Fair Oriana

Concert date: 19 April 2024
Reviewed by: JRC

Fair Oriana after their performance for NADSA Concerts

Jewel in the Crown

A glance at the many diverse composers of Fair Oriana’s programme made me wonder how they would knit it all together; and how on earth could Duke Ellington be encompassed even by this expert ‘Early’ Music group? Entitled ‘Eliza is the Fairest Queen’, we were promised popular songs from the time of good Queen Bess, alongside Tudor tinted arrangements of some hits from the 70 year reign of our late Queen Elizabeth.

Lucinda Cox and Angela Hicks opened the concert singing a lyric of ‘It is the Lord’s doing’ from Psalm118, - an ancient text; but the musical style was not easy to pin down. It is modern, and its composer Fraser Wilson is alive and well and living in England. The stage was set for many more conundrums. The text, we learnt, is highly relevant since it is reputed that Queen Elizabeth I fell to her knees and quoted it, on hearing she was to succeed the throne. A 16th century lute solo followed, Monsieurs Almaine, the like of which the queen might have heard.

Then headlong from Tudor times to the 20th century with Lennon-McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’ and ‘Her Majesty’, both as I have never heard them before; followed by a sombre 16th century instrumental ‘Bonny Sweet Robin’.

And then for something else completely different, ‘Blue Velvet’. The sultry warmth of voices in this duet dispelled any idea that our performers were uneasy beyond Elizabeth I styles. Whether we were with Bobby Vinton or in David Lynch’s nightclub, we had been transported to something very definitely 20th century.

Sam Brown, lutenist, told us a little of the Arabic and Spanish roots of the lute, and endearingly said that ‘it never raises its voice’. Before Sam played John Dowland’s Earl of Essex Galliard, he reminded us about the risk-taking character of Robert [the second Earl of Essex], which initially had put him in Elizabeth I’s favour, but later had resulted in him losing his head. The gentle stately lute solo suddenly had a sinister edge.

A thread of the two Elizabeths was always there, however tenuous.

Angela and Lucy both sparkled in timeless costumes – well, both Elizabeths were set apart from the masses by their finery – whilst the instrumentalists had to rely on other talents.

The viola da gamba was often cast in the role of continuo, and Harry Buckoke, violist, exhibited great sensitivity in that role. He told us that Duke Ellington was presented to Elizabeth II after which Ellington composed ‘The Queens Suite’, too long for our concert. Instead, Harry would be playing his version of ‘Sophisticated Lady’. What he didn’t mention was how the lyrics of ‘Sophisticated Lady’ could so easily, if disrespectfully, apply to Queen Elizabeth. Transcribing maybe one thing, but performing such a piece on a fretted instrument was intriguing. If Ellington’s composition is about mood creation, then Harry’s performance was a hit. So good to hear him also solo in Richard Sumarte’s ‘Daphne’: contrasting era and style.

Our percussionist Sarah Dollar was an unobtrusive backing to many of the 20th century offerings, but she gained the limelight in ‘Fortune my Foe’. Her ominous soft but insistent drumbeat, at times clashing with the period lute and viola da gamba, made the period setting of the progression to the gallows sinister. No vulgar drama of a beheading, just the fading of the drumbeat with the futility and frailty of life. A shiver down one’s spine.

It was related how Elizabeth I realised that love and politics don’t mix. It seems she was fond of the Duke of Anjou, referring to him as her ‘Froggie’, but politics decided he had to return to France. The Queen regretted he had to ‘swim in his French pond’. Sam impishly added that soon after returning to France, the Frog croaked. This was cue for a delightful Dowland lute piece, ‘Frog Galliard’, followed by Fraser Wilson’s ‘On Monsieur’s Departure’ where both lyrics and musical style portrayed conflict and duality of emotion.

We were told that Elizabeth II reportedly [in the Sun] said that ‘I’m in heaven’ [‘Cheek to cheek’] was her favourite song. The smoochy tones of Lucy’s first verse lent credibility to the notion – then Angela broke the spell with her entrance of “I’m in Devon”!

The Jewel in the Crown for me, the last item on the programme, was John Wilbye’s ‘The Lady Oriana’. It was a blooming of fulfilled expectations: a showcase of high pure notes and interweaving melodies with our period instruments. Hurrah!

For our encore, what could have been more poignant [whilst there are wars in both Europe and the Middle east] than an American lyricist getting it wrong with Blue birds over the ‘White cliffs of Dover’ with its heart-rending melody. A hauntingly bittersweet way to leave us, going out, singing a tune.

It was am amazing evening. Such diversity of genres was tricky to embrace: one never quite knew what was coming next, and the above is only a sample of the items performed. It was certainly a unique experience for me, and a high note for Nadsa concerts to close its season.

NADSA Concert, Friday 19th April 7.30pm at The Courtenay Centre, Newton Abbot.