Saturday 28 March 2015

Till the Stars Fall - an encounter with Matthew Long - 'is this a crossover disc?'

Matthew Long - photo Ria Mishaal
Matthew Long - photo Ria Mishaal
It is rare to come across a young singer who is not only talented but who has a clear understanding of how the music and record industry functions, and takes a strong interest not just in their contribution but the whole recording and what happens to it. I recently met up with the young tenor Matthew Long to talk about his latest CD, Till the stars fall, and it was clear that he takes a keen interest not just in the music itself, but in the whole mechanics of getting the product out to audiences.

You have probably seen Matthew without necessarily realising it, as his performing career has included performing with a number of period instrument groups as well as singing with The Sixteen, and in fact the day that we met I had just been listening to The Sixteen's latest Purcell disc The Indian Queen on which Matthew features as soloist as well as performing in the ensemble. (see my review of The Indian Queen).

Matthew has just released a new disc, his first solo recital disc. It is entitled Till the stars fall and consists of a number of songs by Holst, Quilter, RVW, Finzi and Elgar alongside modern arrangements of traditional songs and popular numbers like Jerusalem and I vow to thee my country. Performers including Matthew, the pianist Malcolm Martineau, the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Ben Parry (who did a lot of the arrangements), and Rufus Miller. Miller is in fact a session guitarist who works with people like Sting and The Slease. In fact, a quick glance at the disc, and it screams cross-over. What has our young period tenor (about to go off to Boston to sing Evangelist in the St Matthew Passion) got himself into?

Matthew laughs when I ask him about what the disc is and says that if it 'sits uneasily between Classic FM and Radio 3' then he is happy.

If the CD 'sits uneasily between Classic FM and Radio 3' then Matthew is happy.

Till the Stars FallThe whole disc came about in a slightly curious way, and it has has its executive producers two men mainly associated with popular music. Matthew had sung on a demo CD of a new mass by the Irish composer Patrick Cassidy and his performance was well liked, so he was asked to take part on the commercial CD of the word. Now Cassidy is pretty big, his music was used for the Hannibal film and other film credits include Veronica Guerin and Kingdom of Heaven, so two of the producers (John Kennedy and Steve Kutner) thought that it would be good to offer Matthew his own disc on the back of it. A cross-over classical disc which could piggy-back on the success of the Cassidy disc. Except that the original disc was never made.

But Kennedy and Kutner stuck with Matthew and the three crafted the crafted the project that became Till the stars fall. Though it was offered to various companies none took it, and eventually Kennedy and Kutner went it alone and the disc has been issued under their own JSK imprint. On refection, Matthew feels that this was a good thing in the end as it gave him more freedom on creating the disc.

And that is what is fascinating about Till the Stars Fall, it isn't a concept product dreamed up in some marketing executive's office, but a very real musical project with considerable input from the performing artists, tenor Matthew Long. Matthew would be happy if the disc sparks a discussion about what crossover is. He feels there is an on-going debate which in which it is important to contribute and he points out that a great deal of music is being issued under more popular imprints and not a lot of care is taken over it.

Matthew's prime concern was that the repertoire be done well. The choices of collaborator and arranger (the arrangements are done by Ben Parry, Jonathan Rathbone as well as himself and Rufus Miller) have been taken with care. And the whole disc is shot through with English folk-song, whether it be in modern arrangements or traditional songs, and Matthew points out that you cannot really separate folk-song from the gems of the English song repertoire (eight of which he performs on the disc). And the disc is bookended by two very different arrangements of The Turtle Dove; it starts with RVW's arrangement performed by Matthew with Malcolm Martineau and finishes with Matthew and Rufus Miller performing their own arrangement.

Matthew wants people to question, 'is this a cross over disc'

One of Matthew Long's own landscape photos
The disc has music with piano accompaniment sitting unapologetically alongside songs with Rufus Miller's guitar.  Matthew wants people to question, 'is this a cross over disc' and be intrigued by the combination of the serious songs alongside the more popular.  The folksongs themselves, Matthew has sung since he was young and many are part of the every day repertoire of vocal students. The new step has been the planning and making of the album.

There are also other themes to the selection on the disc. Matthew has combined songs from the early part of the 20th century, with more patriotic songs with the intention of making people think what we mean about patriotism.  This is something which is more than an academic question for Matthew as his brother serves in the Army and his great-grandfather served in World War I.

But, of course, the end product had to have some sort of commercial value, but he has been very careful about all the repertoire, and to perform it all with integrity. And, if it goes well, Matthew feels that it will have been an achievement to smuggle some Butterworth, Finzi and Holst to people who might otherwise not listen to it.

Now that the disc is available, Matthew is involving himself in the hard work of selling and promoting it. He has more than an ordinary stake in the disc, and if it is successful he has ideas for further collaborations in the same line, and would hope to 'smuggle' five or six more gems into those too! Other ideas he comes up with are quite surprising. He says that he would love to explore Monteverdi and Barbara Strozzi, and feels that a lot of the 16th century Italian song repertoire was intended as easy listening and could appeal, if the total package was given some thought.

Matthew Long - photo Ria Mishaal
Matthew Long - photo Ria Mishaal
It has taken three years to get this far with all the to-ing and fro-ing between possible labels. As I have said, Matthew is clearly interested in  'the business' itself, and he had an interest in whether a real artist led project like this could succeed on CD. He has clearly done a lot more than sing, even some of the imagery on the disc is his and the graphic design was done by a friend.

The advantage of the repertoire on the CD is its flexibility, and Matthew hopes that they can get some live performances too, adjusting the line-up to suit folk-festivals or using the piano or orchestral versions for more traditional venues.

He feels that this might be a good model for a young singer, when so much creativity can get stifled. We talk briefly about more general issues relating to the recording industry and young singers, and Matthew clearly has strong views about what is happening and how young people can get their voice heard. He is eloquent too about the need to bring more business into a young singers training.  But he also feels that singers have a duty to the repertoire, not just to sing it but to champion it.

Away from promoting the CD, Matthew is still busy performing. He was about to go off to Boston to perform in Bach's St Matthew Passion with Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society, and will be repeating the role with Johannes Leertouwer in Utrecht. He is still wary of taking on role too early, before he is certain he can do a good job, so has has not yet sung in the St John Passion, but clearly that will be on the cards at some point. He is also going on an Irish tour with Mark Chambers and his group Sestina, which mixes young professionals with students and provides, working at a high level. They will be touring Monteverdi's Vespers and another advantage of the tour for Matthew is that his wife will be an animateur on the project too.

Matthew Long at Abbey Road from Billy Boyd Cape on Vimeo.

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