Monday 18 October 2021

American song weekend at the Oxford Lieder Festival with Katie Bray, Nadine Benjamin, Kitty Whately, and Neil Balfour

Sondheim: Buddy's Blues - Anna Tilbrook, Kitty Whately, Neil Balfour - Oxford Lieder Festival (Photo Oxford Lieder Festival, from live stream)
Sondheim: Buddy's Blues - Anna Tilbrook, Kitty Whately, Neil Balfour - Oxford Lieder Festival (Photo Oxford Lieder Festival, from live stream)

American Song Weekend
; Katie Bray, William Vann, Nadine Benjamin, Nicole Panizza, Kitty Whately, Neil Balfour, Anna Tilbrook; Oxford Lieder Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16-17 October 2021
From Copland to contemporary song, from Weill to Sondheim, a wonderful weekend of American song at Oxford Lieder Festival

The Oxford Lieder Festival's middle weekend this year (16 & 17 October 2021) was devoted to American song, and we took the opportunity to catch three concerts, with mezzo-soprano Katie Bray and pianist William Vann in Kurt Weill, soprano Nadine Benjamin and pianist Nicole Panizza in Aaron Copland, Julian Philips, André Previn and Juliana Hall, mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately, bass-baritone Neil Balfour and pianist Anna Tilbrook in Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rogers, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, William Bolcom and Margaret Bonds.

Our weekend began late on Saturday 16 October at the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building which is at St Hilda's College (looking striking with its new main building) for Katie Bray and William Vann's In Search of Youkali, a programme exploring the songs of Kurt Weill, beginning in Germany with Weill's highly political theatre work with Bertolt Brecht, pausing in France and ending in the USA where Weill became a US citizen and wrote for Broadway. The evening was themed around Weill's song Youkali setting the French of Roger Fernay about a magical land of 'happiness and pleasure' which doesn't exist. We began with Bray humming the song's theme and its melody was a thread through the programme to the full version of the song a the end. An apt metaphor for Weill's wandering life.

The first song was Nanna's Lied (words by Brecht), written for Weill's wife, Lotte Lenya, but she never sang it in public. As with many of Weill and Brecht's best songs, it combines haunting melody with a powerful political statement. For this German set, Nanna's Lied, Surabaya Johnny (from Happy End, in English), the Threepenny Opera Overture (as a piano solo) and Barbarasong (from Threepenny Opera), Bray seemed to incarnate a love-lorn, put-upon woman, mistreated by men yet needing them too. That Bray was visibly pregnant (at one point in the evening she commented, "I'm not going to be doing many more of these recitals for a while") brought added poignancy, the idea of the anonymous young woman in Surabaya Johnny being abandoned in the 'two-bit flop house' when pregnant. As a performer of these songs Bray was vivid and wonderfully engaged, these were highly physical performances, complete with dazzling eyes. As a singer she honoured both words and music, giving Weill's musical line it's due, no talk-singing here, but spitting out the words and moving expressively between speech and song.

The two French songs, Complainte de la Seine and Je ne t'aime pas (both with words by Maurice Magre) brought a change of style. Still melancholy, still love-lorn but somewhat more poised. Weill trying on a different musical persona and Bray (with glittering earrings and multi-coloured high-heels) hinting at a soignée diseuse, but one who could bet and emote with the best of them.

Buddy on the Nightshift (words by Oscar Hammerstein) made it clear what moving to the USA did to Weill's style. The subject (two workers alternating shifts and never meeting) is almost Brecht, but the musical style is bright Broadway, though with Weill's trademark ability to bring poignancy to a situation. My Ship (to words by Ira Gershwin from Lady in the Dark) provided an apt counterpoint to Youkali, and Bray and Vann's performance showed how much classical poise there is in a song originally written for acting legend Gertrude Lawrence. The final American songs were a pair from Weill and Maxwell Anderson's projected musical Huckleberry Finn. Weill died before completing the show and the songs are still not well known. This Time Next Year proved rather lovely if perhaps slightly too sweet, but Apple Jack (a retelling of Adam, Eve and the Serpent but involving scrumpy) was pure entertaining delight.

