Thursday 5 October 2023

Up Close & Stormy: Lucy Schaufer launches Up Close & Musical 2023 at the Fidelio Cafe

Deborah Pritchard, Jocelyn Pook, Adrian Sutton, Georgia Stitt, Amanda McBroom, Stephen Barber; Lucy Schaufer, Trio Klein, Ben Dawson; Up Close and Musical at Fidelio Cafe
Deborah Pritchard, Jocelyn Pook, Adrian Sutton, Georgia Stitt, Amanda McBroom, Stephen Barber; Lucy Schaufer, Trio Klein, Ben Dawson; Up Close and Musical at Fidelio Cafe
Reviewed 4 October 2023

Five works for voice and instruments, and one string trio, all contemporary and all completely fascinating in this terrific programme to launch this year's Up Close and Musical

Shiry Rashkovsky's festival, Up Close and Musical has returned to the Fidelio Cafe for another season of exploring music and musicians. The opening concert featured Lucy Schaufer (described on her website as performer, producer and purveyor of fine jam), pianist Ben Dawson and Trio Klein (Kamila Bydlowska - violin, Shiry Rashkovsky - viola, Ella Rundle - cello) in music inspired by storms (meteorological and emotional) by Deborah Pritchard, Jocelyn Pook, Adrian SuttonGeorgia StittAmanda McBroom and Stephen Barber. It was a complex evening, six works, each of which had a slightly different in the line-up, and in the middle a Q&A with the performers and the two composers present, Adrian Sutton and Stephen Barber.

We began with Deborah Pritchard's Storm Song for soprano, piano and cello; commissioned by cellist Natalie Clein and the University of Oxford for International Women’s Day 2017, it sets a text by Jeanette Winterson. This began in media res with instrumental atmospherics and rhapsodic vocal writing, sometimes the voice unaccompanied, sometimes the three lines co-existing rather than instruments accompanying voice. This was a metaphysical storm, a song full of emotional drama that filled the room with intense drama. And a substantial work too, but ending with an amazing descent, both aural and emotional.

Jocelyn Pook's A Storm from Paradise for mezzo-soprano and viola is a relatively early work, it dates from 1989 and sets texts from the King James Bible and Milton's Paradise Lost. It is perhaps significant that Pook studied the viola as part of her studies at the Guildhall School. In five movements, each had a viola part that was very much the modern equivalent of a moving ground bass, with the voice over being somewhat serious in intent and often evoking chant, though there was melisma too, and in the final movement the viola introduced harmonics. 

I found the words difficult to apprehend (this was often a problem and was a result of the venue's tricky acoustics), but loved the striking sound world that Pook created. There was also a folk-ish hint to the writing and it felt rather American in feel, though whether this was really the case, or I was simply being influenced by the fact that the USA is the land of Lucy Schaufer's birth, I am not sure. Another listen called for.

Adrian Sutton is perhaps best known for this theatre work, he wrote the music for the National Theatre's War Horse, but his output also includes concert music including a recent Violin Concerto. His Trio Dances dates from 2021, three movements for string trio each in an older dance form. It was written for the chamber ensemble Perpetuo for the Presteigne Festival.

Each of the three movements began in quite a disciplined dance style, but then the music would take over. The first dance was perky yet elegant, with harmonic disturbances, period music through a glass darkly, developing into something vibrant and intense, far less polite. The second movement began folk-like and definitely English this time, but became remarkably contrapuntal and energetic. The final movement was vivid and up-front, a modern version of an up-tempo old English dance, getting angrier and harder-edge towards the end.

Afterwards there was a Q&A where Sutton and Barber both introduced their pieces, but for me the most interested section was where the performers, a mezzo-soprano, three string players and a pianist, discussed collaboration, what they could learn from other instruments as well as the differences that they had to be aware of (for instance mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer and violist Shiry Rashkovsky having to discuss the placing of consonants in the music).

Georgia Stitt is an American composer, music director and producer whose work encompasses both music theatre and concert music. Her Alphabet City Cycle was a collaboration in 2004 with lyricist Marcy Heisler to create what was described as a hybrid between music theatre and art song. Sunday Light, the final song in the cycle, is about the complexities of waking up with a lover, and was performed here by Lucy Schaufer, violinist Kamila Bydlowska and pianist Ben Dawson. This had a much more music theatre feel, the words far more prominent. Schaufer's quite conversational vocal line was complemented by a moving piano line and violin comments, the whole having an engaging melancholy wistfulness, as if the relationship was not quite what she would like you to think.

American singer/songwriter Amanda McBroom is perhaps best known for the song, The Rose that Bette Midler sang in the film of that name, though McBroom's work encompasses considerably more.  Her song, Ship in a bottle, to her own lyrics, is about wanting to break free and set sail from the confines of life.

I have to confess that on hearing this song both D. and I immediately thought of the Divine Miss M. It had a folk-ish feel at the beginning, even beginning unaccompanied, but built in intensity and emotion. It made you want to explore more of McBroom's writing. 

As well as having a distinguished career as a mezzo-soprano, Lucy Schaufer, with her husband, tenor Christopher Gillett, runs Wild Plum Arts which aims to support living artists in the creation of new work, and to foster a viable, vibrant cultural landscape for the future, for everyone. Part of this is the Wild Plum Songbook, featuring their commissions, and from this comes A Ride in a Helium Balloon by American composer Stephen Barber to a text by Carol Hall that takes anxieties of a ride in a helium balloon as a metaphor for the complexities of life.

The song was performed here by Lucy Schaufer and Ben Dawson with Shiry Rashkovsky, viola, and Ella Rundle, cello. Initially the vocal line was quite declamatory, with atmospherics from the instruments, but gradually each line developed agency and this felt more like a piece of chamber music than a voice accompanied by three instruments, often with interestingly contrapuntal writing. Then everything evaporated, emotions got complex, before things got tough as take-off approached. Overall, it felt like a complex piece of music theatre. I felt some frustration in not being able to apprehend the poem well, and it made me wish the festival had been able to put the texts on line for us to look at. This is definitely a piece to re-visit, and the good news is that I gather there are plans. So watch this space.

The concert had a full house and everyone was enthusiastic, which is terrific for a concert of contemporary music. So, we were treated to an encore, another wonderful music theatre song about missing the sound of London in the rain, Michele Brourman's London in the Rain with lyrics by Amanda McBroom, definitely a song I'd like to get to know.

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