Tuesday 21 July 2020

Songs of our Times: Jessica Walker and Joe Atkins in cabaret for the Lichfield Festival

Songs for our Times - Jessica Walker and Joseph Atkins (capture from film by Leon Lopez)
Songs for our Times - Jessica Walker and Joseph Atkins (capture from film by Leon Lopez)
Songs of our times; Jessica Walker, Joe Atkins, Leon Lopez; Lichfield Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 July 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Contemporary cabaret reflecting on our current times, turned into a stylish yet thought-provoking filme

Songs for our Times is a new film, commissioned by the Lichfield Festival and broadcast by them on Sunday 19 July 2020 (available on the festival's Facebook and YouTube pages). A cabaret filmed at Blackheath Halls by film-maker Leon Lopez, the work features singer Jessica Walker and pianist Joe Atkins in songs the two have written during lockdown alongside material by the Belgian songwriter and chansonier Jacques Brel (1929-1978) and by the French singer-songwriter Barbara (1930-1997.

Walker and Atkins have collaborated before, and their 2019 musical Not Such Quiet Girls, for Opera North and the Leeds Playhouse, told the story of stories of three women on the front line during World War I, using three actors and the chorus of Opera North.

The style of Lopez' film is stylish yet dark, with Walker all in black against a largely black background only offset by lighting and the occasional effect. There is a stage, but this is only used occasionally, and the camera often closes in on Walker's face, with her highly expressive eyes. This isn't cabaret as seduction, but statement and confession, and it is mesmerising and intense. The mood is, unsurprisingly, downbeat but also rather political and the songs move from the personal to the public and back, in the best possible way.
We open with Walker and Atkins song What does the future hold, with Walker speaking over Atkins piano accompaniment, the text reflecting bleakly on the present and this moves seamlessly into Barbara's 1965 song, Solitude (in Walker's English version), a song where Walker seems to reflect on an old lover but only at the end do we understand that the woman being referred to is La solitude.

There then follows a sequence of what might be called depressive love songs, where the poet's state of mind becomes of reflection of our present state. Atkins and Walker's Pieces of your life (2020), Jacques Brel's 1967 Song of the Old Lovers which evokes memories of Kurt Weill's brief French period (a time when he had fled Germany and not yet settled in the USA), and Brel's 1958 Litanies pour un retour, with the new and the old material dove-tailing beautifully and the two artists rendering Brel's songs as very contemporary yet timeless.

With Atkins and Walkers The Wheels of Commerce, the music becomes more rock/blues influenced, the beat becomes a bit more contemporary, and whilst the tone is still downbeat there is also the sense that music and art can change the world. This continues with Atkins' State of the Nation, whilst Jacques Brel's Tears of a Friend (in Jessica Walker's English version)  is a bit looser and takes is back towards cabaret, leading to Walker and Atkins 2018 number I didn't know I had my time, a poignant piece about a performer realising that their time was over. Finally, comes Barbara's Plus Rien.

Walker has a lovely straight toned voice and fine diction, so that every word told, and she is well supported by Atkins who moves effortlessly between styles and makes the music flow seamlessly. Like all good cabaret, this is by turns engaging, entertaining, thought-provoking and disturbing, and whilst it is a shame that we do not see them live, Walker, Atkins, and Lopez have created a stylish and striking film, making is something more than just a film of a live performance.

Songs for our Times is available on the Lichfield Festival's  Facebook and YouTube pages until 31 July 2020.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • The Invention of English Opera: part two, the brief flowering of English opera, the rise of Italian opera and the development of ballad opera - feature article
  • Thankful to be able to play together at all: the Engegård Quartet on recording Mozart, collaborating with Ola Kvernberg and their festival devoted to Olli Mustonen's music - interview
  • Almost sacred opera: the French group Les Accents in an engaging account of one of Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorios for 17th century Rome - CD review
  • Music when no-one else is near: Michael Mofidian and Julia Lynch live from Glasgow City Halls on BBC Radio 3 - concert review
  • Vienna 1910: the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien in sophisticated and vibrant accounts of works by Mahler, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss - CD review
  • Joyful and imaginative: written for a late-18th century English aristocrat, Tommaso Giordani trios for violin, viola da gamba & fortepiano prove delightful finds - CD review
  • The Invention of English Opera: the surprising history of opera in 17th century England, part one, from masques to dramatic-opera - feature article
  • Heroic Handel: I chat to Chris Parsons, artistic director of Eboracum Baroque, about the group's plans including a large-scale on-line concert - interview
  • Incidental music to The Ruins of Athens: prime Beethoven linked to a forgetten play - CD review
  • Schubert's Four Seasons: an imaginative exploration of Schubert song from Sharon Carty and Jonathan Ware - CD review
  • They that in ships unto the sea go down - Music for the Mayflower from Passamezzo on Resonus Classics - CD review
  • 'Home

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