REVIEWS: Brighton Early Music Festival 2017

Little Baroque Company 'bird' violinists John Crockatt and Helen Kruger
Little Baroque Company 'bird' violinists John Crockatt and Helen Kruger

‘Tales In Music: The Pigeon & the Albatross’ – Little Baroque Company at The Komedia Studio on Saturday November 11 (11.15am).

Narrator, Nigel Pittman; violins, John Crockatt & Dominika Fehér; viola, Oakki Lau; cello Gareth Deats; harpsichord, Katarzyna Kowalik. Written by Dominic Santangelo.

BREMF now has ITS OWN Children’s Grotto! I discovered it when I sneaked in there on Saturday morning - diving from the morning throng on Gardner Street, through the small cafe, into the half-light, then down into the dark and dingy depths of The Komedia.

As your undercover reporter in this child detection in BREMF operation, I can convey the following. The Komedia Studio was filled with at least 60 children, aged 5-11, plus their parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles. All were packed in tight, sitting on the floor, stools or chairs, lots of children at the front. ‘Standing room only’, ventured someone. I had no child with me but they did not notice: I stole into the back row and kept very quiet.

Suddenly in filed four men and two women in costumes with feathered and fluffy headdresses in yellow, turquoise, grey and red. They went up onto the small stage where there was already a wooden thing that might was a kind of piano. We all went very quiet.

They had musical instruments in their hands and one of them was holding a big folder. He called himself a nightingale and started reading a story about a pigeon who met a mother albatross in a city zoo but who couldn’t escape because she was too big to get through the wires. So she smuggled her egg out to the pigeon, who flew away with it, south towards Antarctica. That’s where albatrosses come from.

The heavy egg eventually hatched and the chick became a terrible burden. But the pigeon battled on, nearly starving while flying across the ocean, but reached the destination with the young albatross, liked it there, and decided not to return home, but fly around the rest of the world to have a look.

While the nightingale man told the tale, and sometimes when he wasn’t, the band played appropriate- behaving music by curious-sounding names: Vivaldi, von Biber, Geminiani, Muffat, Telemann and JC Bach. I don’t know any child at my school who calls themselves JC, so he must have been a grown-up.

But it sounded good to me. The violins sounded like birds, just like the story man said they would. So did the viola once. They also sounded like a storm, and like quiet at night, or hot in the afternoon. Another time, someone’s mum said it was Spring.

At the end, the music people bowed and smiled, so did the nightingale man, we all clapped, some grown-ups cheered and some of us children did too. Then the music people went out, and we got up to go, but it took a long time because the parents wanted to talk to each other about it. They were smiling a lot, too, and laughing. I saw someone I know from school who’s in a different year to me.

The lights were low and it was a bit like being in a big group all waiting to see Father Christmas, but having a story and music to listen to instead. Much better than getting a toy just like one you’d already got at home, or a game you’d already grown out of, or some sweets that tasted funny.

I want to go back there again. Please, when can we?

Richard Amey

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Brighton Early Music Festival 2017: ‘Into The Melting Pot’ – The Telling, at St Paul’s Church on Thursday, November 9 (7.30). Written by Clare Norburn. Lighting design by Natalie Rowland & Pitch Black Lighting.

Actors: ‘Blanca’ (storyteller), Karen Winchester; ‘Queen Isabella’ (offstage), Patience Tomlinson. Singers: Clare Norburn, soprano; Ariane Prussner, mezzo and percussion. Harp & percussion, Joy Smith; Nickelharpa & Hurdy Gurdy, Clare Salaman; oud & vielle, Giles Lewin.

This year, BREMF salutes and bids bon voyage deeper into the world of creative writing around musical history to Clare Norburn. Her ‘Breaking The Rules’ psycho concert drama about Gesualdo with The Marian Consort debuts in London on January 6 at LSO St Lukes (7pm), and as one of BREMF’s two co-founders, her path is widening away – including also, one fervently hopes, towards radio.

She’ll not be lost to BREMF as a contributor and singing performer, though, so ‘Into The Melting Pot’ was thankfully no parting swansong. It is difficult to imagine a fully enriched BREMF without what she brings to it. Here is a native Brighton artist, investigative, intuitive and committed to her subject matter, and with characteristic personal performance which (for BREMF performing trends) is above-average-physical in her projection of the texts she sings.

So visible, this further brings alive the events, subjects and eras which her work raises from the dead or sheds new insight. From Italy and Gesualdo, she switches us this time to Seville, July 1492, and the deadline for Jews non-converting to Catholicism needing to be out of Queen Isabella’s ethnically cleansing Spain.

A lamp and a spinning wheel stand by storyteller Karen Winchester who in low lighting paints pain and snatched joys in a sequence of scenes, recollections and anecdotes alongside or accompanied by Catholic songs and dances to Mary by King Alfonso X, traditional Sephardic (Jewish) songs, Muslim Andalusian/ Arabic material, and a Galician love song by troubadour Martin Codax from two centuries earlier.

As ‘Blanca’, Winchester, bound by Isabella’s edict to uproot into southern exile, is saying final farewell to her surroundings and the integrated multi-cultural life shared by peoples of three religions. It’s a story all too humanly endemic, with echoes and equivalents occurring up to this minute. And the central focus on Blanca’s personal upheaval within this, together with her mature, paradoxical acceptance of her loss, jangles familiar modern alarm bells.

The church space is used processionally at the start, a staging device unfailingly producing audience engagement (those there exceeded 170), and the performing sextet sit or stand at the front to deliver their subtly-coloured instrumental and vocal arrangements in an ever-changing variety of settings and combinations. Flow is maintained with unobtrusive accomplishment and constant absorption of the attentive audience is achieved.

The soundworld of the Arabic oud (lute – see my report on Toby Carr’s Workshop early this BREMF) and medieval fiddle in the hands of the ever-versatile Giles Lewin, plus the Swedish nickelharpa (a 16-string bowed instrument) and the European hurdygurdy played by expert Clare Salaman, weave their exotic spell. Ariane Prussner is the German specialist in ancient Spanish music which The Telling embrace. She and Norburn duet and solo - plaintive, now ecstatic - sad and resigned, now outreaching.

Despite appropriately dark lighting preventing the audience easily following the texts, we go willingly, satisfied and enlightened into the audible past which Norburn and this festival resurrect for us. And we note we should bring a torch next year. But the alternative is fine: of concentrated listening at the event, then catch-up reading of the programme, once back home - which amounts to reliving it.

Watch out for The Telling’s 2017 candlelit programme of earliest medieval and traditional European carols, Christemas Past in Hastings (Kino Teatr, November 26) and Hove (St Barnabas Church, Sackville Road, December 8). The flavour’s the same.

Richard Amey

www.bremf.org.uk/xmas