Françaix, Massenet, Poulenc – Concert Review
Hamstead and Highgate Festival – 14th May 2002
Compared to some big cities London has relatively little arts activity in the suburbs. Smaller music festivals like the City of London, Spitalfields or the Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, all cluster around the same area as the city’s main concert-halls and opera-houses – a bit like an arts lover’s pub crawl.
It has taken the Hampstead & Highgate Festival to draw audiences away from their usual watering holes. Over the past few years the festival has built up its programme to the point where it is starting to have critical mass. The lack of a purpose-built concert hall in this well-heeled part of North London does not seem to have been a problem, as the organisers have pressed into service what are by all accounts some attractive, out-of-the-way venues.
That is appropriate, as the music they play in them is invariably off-the-beaten-track as well. On Tuesday, the evening concert drew festival-goers to the United Reformed Church off Highgate High Street. It is an unpre-possessing building on the outside, but the interior is small, intimate, with good sound, altogether rather homely.
The evening’s visitors were met by a hastily scribbled note pinned to the front door saying, “Healing is cancel-led today – with apologies”. What – does not music count for its therapeutic qualities any more? And the festival had put together such a good-humoured programme too, guaranteed to soothe the troubled spirit.
The main work was a short opera by the evergreen French composer Jean Françaix called Paris, à nous deux!, written in 1954 and utterly forgotten shortly afterwards. Maybe it was not such a good idea to score it for three soloists, chorus and saxophone quartet. The opera is described as a “tilt at snobbery in all its forms”. In the original French text there seem to have been many satirical contemporary references, but it was difficult to tell, as this performance used a new English version renamed London, Here I Come! by John Sidgwick. Plenty of tilting went on here, the predictable targets including Jeffrey Arch-er, Damien Hirst and archetypal Essex Man – all good clean fun, even when the stresses on the words did not fit the notes.
The three solo singers (Gillian Keith, Huw Rhys-Evans and Thomas Guth-rie) were of good quality; the Vasari Singers under the conductor Jeremy Backhouse did their best to put across their quick-fire words; and the New Millennium Saxophone Quartet scam-pered dextrously around the fleet-footed accompaniment. Françaix’s writing for wind instruments is such a give-away. Who else could have com-posed this delectably bubbling music?
Somehow the festival managed to find enough pieces for the same selection of performers to fill the first half. The saxophone quartet enjoyed themselves in Jonathan Dove’s typically buoyant, now-it’s-minimalist, now-it-isn’t, Tun-ing In, and followed on with the Suite sur des thèmes populaires roumains by Jean Absil, an ideal curtain-raiser for the Françaix. The Vasari Singers, sounding 90% confident, then tackled Massenet’s little-known Chansons des bois d’Amaranthe – pleasurable and who could have guessed the composer? – and four of Poulenc’s more familiar Chansons françaises.
The Hampstead & Highgate Festival continues until 25 May.
Operas come in all shapes and forms, but the French composer Jean Fran-çaix dreamt up one of the most unusual concoctions of all. His 1954 1-act opera-bouffe “Paris, à nous deux!” is written with an accompaniment of saxophone quartet and in addition to three soloists and chorus calls for a child prodigy pianist/singer. In a new English translation by John Sidgwick, “London, Here I Come!”, as it was renamed, received its UK premiere in a concert performance at the Highgate United Reformed Church as one of the highlights of the fourth Hampstead and Highgate Festival.
Given the original’s target of snobbery in the arts, the updating and resetting from Fifties Paris to contemporary London made good sense and there were ample digs at the likes of Jeffrey Archer, empty rooms with lights going on and off and “our dear Tracey” and her unmade bed. Dave, a beer-bellied Essex Man, is encouraged to make his way in London by his mentor Boris, but only the fine arts seem to offer the openings for a man with no talents at all. Three excellent soloists, Gillian Keith (Charlotte, a society hostess), Thomas Guthrie (Boris) and Huw Rhys-Evans (Dave), clearly enjoyed themselves with the scurrilous good humour present in both the words and Françaix’s music. The Vasari Singers were on their best form as a chorus taking many roles and 13-year-old Menuhin School pupil So-Yeong Kim was the spitting image of a child prodigy in her solo spot of two piano interludes and a song to her own accompaniment.
Conductor Jeremy Backhouse drove the music along at a brisk pace, with the New Millennium Saxophone Quartet providing characterful accom-paniment, memorably so in Francaix’s spoof of an avant-garde composition.
There’s no denying the work is little more than a piece of French froth and Francaix creates his own balancing problems by using such a demon-strative instrumental group as four saxophones, which can easily hide the words of a whole chorus. But it was all good harmless fun.
There being few other works for both choir and saxophone quartet, the two groups had gone their own way in the concert’s first half. The superb saxo-phonists played Jonathan Dove’s effective musical conversation, Tuning In”, and a Romanian folksong suite by the Belgian composer Jean Absil. For their part, the Vasari Singers pre-pared the French ground with a vocal suite by Massenet and four of Pou-lenc’s “Chansons francaises”, not as securely sung as the Francaix, but enjoyable none the less.
ONE reason why Jean Françaix’s frothy dig at artsy snobbery is hardly ever performed is that it requires the active participation of a child prodigy pianist who can also sing, tricky even in north London; so big up the Hampstead and Highgate Festival for unearthing the confident and dextrous 13-year-old So-Yeong Kim, a Korean student at the Purcell School, whom I assumed was about 20 years older until she emerged diminutively from behind the piano.
Another reason may be that Paris, à nous deux!, transported wholesale across the Channel, is only fairly good: a half-hour French frippery, more cantata than opera, jolly, lively, musically inventive in a none-too-demanding way and mildly amusing, but a victim of its own effortless facility.
The premise of this piece of 1954 mock-bitchiness is that success is not enough: for that real warm glow, others need to fail. A young man ponders how to make his fortune in London, finally plumping for a life in the arts as requiring the least talent and effort. Cue lots of arch little jokes about Damien and Tracey as an uncannily accurate parody of a Hampstead salon unfolds: a cosy little satire that misses its target only because it doesn’t really believe in the charlatanry of those it is guying. The young chap is hailed as a genius on the strength of a few gnomic platitudes, and his ageing mentor is shown the door. Nice to be reminded that the mindless worship of talentless youth is not exclusively a recent English phenomenon.
Voices were accompanied by the indefatigable New Millennium sax quartet, whose syncopated chuntering and chattering fixes the music in that mid-century Paris-by-night idiom where jazz meets music-hall. Gillian Keith, Thomas Guthrie and Huw Rhys-Evans sang with bright character, backed up by the well-schooled and melded bien-pensants of the Vasari Singers, bouncily conducted by Jeremy Backhouse.
The rest of a jaunty evening belonged to them – some artfully-phrased Massenet songs, and four of Poulenc’s fiendishly redone French folk-tunes – and the amazingly accomplished quartet, whose rendition of Jonathan Dove’s Tuning In was a brilliant exercise in overlapping lines and echoes. The French and Belgians really knew how to compose for the saxophone, and Jean Absil’s suite of Romanian folk-songs sounded like a full stomping Bartók-peasant orchestra from somewhere east of the Carpathians.