Thursday, 10 February 2011

Piano and Baritone at Glenorchy Wednesday 2 February

Pianist Michèle Banting and Baritone Iain McDonald

As February began the Glenorchy lunchtime concert series continued.  Baritone, and minister of Exeter United Reformed Church, Iain McDonald was initially billed to sing with Rebecca Willson at the piano and Ruth Avis playing flute.  That seems to have been a clerical error of some kind, the pianist was in fact Michèle Banting.
Michèle led firmly into their first song and maintained the same pleasantly even volume throughout it.  'Linden Lee' was Ralph Vaughan Williams' first published song (at the age of 29 in 1901, after his time in Paris is Maurice Ravel).  William Barnes original words ('My Orcha'd in Lindèn Lea' from his 1859 'Second Collection of Poems of Rural Life in the Dorset Dialect') tell the story of a contented farm labourer wandering through his orchard, unconcerned that he didn't have a well-paid job in the city.  The rhythm is a very interesting Welsh 'cynghanedd'. Vaughan-Williams Version is transcribed into modern English with minimal loss of effect.  Iain sang the song beautifully transporting us all to the Dorset countryside of the late nineteenth century.
Iain then moved from Vaughan Williams to Ivor Gurney.  Vaughan Williams, he explained, was actually from Gloucestershire, as was the composer Herbert Howells, who dedicated his piano quartet "to the hill at Chosen [Churchdown Hill] and Ivor Gurney who loved it".  Iain himself was a pupil at Chosen Hill School in Churchdown and sympathised with Gurney's homesickness for Gloucestershire.  Although born in Gloucestershire, Gurney spent the last fifteen years of his life  in the City of London Mental Hospital at Dartford.  He wrote prolifically, and his editor Marion Scott worked with composer Gerald Finzi to ensure that Gurney's work was preserved.
Iain sang us Gurney's vocal version of W B Yates 'Gort na Saileán' (English version: 'Down by the Sally Gardens').  With minimal piano accompaniment Iain related the touching love story with its burden of regret.  Then he sang Gurney's 1928 version of F W Harvey's 'Walking Song'.  This one was short and exultant, but angry - about being stuck in London!
More love songs followed.  Edvard Grieg's setting of Hans Christian Anderson's 'Ich Liebe Dich' ('I Love You'), which was composed by Grieg for his cousin (and wife) Nina Naderup to sing, was plaintive, almost sheepish. Franz Schubert's 1817 version of Franz von Schober's 'An die Musik' ('To Music') was ecstatic with gentle chords on the piano from Michèle.  Robert Schumann's 1840 version of Heinrich Heine's 'Ich Grolle Nicht' ('I don't chide you') began stern and became more angry until Iain was shaking with rage as he expressed the author's frustration at his unrequited love for the object of his affection.  Michèle then finished off the job with some angry chords of her own!
While Iain recovered Michèle performed two piano solos for us.  First was 'Träumerei' from Robert Schumann's 1838 'Kinderscenen' ('Dreaming': 'Scenes from Childhood').  Sound familiar?  Sunwook Kim had played this as his encore at the Cathedral the previous week (see previous post).  Although Michèle would probably agree that Sunwook has the edge, her interpretation had it's own appeal - precise and smooth with very thoughtful phrasing.  By way of contrast, Michèle then played Schumann's 'Frohlicher Landmann' ('The Merry Peasant') from his 'Album fur die Jugend' (Opus 68, 1848, for Marie, Elise and Julie Schumann, aged 7, 5 and 3 - Robert and Clara's daughters).  This had a very sudden start and was bouncy and jolly throughout, starkly evoking the compartmentalised world of Robert Schumann, full of love and joy for his children, despite being full of dread and despair where the outside world was concerned.  Many thanks to Michèle for that interlude.
Michèle then had a break as Iain sang unaccompanied.  He started with a spiritual song made famous by Louis Armstrong, 'Nobody  Knows the Trouble I've Seen [Nobody Knows but Jesus]'.  Iain managed to evoke increasing agitation while keeping perfect pitch as he begged the unseen powers to tell his friends, should any of them have died already, how much he hoped to escape worldly misery and join them in a better afterlife.
The next song, on a similar theme, was 'Ol' Man River' from the 1927 musical 'Show Boat' with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein set to music by Jerome Kern.  Originally sung in the bass this was made into a hit recording the following year by the 24 year old Bing Crosby, with Bix Beiderbecke playing cornet.  Because of the unacceptable racial slurs in the lyrics the words have been changed many times over the years.  In 1948 Al Jolson changed the words to 'Lots of folks work on the Mississippi'.  Iain went for the intermediate version, 'Coloured folks work on the Missippi' - giving some feel of the appalling attitudes of 1920s America.  The familiar song became even more familiar as Iain made every word easy to follow.  'Git a little drunk, an' you land in jail' still jars, with it's implication that the victims of discrimination would also be particularly likely to have alcohol problems.  In 1938 African American concert singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson changed that lyric to 'Show a little grit, and you lands in jail'.  Quite apart from the political concerns the song raised, the chorus, reprising the lament that the uncaring Mississipi flows on relentlessly through generations of suffering, gave us the full depth of Iain's voice - like melting butter.  The final chorus was simply magnificent.
Iain and Michèle had a few more show songs for us.  'Love Walked in', composed by George Gershwin in 1930 with lyrics added by Ira in 1938 for the movie 'The Goldwyn Follies', was also recorded by Louis Armstrong in the same year, but was made a hit by Ella Fitzgerald in 1959.  Also made polular by Ella Fitzgerald was 'So in Love' written by Cole Porter for his 1948 musical 'Kiss Me Kate' based on Shakespeare's 'Taming of the Shrew'.  Both these songs were lovingly revived by Iain and Michèle.  'Love Walked in' was really happy, helping us forget the gloom of the past, and included a lovely little swing tune for Michèle.  'So in Love' was low and tempestuous relating the strange but undeniable experience of being - so in love.  Michèle maintained an unsettling synchopated rhythm right to the last low piano note.
Michèle and Iain finished with two songs from Leonard Bernstein's 1957 musical 'West Side Story' (also Shakespearian - 'Romeo and Juliet' this time).  'Somewhere', with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, includes a theme from Beethoven's Fifth (Emperor) Concerto.  The piano part was slow and moving and the words, "There's a place for us . . . " hovered between hope and despair.  Iain's lingering, "Hold my hand and I'll take you there - somehow - some day - somewhere - " was worked by Iain and Michèle together absolutely perfectly.  The final number was Sondheim's 'Tonight' from the same musical.  This was fast and furious for Iain to sing, and for Michèle on the piano, building to a furious gallop into the final furlong.  A superb end to the show, and so warmly received that we were allowed to hear it all over again as an encore.
That's what I call a lunch break.  Non-stop entertainment, with a little interesting history thrown in, and no charge for admission.  Many were inspired to give generously to the retiring collection on the way out, but that's another story.

Concerts still to come in the Glenorchy lunchtime series are:

The Beacon Piano Trio 9th February

Alison Burnett 16th February

(Alison was originally billed as 'Alison Burnett and her singing pupils', but her 'pupils' are not allowed to leave their studies to entertain us.  Alison will sing for us with piano accompaniment instead.)

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