Friday 6 July 2012

Wishful Singing at the City of London Festival

Dutch vocal group, Wishful Singing
Wishful Singing
One of the delights of the City of London Festival is the way that it puts events in different parts of the City. I have to confess that I had never been to the delightful little enclave that is Austin Friars and was completely unfamiliar with the Dutch Church. The building dates from the 1950's but the site has been used as the Dutch church since the 1500's. On 7 July, the Dutch group Wishful Singing gave a concert there as part of the festival. Wishful Singing (Anne-Christine Wemekamp, Maria Goetze, Marjolein Verburg, Annemiek van der Ven, Rosalie Sloof) are five Dutch female singers who founded the a cappella vocal group in 2005. Glamorously dressed in coordinating outfits of black and blue, they sang a wide variety of music ranging from Renaissance through to contemporary and popular.

They opened with Eno nome de Maria by Alfonso X 'el Sablo' from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, sung from the back of the church starting with just melody and a drone, gradually developing greater harmony in each verse. They sang with a lovely smooth line, a nice blend and great lyric beauty. Once on stage they continued with early music with Lassus's Adoramus te, sung with a lovely clear texture, just five high voices; the sound quality was stunningly beautiful and technically impressive. Next came a simpler three part piece from the 20th century Dutch composer Herman Strategier. The Ave Maria was quite homophonic. There were lovely moments, though there was a hint of tuning problems in the upper voices; a rare hint of anything like nerves from a most professional group.

Ludwig Senfl's Das G'laut zu Speyer was an amazing showpiece, five people all ringing bells and talking at once, a huge amount of text sung simultaneously. I was a little unclear quite what we heard was Senfl's and what was arranger Tijs Krammer's, but it was a brilliant tour-de-force, and great fun. The mood of simultaneity continued with Thomas Ravenscroft's A round of three country dances in one. For each item in the programme, the women sang in a different stage configuration and with the Ravenscroft they included some delightful and engaging elements of staging, including a drum.

The last early item was Scarlatti's madrigal Cor mio, deh non languire, again taking pleasure in the way the five high voices entwined. It has to be admitted that the performance was not as perfectly period as a specialist group, but their blend and tuning were admirable and the performance was very affecting.

For the final two pieces in the first half, they moved firmly into the contemporary. Kesakuun sade by the contemporary Finnish composer Ollli Virtaperko was melodic, but contemporary both in its dramatic use of dense clusters and in its sparseness. This was an entirely serious piece, not easy but nicely done and very expressive. The final piece in this half was rather showier, but technically demanding nonetheless. Paul Patterson's Time Piece was written for the Kings Singers and he has produced a new, all female version, specially for Wishful Singing; here given its UK premiere. Another tour-de-force, this combined sections of non-verbal singing and vocal effects, with a plot line which crazily brought a wrist watch into the Garden of Eden and made the women skitter through a variety of vocal styles, something they did effortlessly. Their performance, wittily staged, was technically brilliant and delightfully engaging, they even coped with tripping over the carpet!

Frank Martin's Ode and Sonnet was originally written for three female voices and cello, here they performed it in version for a cappella female ensemble. There were some lovely moments, though Martin's austerely neo-classical purity is rather unforgiving. This was followed by a pair of folk-song arrangements. A charming Hugo Alfven version of the Swedish folksong Uti var Hage. The second was not strictly a folk-song, but an Irish First World War ballad Bonny Wood Green, simple but perfect.

The next two items were by the Dutch composer and record producer Erik van der Wurff with words by the Dutch poet and comedian Herman van Veen. Both Eine Kleini Frist and Opzij, opzij, opzij were gently amusing and given in rather effective arrangements. The music was serious, but in a popular vein and gently amusing. The second item was the first time the group had sung in their native language.

The next four items were all popular American in vein. Percy Wenrich's When you wore a tulip given in a nice close harmony arrangement that hilariously included the playing of kazoos, Pat Ballard's Mister Sandman in a familiar arrangement most engagingly done (to say they were nearly as good as The Flirtations might sound ungenerous but is intended as a compliment), another close harmony arrangement of Jule Styne's Diamonds are a girls best friend and finally Richard Leigh's Don't it make my brown eyes blue.

They finished with a spirited account of a Mexican folksong, Las Amarillas, but of course that wasn't the end and they added, of course, Tulips from Amsterdam complete with audience involvement.

I have to admit that there were moments when the blend was not quite perfect, with one of the higher sopranos standing out a little too much, and not every item was completely idiomatic. But what impressed was their lovely tone, blend and sheer virtuosity in tackling such a wide variety of genres, giving each work its due, always entertaining and engaging. The more serious numbers impressed as much as the more conventionally fun ones. Their ability to communicate was impressive in a wide variety of languages, even to doing spoken introductions in English. A church is not perhaps the most ideal venue for this style of programme, but Wishful Singing  impressed nonetheless and I certainly hope to see them again soon. 

See our Festival pages:
Buxton Festival 2012
Opera Holland Park 2012
Grange Park Opera 2012
City of London Festival 2012

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