romance of Count Arnaldos, was more suited, perhaps because it was sung in Spanish.

And then we were off to really wild territory. Flanders and Swann might be perceived as popular entertainers but the sheer brilliance of their inventiveness and use of language deserves a place in the canon of English song. Like the songs of Noel Coward, their music epitomises the irreverence that lurks beneath the fabled English reserve : an understated dry wit that subverts pretension. Gilchrist launched into Tonga (a philological Waltz), deftly flying through the complex word patterns and invented sounds In contrast W. Denis Browne's Arabia seemed positively tame, despite the best attempts of Williams to enliven the curving mock Arabic stylisation. Within the song lies menace : the lure of the exotic whispers danger, the "spell of far Arabia" can steal one's "wits away" as the poet de la Mare put it. And so followed Holst's Vac, from the Vedic Hymns, where a Sanskrit goddess sings of her power to control the Heavens. Holst seemed to seek in exotic texts an escape from the stifling repression of Victorian convention : this song with its almost minimal piano part sounds strangely modern.

Amy Woodforde-Finden typified the Englishwoman Abroad, living in the colonies, but as a privileged observer from outside. Eroticism is "safe" if the cultural context is alien and Empire is unchallenged. Her If in the great bazaars is pastiche Arabic, complete with a chorus of "la, la, la" imitating an Arabic call. The subject may be Moorish but the perspective is unwaveringly Home Counties middle class.

Deftly, the programme altered gears again. Tippett's celebrated Boyhood's End. Tippett makes no attempt at pastiche anything, as he writes from his own inner understanding of a universal theme. William Henry Hudson's prose is so beautifully written that it is innately musical, and the intense feeling in his work translates into what Gilchrist described as "exuberance bubbling over a superfluity of notes". The piano part is a tour de force, fiendishly difficult, but carried off brilliantly by Burnside. Gilchrist, too, sang with agility and a sense of magic. The final phrases "to gaze and gaze, until they are to me living things, and I, in an ecstasy, am with them, floating in that immense shining void" could come straight out of Teilhard de Chardin or Traherne. Gilchrist sang gloriously, while Burnside played the spectacular ending with panache. The audience went wild. I'd like to hear Gilchrist in Dies Natalis.

Noel Coward's I like America introduced the second new work commissioned by the Song Festival, Julian Philips' cycle An American Songbook. Regretfully, due to car problems I missed the other specially commissioned work, Ian Venable's Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, in the first recital of the weekend. While in New York, Philips came across a volume of Langston Hughes, the poet who celebrated the life of Harlem in the early years of the last century. Hughes embraced jazz, and his poetry incorporates a bluesy, syncopated rhythm that lends itself to song. His poems also inspired Alexander Zemlinsky, who set them in German in far away Vienna in the 1920's. Each of Philips' songs is a vignette. The piano part is atmospheric, evoking images of smoke and slow dancing, the up and down, unending movement of elevators and escalators. It is the "spirit of place" of urban New York, just as the countryside is the "spirit" of so much English song. Stars is particularly lovely, the piano twinkling around the vocal line. I also liked the dark Soledad about the prison, and Disillusion, also set by Zemlinsky. The cycle is so very new that the score for one of them did not arrive in time for the performance. Yet even on one listening, it was intriguing enough that my imagination buzzed with ideas of interpretation. How would they sound transposed lower? Would the distinctive sudden leaps up scale be more effective if approached differently? Would a darker, more dramatic voice bring out something in songs like Elevator Boy? These are tough, streetwise poems despite their lyricism. Bickley sings with a vaguely mid Atlantic accent, but even an English accent might be appropriate, given an earthier interpretation.

Chinese and Japanese music has fascinated many composers from Mahler to Delage to Aho. Lennox Berkeley's The Autumn Wind has elements of vaguely Chinese sounds. Adrian Jack's Chinese Bossanova with its striking introduction, used a jerky, angular rhythm that made me think of a diagonal, twisting dance. It's quite a tricky song to perform, and I wondered why Bickley sat down to sing it. Perhaps more western composers absorb Gilbert and Sullivan rather than real Chinese music. Master and Pupil by Ronald Stevenson and Brecht's biting Song of the Water seller in the rain, by Dominic Muldowney were a little stereotyped pseudo oriental, but Roderick Williams portrayed the Chinese water seller with such wit and style that it was quite enjoyable. To end, we had another Noel Coward song, Nina, the girl from Argentina who couldn't dance. Just as Holst used Sanskrit as spice to make darker thoughts palatable, Coward's veneer of cosmopolitan sophistication made his satire more subtle. The "exotic" and foreign, tells us something about "home".

Anne Ozorio



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