Saturday 26 October 2019

An intoxicating concert - that is the magic of song: Walt Whitman's bicentenary celebrated at London Song Festival

Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854
Walt Whitman, steel engraving, July 1854
The Sexual Outsider: Walt Whitman bicentenary; Julien Van Mellaerts, Nigel Foster, Robert Morgan; London Song Festival at Hinde Street Methodist Church
Reviewed by Anthony Evans on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
An exploration of Walt Whitman’s distinctive voice through his words and musical settings of his poetry

The annual pleasure that is The London Song Festival is once more upon us. If you love the voice, then the art of song refreshes the parts that other music can’t reach. At Hinde Street Methodist Church in particular you’re up close and personal – the musical equivalent of the Donmar if you will. You can see the whites of their eyes.

This year’s theme is Outsiders. It mines the songs, poetry and compositions of those who have historically attracted the epithet of outsider. The 24 October 2019 concert, The Sexual Outsider, saw the combined talents of baritone Julien Van Mellaerts, pianist and festival founder Nigel Foster and the actor Robert Morgan as they explored Walt Whitman’s distinctive voice through his words and musical settings of his poetry. [2019 is the bicentenary of Whitman's birth]. The man who ‘hymned’ America has been set by many composers and Thursday evenings concert included settings by Ned Rorem, Weill, Bridge, Vaughan-Williams, Ives, Villiers Stanford and Hindemith.

The first half was made up of Whitman’s experiences in Manhattan, drawing on his collection of poems Leaves of Grass with all their vivid sensuality and exhortations of the real rather than the allegorical. The second half acted like a memoir of his tenure as a nurse in a Civil War hospital; ruminations on the nature and ugliness of war.

The musical settings, some just fleeting images, were woven into a seamlessly crafted celebration. The elements of words and music created a patchwork of style and mood that made a quilt of Whitman’s philosophy. From the thrusting candour of ‘pink-tinged roots’ of Calamus (Kalamos) and ‘the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me’ to a poor death stricken boy and the shattering slaughterhouse of war.

Whitman and Peter Doyle, one of the men with whom Whitman was believed to have had an intimate relationship
Whitman and Peter Doyle, one of the men with whom Whitman was believed to have had an intimate relationship
As difficult as it was for the magazine Life Illustrated to review Whitman’s output back in the day it’s no less easy to describe the concert. Seldom have I been to a recital when each element seemed to be balanced in such fine synchronicity producing a rhythmically original chiaroscuro of truth and beauty. There were moments of intensity and austerity to unsettle, power to make your fillings rattle and tender musical sighs where each syllable was an erotic caress. The evening ended with a finely poised and fluid work by Chris De Blasio (1959-1993) and Perry Brass, Walt Whitman in 1989, included in Will Parker’s AIDS Quilt Songbook [available on disc, and printed music]. It was an intoxicating concert - that is the magic of song.
Reviewed by Anthony Evans

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Valuable first thoughts: John Butt & the Dunedin Consort record every note of Samson as Handel first performed it  (★★★★★) CD review
  • Les Étoiles: Natalie Clein, Ruby Hughes, Julius Drake, Matan Porat in music for voice, cello and piano at Kings Place (★★) - concert review
  • The North Wind was a Woman: chamber works by David Bruce centred on the mandolin playing of Avi Avital  (★★) - CD review
  • A Night at the Museum: the Oxford Lieder Festival at the Ashmolean Museum (★★★) - concert review
  • Housman and the Greeks at the Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • Spectacular and distracting: Weber's Der Freischütz in Paris from Insula orchestra and Cie 14:20 (★★) - my opera review
  • A striking new work: the London premiere of Richard Blackford's Pieta (★★) - concert review
  • He discovered something new in himself in the music: Christophe Rousset on exploring 19th century French opera, and continuing his Lully cycle  - interview
  • The Outsiders Fight Back: London Song Festival's imaginative commemoration of the 1969 Stonewall riots (★★★) - concert review
  • Royal Welcome Songs for King Charles II, volume II , the Sixteen on CORO (★★) - Cd review
  • A Day of the Dead at the Oxford Lieder Festival: Doric String Quartet, Thomas Oliemans, Malcolm Martineau, Prof. Helen Swift - concert review
  • Intimations of mortality: A Young Man's Exhortation to Boyhood's End at Oxford Lieder Festival (★★) - concert review
  • A work of scholarship and a fine performance: Academy of Ancient Music's new recording of Handel's Brockes Passion (★★★) - CD review
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