What made this evening such a joy was the sheer enjoyment that both performers brought to the songs, whilst honouring both Weill and his distinguished librettists. And we went away humming Youkali, one of those endlessly haunting melodies which Bray and Vann did so perfectly.

We returned to the Jacqueline du Pre Building on Sunday afternoon (17 October 2021) for Emily Dickinson's Nature Songbook from Nadine Benjamin and Nicole Panizza. Most of the songs set nature-themed texts by Emily Dickinson and whilst the centrepiece of the programme was Aaron Copland's Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson, we also heard Andre Previn's Three Emily Dickinson Songs, Juliana Hall's Upon This Summers Day, and songs by Julian Philips from his An Amherst Bestiary.

We began with Julian Philips, The Butterfly; this proved to be a somewhat gnomic verse but given a striking setting by Philips with atmospheric piano writing and a complex vocal line. André Previn's Three Dickinson Songs were written for soprano Renée Fleming. 'As imperceptibly as grief' featured slow, bluesy vocals and strong piano chords, moving from the intense to the radiant. 'Will there really be a morning' started with vivid energy and busy, jazzy rhythms with a slower middle section. Despite the complexities of Previn's writing, you never felt that jazz and the blues were far away in these songs and the final one, 'Good morning - midnight' featured a complex vocal line, still haunted by the blues, and a supportive piano. Benjamin really convinced of the song's sense of transcendence.

Juliana Hall's Upon this Summer's Day, setting three poems by Dickinson, was written in 2009 and Nadine Benjamin gave the work's first performance at the London Festival of American Music in 2016. 'Perhaps you'd like to buy a flower' featured perky, jazzy piano and characterful vocals with Benjamin really telling us a story. 'Apparently with no surprise' featured a similar combination, yet to fascinatingly different effect, whilst 'When roses cease to bloom' was all spare textures and lyric melancholy, leading to a haunting ending.

Aaron Copland's Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson dates from 1950 and is the composer's longest work for solo voice. There is no overarching theme, and Copland said that each song stood alone but he preferred them performed as a group, thus gaining in cumulative effect. We began with spare vocals, haunted perhaps by the ghost of spirituals, and it was clear that Benjamin was addressing us directly, telling a story. This continued with 'There came a wind like a bugle' which was very vivid. Often songs were very much about the voice, with the piano simply there as support and time and again I felt that spirituals haunted the melodies. Benjamin and Panizza were adept at bringing out the particular character to each song, so 'Heart, we will forget him' was quiet and deeply felt, whilst 'Dear March, come in!' gave the impression of eavesdropping on a lively conversation. Songs like 'Sleep is supposed to be' could move from the apparently simply to strong stuff indeed, and Dickinson's conversational persona came over strongly in 'When they come back'. 

'I felt a funeral in my brain' was full of drama, from the rumbling in Panizza's piano to Benjamin's dramatic delivery, so that 'I've heard an organ talk sometimes' became a quietly intense pause point before the vivid character of 'Going to heaven' where Benjamin's flashing eyes contributed to the effect, yet at the end, we were suddenly quietly touching leading to the plain and direct 'The Chariot' bringing the sequence to a striking close.

There was a short epilogue 'Afterword' from Julian Philips' An Amherst Bestiary, a song where Philips (born 1969) seemed very much to be channelling Copland, albeit with modern twists to the harmony. And we were treated to an encore, one of Luigi Zaninelli's tiny Epigrams of Emily Dickinson.

For the evening concert (17 October), we were at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Iffley Road, which has very much been the festival's headquarters for this festival. Kitty Whately had originally been scheduled to perform with Nicky Spence, but he had to withdraw so Whately, festival Emerging Artist Neil Balfour and Anna Tilbrook expanded their programme. Titled Into the Woods, we ended with a sequence of songs from Sondheim's musicals, but led into them via Aaron Copland (thus linking back to the earlier recital), Samuel Barber, William Bolcom in cabaret mode, Margaret Bonds and Richard Rogers.

