The following is a review written for publication in The Vancouver Observer.
“I’M NERVOUS!!!!! If you want to know what is the matter with me I AM NERVOUS!!!”, quoted tenor Will George on his Facebook profile just hours before his title role performance in Eight Songs for a Mad King. Will was justifiably nervous: Eight Songs, based on the real-life madness of King George III, is a tour-de-force treatise of modern vocal techniques spanning a mighty range of over four octaves.
It’s not just for the madness I’d come. (Sir) Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs ranks, along with Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring,among the top twentieth-century works of contemporary concert music.
“Who has stolen my key?”
Sadly for UBC-based hosting ensemble Nu:BC Collective (flutist, Paolo Bortolussi; cellist, Eric Wilson; and pianist, Corey Hamm), the first part of the programme was arguably more maddening than the featured work. Like falling dominos, each of the electronic pieces fizzled making nervous geeks out of respectable UBC composers Bob Pritchard and Keith Hamel. While they strained over their laptops, the audience stared expectantly forward at idled musicians who for their part stood helplessly clutching perfectly functioning acoustic instruments. Finally, pianist Corey Hamm rescued the moment with a little Bach-Gounod arpeggiation and the audience filed out for an extra intermission.
“Blue-yellow-green is the world like a chained man’s bruise.”
On our return, the stage was set for the entrance of the king even though Diane Park’s inventive set design, a triumph of economy, looked as if she’d done it on a budget of no more than $75. I have no idea the actual cost but after the performance, Diane said how much she’d enjoyed the challenge of designing Eight Songs because of how it sits in the nearly uncharted waters between chamber music (“No sets required if you please”) and music theatre (“My dad’s got a barn—let’s put on a show!”).
The trick in all this is making musicians—who in a strict sense can’t act—be part of the action. To accomplish this, Diane enclosed each of the four front musicians in bird cages and dressed up their formal concert attire with brightly coloured neck scarves and feathers making them look vaguely like late eighteenth century birdmen. There, they could go about their music-making business while doubling for theatrical purposes as sets.
The remainder of Diane’s budget was reserved for Will’s regal purple robe (with genuine thrift store ermine) and of course that extra violin that would later become pivotal to the action. At key junctures in the performance, Will disrobed revealing a little more of the history of the period—most effective was his recoiling horror on discovering the lining of his robe was sewn in with an anti-royalist American flag.
“Sometimes he howled like a dog.”
Singers, unlike musicians, are expected to be able to act and sing and all the rest. For this performance, singer Will George was at his best. After the performance, Will described his preparation for the role: “When I started preparing the piece, I wasn’t sure how I was going to produce all the sounds and extended techniques required. As I started listening to modern recordings and watching YouTube videos, I noticed that almost none of the performers were attempting these techniques, much less the pitches. This took a little pressure off, but I did want to be as faithful to the score as possible.”
During the performance, Will took some opportunity to interact with the audience and particularly with the musicians, but otherwise his actions all seemed to precipitate from his inner mental anguish. Perhaps the blocking was a little jerky but I hardly noticed for the fact that Maxwell Davies’s music is so endlessly interesting. From the opening chords, which disassembled from rhythmic unison into chaos to Corey Hamm’s rapid transitions from harpsichord to piano to play a few baroque flourishes here followed an instant later—and several decades musicological speaking—with corresponding flourishes in Mozartian classical style there. Even when referencing earlier composers, his music never sounded referential. Indeed, it provided us with the context needed to appreciate the unfolding drama.
“Poor fellow, he went mad.”
There’s a long tradition of on-stage musical instrument destruction but they’ve occurred mostly in rock and jazz circles, not so much on the classical concert stage. In fact, Eight Songs may be the only such work. Most audience members last Thursday would likely have known of this scene, so as Will George snatched Mark Ferris’s violin and then smashed it to pieces on the stage right there in front of us, there was an air of quiet that seemed downright pornographic. This sort of behaviour is to chamber music what CGI is to the movies—both for titillation and expense.
Sadly, there was only one performance of Eight Songs but, hey, if you’ve got an old violin you’d like to sacrifice, Nu:BC and company might be willing to mount it again.
Nu:BC Collective’s performance of Eight Songs for a Mad King is part of a series of new music concert continuing throughout April. I can’t say for sure if any violins will meet their end, but the line up is otherwise very promising.
Upcoming in the Masque series:
- Apr 17 & 19 – Turning Point Ensemble – featuring works by Benjamin Britten, jazz artist Tony Wilson, Bradshaw Pack, and arrangements of medieval and renaissance music by Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle.
- Apr 24 & 25 – musica intima – featuring music befitting a Venetian Carnival – masks, theatrics, and salon-style seating, and vocal works by Adriano Banchieri, Orazio Vecchi, Giovani Gabrieli and Claudio Monteverdi.