Brighton Festival 2021 – Lucy Colquhoun (piano) and Benson Wilson (baritone)

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Benson Wilson
Benson Wilson

Brighton Festival 2021 classical – Songs: Lucy Colquhoun (piano) and Benson Wilson (baritone) in Brighton Dome Concert Hall, Thursday 20 May, 1pm (1 hour, no interval).

Franz Schubert (1797-1828): Night and Dreams (words, Matthäus von Collin), The Erl-King (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), At Sunset (Karl Lappe).

Gustav Mahler(1860-1911), Cycle: Songs of a Wayfarer (words, Mahler): When My Sweetheart has her Wedding Day, I Walked across the Fields This Morning, I have a Red-hot knife, The Two Blue Eyes.

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    Benjamin Britten (1913-76), selected Traditional Folksong settings: The Sally Gardens (Eng), The Last Rose of Summer (Ire), The Foggy, Foggy Dew (Eng).

    Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), Cycle: Don Quixote at Dulcinée: Romantic Song, Epic Song, Drinking Song.

    Jet-black beard. Jet-black hair, pony-tailed halfway down his shoulder blades. Probably 6ft 2in, maybe 3in. Fearsome torso, expansive neck, powerful legs and arms. His black suit carries a white buttonhole, there’s a kerchief in its breast pocket. He has a commanding face, expressive hands. His white shirt won’t do up at the collar.

    He’s Samoan, from the Polynesian Islands. Samoa is a Rugby World Cup nation of fishers and farmers, north of New Zealand, east of Fiji and Australia. They have their own pre-match war dance, the Manu Suva Tau.

    Gambling confidently, to break the ice I ask this strapping young man what rugby position he plays. His hair-tie catches the light and glistens. There comes a big smile. “None! My mother banned me from playing the game. The dental bills would have been too high!”

    Then what is he, Benson Wilson, doing in the lieder and opera business? “Singing is part of the Samoan culture. We sing grace before we eat. We sing in church [Seventh Day Adventist] and we sing in choirs.”

    I tell him I am imagining, on the flanks of an international music rugby forwards pack, Bryn Terfel (Wales) at No 6, he (Samoa) at No 7. Could he name a singer for the No 8 jersey, to complete a very vocal back row? “Yes. Quinn Kelsey at the Metropolitan Opera – he’s also Polynesian.” (Hawaii)

    There’s a slim lady with Wilson. Lucy Colquhoun. No accent but a great Scottish name – another rugby force. She joins in on the theme. “I used to be the most unsporting person in the whole of the south east. No, I don’t play rugby. But I took up 10K running and it changed my life.”

    I tell Benson Wilson I’m there to ask him the title of the encore they just did together (some sumptuous legato from him in something sounding anthemically hymnal). He replies, and I have to ask him to spell it for me . . . “Ave Ihu. It means O Jesus. It’s a Maori hymn, arranged by Robert Wiremu, of Auckland, New Zealand. Ave Uhu is from the Ngati Kahungunu tribe.”

    Completely not your regular encore at a concert of songs, but it signifies the arrival of a new culture to the sharing among the musical ‘world in union’. Observe, just now, ‘concert of songs’. If I label it a ‘lieder recital’, which others would, but Brighton Festival did not, I will be inciting many readers to switch off. A perceived elite area. Not for them.

    The singing by trained voices, to a single piano, of composed settings of poetry or other text, continues to struggle to turn the heads of the mass western audience of popular song with its countless singer-songwriter heroes and heroines at the piano.

    To British ears, it’s usually shrouded in a foreign language, and unless you’ve had piano lessons, having a reasonable self-taught quiver full of chords is not enough to be able to perform what are sometimes (eg. Mahler or Ravel) transferrals of marvellous orchestration. Listening requires extra attention and one difficult task to convert new audience is to make the song words or narratives famous, as well as available in translation and legible as they listen in the concert room.

