Hell, we’ve got to sell that body!

For the final scene of the film version of Evergreen

Trying to cram two lives into an evening concert is a challenge, and in writing Over My Shoulder about the lives of Elisabeth Schumann and Jessie Matthews, I inevitably had to leave out a lot of lovely detail. One of subjects there wasn’t space for was their wardrobes and the outfits that caused a stir.

In my show I quote director Victor Saville who said “Hell, we’ve got to sell that body!” in reply to press comment on Jessie’s scanty outfits in one of his films. His response was to commission the silver sequinned bodysuit on the left for the next film.

Jessie was famous for wearing clothes that left little to the imagination, and not always by design. In Evergreen she had accidentally gone onstage one evening having forgotten the special skin-coloured leotard that should have been worn under her chiffon pyjamas. The audience saw rather more of her at that performance than they expected.

Chiffon was ideal for Jessie’s dresses because she loved to exploit the fabric’s floatiness as she moved, as in this video of Dancing On The Ceiling from the film of Evergreen (this sequence is 1’10” in if you are watching the whole film).

Elisabeth Schumann’s concert attire was generally more sober, although she did create a sensation in a performance of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in Vienna. It being a midday concert, an evening gown was not appropriate and Elisabeth felt that the purple dress she finally agreed on was still rather too smart. So she ‘softened’ it with the addition of a matching hat. This startling choice attracted as much press attention as her singing: “ES made an entrance…as if she had just popped in from a stroll on the Ringstrasse for a moment, to sing about the heavenly life. With a hat. Let us hope that (Richard) Mayr will not appear for the Ninth in a top hat…”

Photo: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

History doesn’t record what the conductor, Bruno Walter, thought of Elisabeth’s outfit and sadly I haven’t been able to find a photo of it. But I particularly like this one of her and Richard Strauss, with whom she toured the US in 1921. Elisabeth appears in many publicity shots in a fur coat and holding her favourite pet dog, Sorry (so named after the English habit of apologising, which she found hilarious). This lovely shot seems to catch her mid-rehearsal and more relaxed in her casual clothes.

 

 

 

Schumann & Shakespeare – 16 July 2017

Schumann & Shakespeare by Clare McCaldin Stephen Dickinson has written a new group of songs for me entitled A Shakespeare Quartet, which we will be premiering together on Sunday 16 July at 3pm. The songs are settings of speeches from four different female characters in Shakespeare’s plays: Rosalind’s teasing of Orlando (As You Like It), Viola to Duke Orsino (Twelfth Night), Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s watery death (Hamlet) and Hermia’s dream (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Stephen will be accompanying me in these new songs, as well as in a duet he wrote last year for baritone Paul Sheehan and me, setting Prospero’s closing speech from The Tempest.

Stephen has also written a new Benedictus duet for us, commemorating the death of his great-uncle Oxley Jones Frost, who was killed in action on 15th March 1917 aged 24. This will be performed alongside a Pie Jesu which Stephen wrote in 1997.

Paul will also be performing Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, accompanied by Michael Papadopoulos, and the three of us will open the concert with three duets by Schumann: Tanzlied, In der Nacht and Ich bin dein Baum.

The concert is at St Paul’s Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge at 3pm on Sunday 16th July, and lasts an hour without an interval.

Over My Shoulder

Over My Shoulder: Elisabeth Schumann and Jessie MatthewsSeptember 16th will be the first performance of Over My Shoulder, my latest McCaldin Arts project, about soprano Elisabeth Schumann and musical comedy star Jessie Matthews. In this recital I narrate the remarkable life-stories of these two women and sing some of the wonderful music most closely associated with them. Accompanying me in songs ranging from Mendelssohn, Strauss and Schubert to Noel Coward and Rodgers & Hart will be pianist Paul Turner, my regular collaborator on Haydn’s London Ladies.

It was a photograph of the grave of Elisabeth Schumann at St Martin’s church in Ruislip that first prompted the idea for a recital, followed by the discovery of Jessie Matthews’ grave in the same churchyard. It seems appropriate that Over My Shoulder should get its premiere at St Martin’s where these two women finally came to rest. I hope that, having heard me weave their stories together, the audience will not only visit the two graves, but seek out the substantial legacy of recordings and film left by Elisabeth and Jessie, many of which can be found on You Tube. I am delighted to be presenting their song repertoire, but the inimitable originals are really worth hearing too, and Jessie’s dance routines (she was the “English Ginger Rogers”) are absolutely extraordinary.

This performance of Over My Shoulder is sponsored by Edmission UK and all ticket receipts will go to the Myosotis Trust, a charity with which St Martin’s church and the local community have a long association.

Concert starts at 7.30pm. Tickets will be available on the door. Interval drinks.

A personal best

Libby Burgess and Clare McCaldin - Entente COrdialePreparing a solo recital is always a lot of work, so the chance to repeat a programme is a welcome opportunity. However, performing the same programme three times in three different counties in just over 24 hours demands a whole new level of stamina and focus, as Libby Burgess and I confirmed on our mini-tour for Concerts in the West. But there is simply no other way to discover how to do it other than by actually doing it. To sing the programme through three times without the presence of an audience wouldn’t achieve the same effect, such is the importance of the audience in the whole undertaking.

