Last night various bits of the early music side of the UoT Faculty of Music, plus guests, put on a performance of Purcell’s King Arthur at Trinity St. Paul’s. I’m pretty familiar with the piece from both audio and video recordings (though this was my first time live) but it was clear last night that most people really don’t know the work and I suspect that the way the work was presented was not especially helpful for them.
The program contains detailed notes by director Erik Thor about his thoughts on presenting a “problem piece” without really explaining why King Arthur is a problem or why he made the choices he made. We are told it’s about conquest and erasure but not how and why it differs from what most people seem to expect when they see the title King Arthur. In short, it’s a highly fictionalised version of the very old Welsh stories about the resistance of the (Christian) Britons to the (Pagan) Saxons. Forget Geoffrey of Monmouth, Tennyson, TE White and Monty Python. Oddly, Merlin, perhaps the one character anyone would recognise, is cut here. The work itself is also a bit incoherent largely because Dryden (the librettist) tried to recast what was originally a court spectacular to the glory of Charles II as something that would work in the theatre and pass the censorship under William and Mary!
Soundstreams Electric Messiah 3 opened last night at the Drake Underground. Some things have changed from last year. There’s no chorus, the soloists are new, the instrumentation has changed. There’s now a harpsichord (Christopher Bagan) and an electric organ (Jeff McLeod) for instance. Some things are the same. There’s still extensive use of electric guitar (John Gzowski). Dancer Lybido and DJ SlowPitchSound are still there, as is Adam Scime as music director and electro-acoustical wizard. There’s still a mobile phone schtick. It feels both familiar and quite different.
The four new soloists each bring something of themselves to the piece. A kilted Jonathan MacArthur (getting ready for Yaksmas perhaps?) sings partly, and very beautifully, in Scots Gaelic. Adanya Dunn brings a fresh sound and Bulgarian. Elizabeth Shepherd brings jazz, French and a really effective “lounge jazz” He was despised accompanying herself on organ. Justin Welsh adds some Afro-Canadian touches. Most of the numbers are shared between the singers; moving and singing from different parts of the small space. This is exemplified by the opening Comfort ye, begun by Jonathan in Gaelic with singer and language and location constantly shifting. With no chorus, there’s much more space (and it’s easier to see). The visual and aural textures seem cleaner. The unconventional combination of instruments and electronics works really well. There’s enough Handel there but also much else to think about and enjoy.
This was a vocal competition with a twist. The repertoire was all baroque and the prizes were the soloist spots in upcoming performances of Zelenka’s Missa Omnium Sanctorum. To some extent that dictated the format with three bass-baritones, three tenors and three altos (two mezzos and a countertenor) competing and a prize winner in each triad. Each singer had to offer the appropriate piece from the Zelenka Mass plus a piece of their choice by each of Bach and Handel. I did wonder whether I would get through an afternoon of twenty seven baroque vocal pieces but aided by free pizza and cookies I made it. At least, for once, I was at a singing competition where nobody would be singing Pierrot’s Tanzlied.