Friday 9 August 2019

Strip Jack Naked: Stephen McNeff's music theatre piece for Lore Lixenberg

Strip Jack Naked - Stephen McNeff - Prima Facie
Stephen McNeff Song Suite from Sterip Jack Naked, Counting (Two), Four Van Gogh Chalks, Lux; Lore Lixenberg, Kokoro, Mark Forkgen; Prima Facie
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Recent music for large ensemble from Stephen McNeff including a striking suite of songs from his burlesque tragedy, Strip Jack Naked

This new disc of music by Stephen McNeff from Prima Facie features works for ensemble performed by Kokoro (the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's new music ensemble) conducted by Mark Forkgen. The centrepiece of the disc is the Song Suite from Strip Jack Nacked; originally a music theatre work written for mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg, McNeff created the song suite specifically for the disc where it is recorded by Lixenberg. Other instrumental works on the disc were originally written for Kokoro and for 10/10 (the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic's concemporary music ensemble), Counting (Two), Four Van Gogh Chalks, and Lux.

McNeff wrote Counting (One) as a short curtain raiser for Kokoro in 2007, and subsequently he expanded the work (adding movements and increasing the number of instruments to flute, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello, double bass, piano, percussion) as Counting (Two) for 10/10 later that year. The work is in three movements, each featuring an intriguing approach to counting in music. The first movement, based on Counting (One), is described by McNeff as 'a brief study of time, compression and relaxation'. Over a regular spiky rhythm, McNeff features jazz-like riffs which sometimes interrupt the flow entirely. The second movement, Doppo il Cimitero Inglese, Val di Sangro was inspired by the 2500 grave steles, marking a counting of the dead, at the Sangro River War Cemetery in the Abruzzo. Again we have a repeat motif, this time something slow, lyrical and chorale-like, over which McNeff flows variants which change the texture and speeds but always through these fragments the chorale returns. Finally, the last movement returns to the energy of the first, re-using material and here I found that the Stravinskian hints of the work were at their strongest, making me think particularly of The Soldier's Tale. For all the abstract nature of McNeff's piece, it has a strong theatricality.

McNeff's large-scale oratorio Chalk Legends was the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's contribution to the 2012 Dorset Cultural Olympiad. McNeff's Four Van Gogh Chalks is a corollary to that larger work, four short movements from ensemble (flute/piccolo, clarinets, violin, cello, piano, percussion), each evoking a particular Van Gogh chalk drawing. 'Mademoiselle Gachet at the piano' combines etherial held notes with fragmentary drifts of material, notably on the piano, as if we are hearing the lady through a gauze. 'Venus in a Top Hat' is a scherzo full of fast flurries of notes. L'Echorche' is quiet, with the fragments of music creating a sense of dialogue between the instruments. Couple Dancing is rather perky, again with a dialogue of instruments.

Strip Jack Naked was a music theatre piece which McNeff wrote for Lore Lixenberg, 'a burlesque tragedy' with a libretto by Vicki Pepperdine, which was premiered by Lixenberg, Kokoro and Mark Forkgen in 2007. This song suite is McNeff's reduction of the piece, creating nine songs (some quite short) with linking pieces of dialogue and drama, often melodrama, to create a satisfying whole. Whilst Lixenberg plays multiple characters, the central character is a woman whose birthday gifts make her realise that people don't like the way she looks. The drama follows her journey through plastic surgery, coming out to realise that she has lost the woman that she was. It is a piece which mixes comedy with tragedy, pathos with farce and is very much predicated on Lixenberg's striking persona.

McNeff accompanies the voice with an ensemble of flute/piccolo, clarainets, trumpet, violin, cello and percussion, and it clearly is inspired by Weill and Brecht's cabaret theatre works, though again Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale seems another point of reference. Some of McNeff's songs have a distinct popular whiff, but he never falls into easy pastiche and the results with McNeff's refraction of the popular style are intriguing and striking. Lixenberg is brilliant in the way she brings out the character, allowing the comic and tragic to follow each other pell mell, giving the work true heart. McNeff's instrumental writing is imaginative, and the whole works brilliantly as a concert piece on disc, and makes me fascinated to hear the original in the theatre.

The final work on the disc is Lux, a 15 minute movement for octet (flutes, clarinets, trumpet, violin, viola, cello, piano, percussion) which was premiered by Kokoro and Mark Forkgen in 2006. It is in eight sections played without a break, which explore the changing nature of light ('Light Occluded', 'Light Changing', 'Light Fantastic', ....) but the piece is also a memorial to McNeff's mother. And what comes over, despite the colouristic nature of McNeff's instrumental writing, is the serious, dialectical sense of construction with the well wrought instrumental lines weaving around each other to create striking structures.

Stephen McNeff (born 1951) - Counting (Two) (2007)
Stephen McNeff  - Four Van Gogh Chalks (2012)
Stephen McNeff  - Song Suite from Strip Jack Naked (2006-7, 2016)
Stephen McNeff  - Lux (2007-8)
Lore Lixenberg (mezzo-soprano)
Mark Forkgen (conductor)
Recorded at Tonbridge School, 29 & 30 October 2016
Available from Amazon.

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