    This programme was a highly attractive calming, intelligible and winning compilation, suiting the post-lockdown mood and lunchtime respite. Classic and highly dramatic Schubert, bitter-sweet Mahler (hey guys, his own lyrics), wistful folksongs that courted Britten’s affections, and exotica from Monsieur Éxotique himself, Ravel.

    Wilson was singing 50% of the time in German, 25% each in French and English. Little was loud, most of it soft, with some haltingly sotto voce. The Singing Samoan is often a Gentle Giant. The rare instances of fortissimo sampled the power and dark tone (a rich blue, like the Samoan rugby kit!) for which he’s already being hailed.

    Here essentially he was in lyric baritone mode, and cast in it onwards from the moment of Schubert’s awe-inspiring key change after the opening verse of the opening song. And in the next song, he and Colquhoun avoided the obvious. The Erl-King is a malicious, robed and crowned tree-dwelling spirit. Here, he/it extinguishes the life of an unsuspecting man’s young son as he bears him home on horseback through a wind-savaged night.

    This setting bewildered its poet Goethe and made Schubert’s name (helped by Liszt’s all-piano transcription) after his own death, not only through public regard for Goethe, but the composer’s chilling depiction with haunted, galloping equine piano beneath the fearful voice of the child and aghast narrator.

    Pianist and singer are challenged. The interpretative temptation is to create stormy TV-ratings terror, carefully stopping short of wild panic. However, orchestrations of it – Berlioz soon seized on it – remind of an alternative, tenser, eerier supernatural atmosphere (cue: ‘a streak of mist’ is all the father is able to see).

    This route was chosen here. In this and the rest, Colquhoun’s work in her role was a model of expressive and subtle restraint, to create the perfect atmosphere and frame for the voice and the plot. She had to be Mahler’s orchestra, Ravel’s own piano and/or orchestra, and Britten and Schubert the pianists themselves himself.

    Even the bawdy was intelligently understated, in The Foggy, Foggy Dew, when Wilson confided candidly his batchelor-father secret, and in Ravel’s speech-slurred swansong closer, Drinking Song, when in just a couple of unsteady steps, Wilson showed just the slightest hint of a rugby player heading towards one after-match beer too many.

    Wilson quickly struck an easy rapport when introducing to the audience sprinkled around the Dome. He was here on this stage via Auckland University NZ, Guildhall School of Music & Drama and National Opera Studio in London, NZ’s topmost Lexus Song Contest, and later the 2019 Kathleen Ferrier Award (as prestigious as it sounds). He also has a bel canto award and is now on a scholarship as a Harewood Artist in training at English National Opera.

    “By the time I was five, I was learning to harmonise while singing. But it wasn’t until I was 15 that I realised people thought I had a nice voice. I started singing in national choirs and getting solos. Taking part in competitions encouraged me to take it more seriously.

    “But it wasn’t until I achieved a second prize that I thought I wanted to do it properly, because I was excited by performing on stage, with an orchestra playing. And people came up and told me how my singing had made them feel – sad or happy, sometimes tearfully.

    “I love to tell stories and to move audiences. It’s what we do in our culture.”

    He has an image, he has a throat, a voice, a personality, and he comes from islands we barely know on a wind blowing southerly. Crumbs, we’d do well to watch out.

    Richard Amey

    The Festival’s fourth live, socially distanced-audience indoor concert in four days since Covid-19 Pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020. Permitted audience: 250 (Dome seating capacity is 1,700).

    Masks mandatory, one-way routes. Seating bookable in household groups, sitting together. In the raised-area stalls and upstairs, three empty seats separate those occupied by individuals or groups. Cabaret table-seating on auditorium floor accessed by temporary stairs.

    Audience measures Search and Trace, hand sanitisation, temperature test, tickets scan-checking, bag search (max size A3). Toilets in use. No cloakroom. Bar drinks orderable pre-concert only, and brought to the buyers in their auditorium seats. Social distancing everywhere. At the end, the audience are stewarded out, section by section.