Wednesday 11 June 2014

In high spirits: the London English Song Festival celebrates the birthday of Judith Weir

Judith Weir
Judith Weir
Judith Weir, Robin Holloway, Jonathan Dove, Scott Wheeler, Copland, Gershwin, Ives: Johnny Herford, Katie Bray, William Vann: London English Song Festival
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jun 06 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Celebration of Judith Weir's 60th birthday with songs by her and her contemporaries and influences

Last month was Judith Weir's 60th birthday and the London English Song Festival honoured her talent (on the 6th of June) in a concert dedicated to her, and people who have influenced her, in St George's, Hanover Square. The London English Song Festival was started in 2011 by Artistic Director William Vann to promote and celebrate the wide and varied repertoire of English Song and this year's festival is shaping up to be a real treat.

Royal Academy of Music Richard Lewis prize winner Katie Bray, Kathleen Ferrier song prize winner Johnny Herford, and the festival's Artistic Director William Vann (piano) performed songs by Weir including 'The Voice of Desire' and 'Songs from the exotic'.

The programme also covered songs by contemporaries (and friends) Jonathan Dove, Robin Holloway (who was her composition tutor at King's College, Cambridge University), and her friend the American Scott Wheeler, as well as people who have influenced her writing - Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, and George Gershwin.

William Vann
William Vann
In a preconcert chat between Weir and Wheeler she talked about her "Fantastic joy" to be at the concert and also about writing for singers, saying that, "Singers have a strong affinity for the music they learn". Together Weir and Scott talked about the difference in writing for English and American singers due to differences in pronunciation and emphasis.

'The Voice of Desire' was written by Weir ten years ago for Alice Coote and Julius Drake at the BBC Proms. She talked about choosing texts which interested her in a philosophical manner, but that also caught her imagination rhythmically, and that have the possibility of a melodic line. Her aim is to fuse classical music with cabaret-style vocal lines and it was this that Katie Bray and Johnny Herford brought out (supported by William Vann). 'Ständchen' was written in 1997, 'Blackbirds and thrushes' in 2008, and 'Songs from the exotic' in 1987. 'Songs from the exotic' was first performed by Josephine Nendick, another inspirational singer for Weir, and Michael Finnissy, at Penbroke College, Cambridge.

Johnny Herford,Photo credit: Maximilian Führig 2011
Johnny Herford
Photo credit: Maximilian Führig 2011
The final song by Weir was 'Night on Ox Mountain' - a cautionary song written in sad circumstances for Kent Opera, which was closing down having lost its funding in 1990. Weir reminisced that Kent Opera gave her her first break with 'Black spider' (a children's opera) and then with the now famous 'Night at the Chinese Opera'. Weir set a text by the 3rd Century poet Mencius (which quotes Confucius) that describes how a mountain lost its trees, and how people who now look at the mountain would not be able to experience the trees, nor even never know that it once had trees.

Both singers performed beautifully and introduced small touches of acting to bring the songs alive. Herford had some lovely low notes and controlled his upper register to control the harshness which can creep in with baritones. Katie Bray's mezzo voice was fluid and dynamic. My only issue was with the Gershwin songs which I did not feel worked. For me this song was very much as example of what Weir and Wheeler were talking about – that a song written for an American voice (especially an American stage voice) can sound strange when performed by a British classical singer with crisp vowels.

Katie Bray
Katie Bray
The song cycle 'Serenta' by Wheeler complimented Weir's style. His accompaniments were very spare, with some image painting, supporting the singer's long, smooth, conversational lines of Mark Van Doren's text. It is a testament to Vann's playing that regardless of the style of music the piano complimented and supported the singers.

'Cut my shadow' by Jonathon Dove and 'Three Georgian songs' by Robin Holloway were the other two contemporaries. Weir described the Dove as being "the most traditionally setting" of the concert, and a British "equivalent to Scott" (Scott Wheeler). It was however more dramatic than the Wheeler with the piano stepping up to provide tension.

'The Housatonic at Stockbridge', 'The circus band', and 'The side show' by Charles Ives led in three crowd pleaser songs by Gershwin. But my surprise favourite was the Aaron Copland song 'The boatmen's dance'. This was another example of American pronunciation in an English voice. However Herford pulled it off, producing something close to an Oklahoma moment. The repeated word 'Ohio' gave me the impression of being a perfect call of the American western and has stayed with me since.

The final concert in the festival is tonight (11 June) when Allan Clayton and the Navarra String Quartet join William Vann to perform a programme of Roger Quilter, Frank Bridge and David Matthews, tickets can be bought in advance from the Cadogan Hall box office or on the door.

Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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