Saturday, 18 April 2015

Horses for Courses/a Kingdom (Webb, Last Plantagenet)

John Webb, The Last Plantagenet (John Webb. cond. Philharmonia players et al.)

Leicester seems to have extracted everything possible from RIII’s bones. Short of making bouillon, that is- and this might even be on sale at the visitor centre gift shop. And whilst many feel this charade has transcended the bounds of good taste, the prospect of a new piece of music, unlikely to be heard again, was not to be declined.
John Webb’s The Last Plantagenet, with a libretto from Hazel Gould, promised much:
The brand new piece celebrates Leicester’s fascinating cultural history, and is inspired by the discovery of King Richard III’s remains in the City. It brings together an orchestra and chorus of local young singers and instrumentalists, whose creative input has been woven into the piece. The Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, members of the Philharmonia, and Indian classical musicians join forces with a 100-strong choir to perform The Last Plantagenet; a magical tale of surprise and intrigue, with a familiar face returning to Leicester and observing the 2015 City with astonishment!
The combined forces of some Philharmonia players and, the Leicester-Shire Schools Symphony Orchestra, a very large chorus (also from schools), some Indian classical musicians, were vast. Wagner/Mahler-sized. From a cursory look, there were six players from the Philharmonia joining in here:  Nathaniel Anderson-Frank (Violin), Gwendolyn Fisher (Viola), Michael Fuller (Double Bass), Robin O’Neill (Bassoon), Philip White (Trombone), Peter Fry (Percussion); there may be more whom I missed. I won’t comment on the school musicians, as it seems patently unfair, other than to say that they did creditably well, and substantially exceeded my expectations.
One voice was bought-in: Charles MacDougall (Tenor, playing Richard III - his site here). The three principals were attached to microphones. This might well be necessary for the amateurs, but was inexplicable for MacDougall, who to by ear struggled to hit some of the top and bottom notes of a fairly unchallenging part. Amplification did him no favours. I am aware the last singer I heard was DiDonato (review), but I really don’t think this has radically altered my expectations here.
The performance opened with Dukas, Fanfare to La Péri, which set the scene well. Webb’s challenge in scoring was to produce something which would summon up Bosworth field and Leicester today. The inclusion of some brassy sounds gave a feeling of pace and depth, and made the most of the Philharmonia players. The music provided by the three sitar players (Naam Kaur Deogan, Roopa Panesar, Akash Parek) and tabla (Rishii Chowdhury), was truly beautiful, but Webb did not conduct this, as they played as a quartet within an orchestra. The rich, exotic sound was used most oddly at the end to demand the re-writing of history.
The libretto, by Hazel Gould, was disappointing. Ugly and uneven, it ranged from that which sounded just odd: “The King is Dead!/ Nothing but a bag of bones!/ Lay him down”; through trite, “History his tombstone/Memory his final sleep”; to the inappropriately funny, when Richard (MacDougall) sings “A horse, a horse!’ inevitably offering his kingdom in exchange. He might be better hailing a Hackney in modern Leicester anyway. Richard appears, alive, in modern Leicester, you see, and mainly impugns the denizens to give a more charitable account of him. Subaltern studies aren’t my area, but I do know this is not about re-visiting the history of Great Men. Moreover, the argument that history has been unkind to Richard III is new to me: the issue is that he wasn’t very nice. And it is dangerously creeping in, packaged as it was here, having started with the mad woman from the TV programme claiming that once she saw the remodelling of him, she knew he was nice.
In announcing Richard’s appearance, Gould is at her least meaningful. The historian: “Skin as white as a page/of this book, Bones like razors/The mouth of a rat”. You get the picture: utter gibberish. And here the words have to mean something directly; luxuries like giving a general impression aren’t really available in English of at this level. The chorus, however, can use a simple, understandable vocabulary, and the principals try something more challenging.
Credit must be given to the Philharmonia; it is doubtless that there will have been meaningful and great opportunities for the children involved. They made some great music. What good work they continue to do.
Overall: good music, odd libretto.
Running time: 45m

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