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Alan Cooper Reviews: Singing Shakespeare

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Of the seven soundfestival events I have attended so far, three have stood out as particularly happy events in which music as a way of bringing people together in a friendly and welcoming environment was paramount. These were the Promenade Concert in the Maritime Museum, the all-day fun event in the Aberdeen Science Centre, and now on Sunday afternoon, Singing Shakespeare at the Phoenix Hall, Newton Dee. Many of the Newton Dee residents attended the concert and I am sure they enjoyed themselves hugely.

There was a small choir of just ten voices conducted and introduced by David Wordsworth, Artistic Director of the Singing Shakespeare Project. We were especially fortunate to have a top notch musician from the University of Aberdeen as our guest piano accompanist - American composer, conductor and pianist, John Frederick Hudson.

There were just five items in the programme, all of them tuneful and attractive. Four of them at least would make it into the realm of contemporary music. Do we include Cole Porter as one of those? Well, his music represents an important side of twentieth century composition even if neither experimental nor avant garde. He was after all among the very best of American theatre and popular composers and a great innovator of his time.

There were some well known performers among the small chorus. Composer and professional singer John Hearne (bass) and his wife Margaret (soprano) were stalwarts - and there, among the sopranos, was sound’s own Festival Director Fiona Robertson – good on her!

The first choral arrangement of a Shakespearian text was by Toby Young. No, not the associate editor of the Spectator, free school co-founder and political blogger, this Toby Young is a much nicer gentleman – a London based composer and past member of the King’s College Cambridge Chapel Choir. His setting of Orpheus With His Lute was for female voices only. It had an attractive melody and a jaunty rhythm.

Thomas Arne, composer of Rule Britannia and A-Hunting We Will Go is hardly a contemporary composer but his setting of Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind was a tuneful addition to the programme for the full chorus.

The American composer Matthew Harris was actually born in the real Sleepy Hollow. Have you seen the film? He has written six volumes of Shakespeare songs. Tell Me Where Is Fancy Bred was from the second book and several people in the audience told me that they found this the most delightful of the five pieces.

Another American composer William Schuman (1910 -1992) composed music over a wide range of styles some of those quite avant garde. He also wrote an opera and four Symphonies and at the start of his career was a protégé of Serge Koussevitzky. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his secular cantata A Free Song. What we heard today however was another setting of Orpheus With His Lute.
For the final song in the short concert, the choir gave us a fine upbeat performance of Brush Up Your Shakespeare from the musical Kiss Me Kate for which Cole Porter won the first ever Tony Award for the best musical.

It sent us on our way in cheerful spirits. The choir seemed to have enjoyed the event as much as we did – or at least that is the impression they gave - and after all, that is what really matters.

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