We began with Neil Balfour, who is Indian-Scottish and trained at the Royal Northern College of Music and the National Opera Studio. He sang one of Aaron Copland's Old American Songs, 'The Boatman's Dance', with a lovely focused bass-baritone voice and characterful stage presence, and there were delightfully unexpected off-stage contributions from Kitty Whately. We moved on to Samuel Barber next, with a selection of his songs. Bessie Bobtail (words by James Stephens) was Balfour in a more serious mood, showing a strong commitment to the song supported by Anna Tilbrook's wonderfully evocative piano creating a slightly unnerving effect. Then Kitty Whately sang three more Barber songs, Sleep Now (words by James Joyce) was vibrant and touching, but veering on the intense, whilst Sure on this shining night (words by James Age) contrasted the lyric beauty of Whately's vocal line with the complexities of the piano part. Finally the restlessly haunting Nocturne (words by Frederic Prokosch), certainly not an obvious, comfortable night-song at all.

William Bolcom has had multiple careers, as a contemporary composer including four operas, as a cabaret performer with his wife Joan Morris, and the two intersect in his cabaret songs, with words by Arnold Weinstein. Neil Balfour sang three of them, the first Black Max was a fabulous evocation of Rotterdam night-life as narrated by a young Willem de Kooning; mad but wonderful and something of a shaggy-dog story. Waitin' was more haunting, though intriguingly we never discover what he is waiting for (love we presume). Finally Over the piano featured Balfour doing his best piano crooner impression, fabulous, except the song has a sting in the tail too!

Kitty Whately returned with an Edna St Vincent Millay setting by Margaret Bonds, one of the first African American composers to gain recognition in the USA. What my lips have kissed (written in 1965) was intriguing, combining complexity and romance with an underlying sense of urgency. Perhaps a little old-fashioned for its time, but now we can see it simply as a very fine song indeed. We moved onto pure musical theatre next, with two songs by the partnership of Rogers and Hammerstein. Neil Balfour brought a nice subtlety to 'Oh what a beautiful morning' (from Oklahoma) whilst Kitty Whately was full of delightful character in 'When I marry Mr Snow' (from Carousel).

The Sondheim sequence was delivered with an imaginative sense of semi-staging (all the songs in the evening were done from memory, thus heightening the sense of immediacy) including some lively wigs and occasional props. We began with the title number from Sunday in the park with George, really a scene rather than a song it involves George (Neil Balfour) drawing his model and muse (Kitty Whately) and is a monologue for her about the troubles of posing with spoken interjections from him; funny and touching, and highly imaginative. 'Happiness' from Passion was technically a love duet, but was more a dual stream of consciousness, very Sondheim and not quite as romantic as you might expect! Whately brought a lovely sharp sense of humour to Cinderella's 'On the steps of the palace' from Into the Woods which led to another sequence from that musical with Balfour as the Prince and Whately as the Baker's Wife, to lovely poignant effect, sharply sending up romantic conventions. Whately brought a fabulous sense of underlying seriousness masked by wit in 'Could I leave you?' from Follies, and we ended with Balfour's tour-de-force in 'Buddy's Blues' (from Follies), aided and abetted by Whately in a lurid pink wig. Terrific.

A large church is perhaps not ideal for this style of music theatre, though the space gave the festival the ability to comfortably space us out, sitting at tables. Yet the two singers worked wonderfully hard to convey a sense of intimacy, to sing with just the right amount of voice yet bringing out the text, and of course, the Sondheim, in particular, featured some dazzling patter moments! Throughout Anna Tilbrook accompanied and partnered with deft style, creating a pit band in miniature in the piano.

All the concerts at the festival are available online, as well as other events such as Eric McAlpine's talk on Emily Dickinson, see the festival website.

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