Although any programme becomes easier with familiarity, the physical toll of delivering three concerts so close together is not to be underestimated, for both singer and pianist. Clever programming and knowing how to pace oneself are essential, as is the art of cat-napping.

Being on tour is not only about the performing and, as in this case, journeys on winding country roads between venues can also take their toll. We were fortunate that with each passing concert the distance back ‘home’ became shorter, and we were glad to be driven than to be doing the driving as well.

As its name suggests, Concerts in the West is based in the South-West and covers venues in Devon, Somerset and Dorset. It’s always a pleasure to discover new places to perform and we were particularly delighted by Bridport Arts Centre, a lovely little space with a super acoustic, and Ilminster Arts Centre, run by volunteers and, I’m pleased to say, thriving.

Thank you to Catherine and her team at Concerts in the West for a very enjoyable flying visit.

 

Entente Cordiale

In March this year I will be on a mini recital tour in the South-West with one of my regular collaborators, pianist Libby Burgess, courtesy of Concerts in the West. This excellent organisation manages a large series of classical music concerts spread across small venues in Devon and Somerset, and gives emerging artists the chance to perform a recital several times in quick succession. Repeating a programme has such benefits for the performers and it is often difficult to engineer a series of performances close together from scratch. Concerts in the West has an established relationship with many venues and a loyal audience, and we are delighted to join the 2017 series. We will also give a London performance of the programme on Thursday 23 March at 7.30pm at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, 32a Wilton Pl, London SW1X 8SH.

Camille Pisarro’s Lordship Lane Station (1871)

Our programme explores the cultural love-affair between England and France, in particular the romantic tropes and shared reference points: these include Fauré’s and Vaughan Williams’ settings of Verlaine’s poem Prison, Britten’s folk-song settings in English and French, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s jazz-infused A History of the Thé Dansant. Contemporary songs by Dominic Muldowney and David Owen Norris complement songs from the early C20th by Cole Porter and Poulenc. See below for full programme.

Finzi – To a Poet
Vaughan Williams – The Sky Above The Roof
Fauré – Prison
Fauré – Trois Mélodies de Venise
Head – Three Songs of Venice
Britten – French and English Folk Songs
Il est quelqu’un sur terre, Eho! Eho!, Salley Gardens, Oliver Cromwell
John Ireland – In A May Morning from Sarnia (piano solo)
Dominic Muldowney – In Paris with You
David Owen Norris – Big Ben Blues
Poulenc – Les Chemins de l’amour
Cole Porter – C’est Magnifique
Richard Rodney Bennett – The History of the Thé Dansant

Elizabeth and Jessie

Every so often someone casually suggests an idea to me that just grabs me, and one of my current projects in development comes from just such a moment. A friend noticed a connection between two very different singers: Elizabeth Schumann (above right), international classical diva, and Jessie Matthews (below right), darling of 1930s musicals, on stage and screen.

Each of these women reached the very peak of her profession, working with the creative giants of her day and experiencing the ups and downs, rivalries and challenges that the performing life unavoidably entails. It is fascinating to weave together the strands of their narratives as an introduction to their music and artistry, built around the curious facts of how their stories finally intersect here in England.

After the success of my first narrated recital Haydn’s London Ladies, this format seemed ideal for combining similarly varied musical items and historical anecdotes. The new programme ranges from Schubert to Rogers and Hart, from Covent Garden and Hollywood.

Elizabeth and Jessie is currently in development, for presentation in late 2017. Dates to be announced.

Summer English Song on 5 June

21 apr fb eventMy next recital at St Paul’s Knightsbridge is with baritone Paul Sheehan and two composers, Stephen Dickinson and Rob Keeley. We will be performing familiar songs by Peter Warlock (three Shakespeare settings) and Gerald Finzi (the song-cycle, To a Poet), which we have paired with works by our composer-pianists. Stephen Dickinson’s What Have You In Your Heart? sets seven poems from AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, and Rob Keeley’s Five Stevie Smith Songs offer a strongly contrasted style, both poetically and musically.

Sunday 5 June, 2.30pm, St Paul’s Knightsbridge.
Tickets are £10 (£5 concessions) on the door.

The full programme is as follows:

It was a lover and his lass (duet) – Vaughan Williams

Three Shakespeare Songs – Warlock
Sigh No More Ladies
Take, O Take Those Lips Away
Pretty Ring Time

Five Stevie Smith Songs – Keeley
Avondale
La Gretchen de nos jours
Le singe qui swing
Tender only to one
Will ever?

