The Songmen

Concert date: 11 April 2014
Reviewed by: JRC

Something quite different ended the Nadsa concert season: The Songmen.
Any thoughts that the programming search for variety had gone too far towards jazz or pop were immediately dispelled by the first few bars of William Byrd's Motet [1591]. The lightness of touch they brought to this rendering made me quite forget that they were singing a cappella; my brain had assumed period instruments were there too. In Thomas Weelkes' [1576 – 1623] Gloria in Excelsis Deo we had, reassuringly, a full range of dynamics. The next performance, of Stanford's Beati Quorum Via, moved us chronologically to the 19th century and was remarkable. The versatility of The Songmen made the change of style, from Renaissance composers to Romantic, very obvious; not only did overarching phrasing engage our senses but the timbre of their voices changed. The final E flat piano note sung by Guy Lewis was the stuff of tingle factors. Singing fast, high and forte may get audience applause; but the real skill shows in high, sustained pianissimo notes, and his was a gem any choirboy would have been proud of!

The next two songs were composed by Robert Waters [Nolo Mortem Peccatoris] and Ben Sawyer [Silence and Sound], both members of the Songmen. The former bathed us in new harmonies, whilst the latter had a strangeness and angst about it. Brigg Fair [arr Percy Grainger] had us in more familiar territory.

And then we had two pieces by John Rutter who had recently been to the USA immediately before their composition. The several soloists were at times backed by vocal pizzicato and a swinging beat. The first half of the concert was rounded off by a return to the 16th century with French songs by Pierre Passereau and Clement Janequin. 'Il est Bel et bon' was light, fast and fun, whereas La Guerre also became animated, but this time the narrative was the drama of war.

After the interval we returned to the Renaissance with Thomas Morley's Now is the Month of Maying. Their rendition of this double-entendre laden madrigal was very spirited. The Songmen, in Peter Knight's arrangement of Londonderry Air, produced a chilling change of mood. Such a well known tune needs careful handling, and we had experts. Even though barbershop is by no means my favourite genre, I found their interpretation of this tragedy-anticipating narrative deeply upsetting. Very fortunately for my sensibility, I did not find the arrangement of Swing Low moving. For me, the barbershop / jazz delight in harmonizing around a well loved tune and narrative meant, the chariot got lost. Down to the River arr Philip Lawson was a return to a moving performance and a chance to hear solo voices.

Ben Sawyer's arrangement of Be Your Husband [written for Nina Simone] by Andrew Stroud struck new ground again with clapping on-beat and off-beat accompaniment; and including more than a passing reference to The Beatles 'Come together'. Ben also arranged the King, Leiber & Stoller song Stand by Me which worked well as a narrative with a compelling beat and harmonised haunting refrains. Irving Berlin's Cheek to Cheek [arr Pickard] was very good barbershop, and Mr Bojangles by Jerry Jeff Walker [arr Guy Lewis] was another chance to hear a solo voice with backing. The Songmen's Lullabye by Billy Joel [arr Phillip Lawson] was utterly beautiful. The concert programme then had another sharp contrast, Crazy 'Bout my Baby by Hill & Walker [arr Ben Sawyer]; a jazzy up-beat way to finish. But the audience, that had been both gripped in hushed reverence, and moving with the rhythms, wanted more; and the Songmen were brought back for an encore. They gave us their version of an excerpt from Rossini's overture to The Barber of Seville: fast, fun, and wonderfully romantic.