Thursday 26 June 2014

Spitalfields Summer Festival: Death Actually

Picture credit: Simon Wall, Tall Wall Media
Picture credit: Simon Wall, Tall Wall Media
Discussing death and life with Thomas Guthrie and friends in Toynbee Studios.

Spitalfields Music, which runs the biannual Spitalfields Festival, means more than just the festival to the community. It puts on 250 workshops a year, with around 6,500 participants (mostly from London Borough of Tower Hamlets). But it is perhaps the summer and winter festivals that it is most famous for. The summer festival is heading towards is close – but I have had a great time experiencing classical and contemporary music in some unusual venues throughout the East End.

Tonight's concert (Saturday 21 June) was organised by Guthrie whose hand could be seen in every single work performed. In association with his opera group GOTcompany and the Sarah Dowling Dance Company he wanted to develop a programme that “Celebrates the ritual surrounding death” and that would leave the audience feeling “How wonderful it is to be alive”.

And indeed this is exactly what the performers achieved.

Tonight's journey began with Franz Schubert's (1797-1828) 'Die schöne Müllerin', sung by tenor Robert Murray, accompanied by Johan Lofving, on guitar, and members of Barokksolistene. In this 'Liederspiel' (lyrics by Wilhelm Müller a contemporary of Schubert who also wrote the poem 'Die Winterreise') a young boy falls in love with a girl, the pretty millermaid. But, when a rival for her attentions catches her eye, the boy kills himself out of despair for love.

Murray was perfectly cast as the boy - his singing was dramatic and heartfelt, and Guthrie's arrangement of Schubert's picture painting accompaniment was delicately done. The guitar played by Lofving took the lead, but interjections by the other instrumentalists and percussion added to the scenery. Even a leafy branch was rattled to produce the effect of a gentle breeze and a spotlight became the moon when night fell.

Here you felt that you were at a travelling theatre show, a feeling enhanced by the use of the puppet (for the boy) operated by Murray. Additionally there were some comic moments, with the puppet staring at latecomers, and little asides between the puppet and Murray. But behind the puppet you could still see Murray, and the emotion in his face and body, providing a double layer to his performance.

After the death came a funeral, at which were sung the motets 'Komm, Jesu, Komm', 'Jesu, meine Freude', and 'Singet dem Herr nein neues Lied' composed by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). This part of the evening was also theatrical, because as Guthrie explained, “I am staging the Bach motets because I feel that singing is a physical activity, and if you really physicalise the singing, the ideas, the text, you extend what the music can do.”

Picture credit: Simon Wall, Tall Wall Media
Picture credit: Simon Wall, Tall Wall Media
Tensely the set began in pitch black and people sombrely aggregated on stage while Guthrie sang the traditional song 'Hang me, oh hang me'. Then the lights came up on the singers - Gillian Keith and Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano), Sofie Almroth and Clare Wilkinson (mezzo-soprano), Sam Boden and Robert Murray (tenor), and Jakob Bloch Jespersen and Matthew Brook (baritone). Again accompanied by members of Barokksolistene for their performance of the Bach.

Throughout the motets the singers walked around, collapsed to the floor, took off clothes, and carried around boxes (symbolic coffins?), candles and folded palls. The description does not do it any justice, because these simple actions provided a strong feeling of grief and despair that most performances of the motets do not have.

Between the first two motets Gutrhie also sang 'Oh let us howl' originally written by Robert Johnson in 1613 setting words from 'The Duchess of Malfi' by John Webster.

Finally the wake - 'An Alehouse Session' set in the 17th century, led by Bjarte Eike on violin, where Barokksolistene got to let their hair down. Here, the irreverently used, Coridon and Mopsa's duet 'No kissing at all' from Henry Purcell's (1659-1695) Fairy Queen and Boudica's daughter's song from 'Bonduca, or the British Heroine', 'Lead me to some peaceful gloom' also by Purcell, and his last major work, were separated by other 17th tunes, folk tunes, a bit of jazz, and some improvisations.

Picture credit: Simon Wall, Tall Wall Media
Picture credit: Simon Wall, Tall Wall Media
There was lots of audience participation to be enjoyed and much jigging around to the infectious cheerfulness of the performance.

I should also mention that as part of the experience, before the concert, I attended a 'Death Cafe', a 'social franchise', where 'people, often strangers, gather to eat cake, drink tea and discuss death', which was set up by the concert organisers. Here a handful of people came together to talk about their experiences with talking about death and how the people they love felt about being forced to have the discussion.
'Death Actually' was one of the closing concerts of the Festival – and what a way to go. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be looking out for what GOTcompany do next.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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