What Have You In Your Heart? – Dickinson
When I Was One And Twenty
Loveliest Of Trees
Is My Team Ploughing
Oh, When I Was In Love With You
White In The Moon
From Far, From Eve And Morning
If Truth In Hearts That Perish

To a Poet – Finzi
To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence
On parent knees
Intrada
The Birthnight
June on Castle Hill
Ode on the Rejection of St Cecilia

Our Revels Now Are Ended (duet) – Dickinson

Haydn’s London Ladies: Mark II

Haydn’s London Ladies started life as an hour-long narrated recital in which I told stories of Haydn’s visits to London and his Lady friends. It has had fantastic reactions from audiences, which have really enjoyed the storytelling format as well as the musical content, so I have decided to expand it into a full-length evening, with an interval.

Doing this allows me to add the story of another wonderful Lady; she was not strictly-speaking IN London when she met Haydn, but was very definitely a London Lady. Emma Hamilton was not only the mistress of Lord Nelson but also pioneered her own brand of performance art which precipitated a fashion craze for draped Grecian-style gowns. Most of all, she was an extraordinary survivor. She loved Haydn’s music and sang some of his vocal works, including Arianna a Naxos when she, her husband Lord Hamilton and Lord Nelson visited Haydn at Esterházy.

A performance of the new full-length Haydn’s London Ladies is in the diary for February 2016 and if you can’t wait until then, here is a trailer:

TS Eliot and Vivienne in 2015

On the eve of this new year I have paused to consider that 2015 is the 100th anniversary year of TS Eliot’s marriage to his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood – and the 50th anniversary of the poet’s death.

Vivienne’s life and relationship with Eliot were the subject of my successful staged cycle of songs in 2013, called Vivienne. I was subsequently invited to perform the cycle of Stephen McNeff’s settings of Andy Rashleigh’s lyrics at the 9th TS Eliot Society Festival in Little Gidding. (McNeff and Rashleigh already have form working on TS Eliot, having written a musical version of The Wasteland for the Donmar in 1994.)

I intend to give a performance of the piece around the time of the anniversary of Tom and Vivienne’s wedding on 26 June 2015. Plans are also well advanced for a recording of the cycle with pianist Libby Burgess, in a programme I have chosen around related themes. More news on this in the next few weeks.

The BBC is to mark the anniversary of TS Eliot’s death on 4th January with a programme of readings and music on Radio 3 from 5.30pm. Eliot is among the three most quoted poets in the English language and I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing other peoples’ artistic responses to his work throughout 2015.

Do Androids dream of electric pianos?

In what is threatening to become a series on the subject, I have felt moved to write some more about the work of the classical accompanist. Specifically, about playing an electric piano, which I am sure is a pleasure many pianists have endured at some point, but which I guess most would prefer to avoid.

Few classical singers would choose to be accompanied by synthetic sound, any more than a classical pianist would choose to play an electric piano (untuned pub upright notwithstanding). However, if a venue doesn’t have a piano of its own and is unable to afford hire costs, an electric piano is often the only alternative. It can allow us to take a performance to audiences in new or unusual venues, which is surely a good thing. The instruments are improving in quality and touch, but if the piano usually spends its life in a school hall, the chances are it isn’t from the upper end of the quality scale. It’s often impossible to double-guess this in advance, so it’s a case of turning up and doing battle with whatever is there.

5265543390_b83d8c5570_zWhat does it mean for a professional pianist to try to make music with an electric instrument? If it’s for a rehearsal it doesn’t matter too much, but it’s not so much fun if it’s a song recital. I’ll tell you about a concert I did recently, in which most of the things that can hamper a pianist were in evidence.

We narrowly missed having no electricity supply at all (due to admin confusion) which would have killed off the concert there and then; the sustain pedal (usually a good sign in an electric piano) refused to work at all for the first half hour, then perked up intermittently and inconsistently; the aforementioned pedal didn’t want to stay in one place on a shiny, stone floor, and slowly migrated away from the pianist, who had to stop between songs to retrieve it.

Most challengingly, the piano had no touch sensitivity, so we could equalise the balance of sound between top and bottom of the keyboard, but not the volume of the sound. As it turned out, this was controlled by a slider, obliging my pianist to grow a third hand at critical moments, in order to control the dynamics. And of course, constructing a seat of the appropriate height out of uncomfortable, stacking bucket chairs is an art that has to be honed over many years.

It was not anyone’s fault that it was not a great piano, but it fell to my pianist to perform some kind of magic trick. Of course I was absolutely aware of every phrase and adjustment that she was making (and am still filled with admiration at her creativity) but there’s only so much you can do with no sustain function at all.

imagesMy good taste in accompanists is evidenced by the fact that I have only ever worked with people who, despite deserving Steinways, are game for an electric piano anyway. As I described in my previous piano-related blog-post, it can be pretty stressful for singer and pianist when the instrument has to be tamed under the nose of the audience, but our job requires us to conceal that fact. The reassuring truth is that the performance won’t have been significantly diminished for many of the audience members on account of the piano being electric. Indeed it shouldn’t be about us, but about whether the audience has had a good experience. We aspire to a high and consistent standard, but there are many factors beside the piano that can compromise the result and thankfully, sometimes, the audience doesn’t know the half of it.

So, once again, I raise a grateful toast to my accompanist. Thank you, Libby Burgess.