The Roaring Twenties at Plymouth University

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Ansell, Lehár, Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers, Vaughan Williams, Moeran, Porter: Jeni Bern (soprano), Peninsula Arts Sinfonietta / Simon Ible (conductor). Minster Church of St Andrew, Plymouth, 10.6.2017. (PRB)

Peninsula Arts Sinfonietta with Jeni Burn (left) and Simon Ible (insert) - credit Philip R Buttall
Peninsula Arts Sinfonietta with Jeni Bern (left) & Simon Ible (insert) (c) Philip R Buttall

John Ansell – Plymouth Hoe Overture
Franz Lehár – Gold and Silver Waltz
Jerome Kern – Selection from Show Boat
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II – ‘Can’t help lovin’ dat man’ from Showboat
George and Ira Gershwin – ‘S’Wonderful’ from Funny FaceThe man I love from Lady, Be Good
Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart – ‘With a song in my heart’ from Spring is Here
Ralph Vaughan Williams – English Folksong Suite
Ernest J Moeran – Lonely Waters
Cole Porter – ‘So in love’ from Kiss Me Kate, ‘Let’s do it, let’s fall in love’ from Paris
Richard Rodgers – Tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein

This Gala Concert formed the centrepiece of this year’s Words and Music Festival hosted by Peninsula Arts at Plymouth University, with artistic support from the Suzanne Sparrow Plymouth Language School. By way of introduction, festival founder and nonagenarian Suzanne Sparrow had commented: “The 2017 Words and Music Festival is based around the “Roaring Twenties”. This was the time when the First World War was over and a new fresh beginning was in process. The music was crisp, jazzy and fun, matched with the “tempo” of the time. The words and music that matched the 1920s is pertinent to the situation we face today.”

Given this brief, conductor and Director of Music of Peninsula Arts had fashioned an extremely effective programme. He showcased as much as possible of what was germane to the period, combining songs from the shows with classical and lighter music of the time that, as ever, made the very best use of the recources available to him.

Considering the venue, there could hardly have been a more appropriate opener than Ansell’s Plymouth Hoe Overture. It was given a suitably rumbustious performance from the augmented Peninsula Arts Sinfonietta, led with the usual panache by Mary Eade. While the legendary Plymouth Hoe itself is little more than half a mile away (kilometre or so), this was such exhilarating playing that you could so easily imagine yourself atop the green-lawned expanse, with breath-taking views across Plymouth Sound, apparently one of the most perfect natural harbours in the world. It was where intrepid explorer and local hero Sir Francis Drake is immortalised in a statue close by the green where he finished his game of bowls before heading out to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588. With its many seafaring themes, the overture is immediately appealing; a particularly telling contribution on piccolo added to the salty nautical flavour.

From South West England it was a seamless hop to the glittering world of Vienna, for one of Lehár’s best-loved waltzes. In a warmly rich performance, the combined sound of the strings was particularly rich and impressive.

Orchestral arrangements and selections can be so effective in performance. That is because the orchestrator aims to get the very best sound possible out of a number of differently sized ensembles, enhance this with added counter-melodies—often from the horns—and put in extra bells and whistles guaranteed to make an average outfit sound good, and a good one quite superlative. Sometimes, though, the arranger’s skill as an orchestrator is not quite matched by their ability to modulate and link effectively between all sorts of material that is usually totally unconnected within the show itself. Today there were many lovely schmaltzy timbres in the selection from Show Boat, even if the occasional link seemed a tad forced or uncertain at times.

Soprano Jeni Bern joined the ensemble for one of Showboat’s best-loved melodies, ‘Can’t help lovin’ dat man’, and really put the song over so convincingly. It is always difficult to define the kind of voice required in musical comedy and music theatre. Sometimes the mention of the very word “croon” can almost have a derogatory connotation. But this is just what the song demands, and in this, Bern hit the spot perfectly. Now on a roll, she proved equally as effective in Gershwin’s ‘S’Wonderful’ and Rodgers and Hart’s ‘With a song in my heart’, much to the delight of the large audience. Bern is an experienced performer in this genre, as well as classical oratorio, concert work and opera. Through her body language, she lived every bar of the music, whether singing or enjoying a brief orchestral interlude, indeed as any true actress would.

The Sinfonietta was in fine form in Vaughan Williams’s well-known English Folksong Suite. There followed far-less-familiar territory: E. J. Moeran’s Lonely Waters. Fellow English composer Peter Warlock described it as “a very attractive piece for small orchestra”. Indeed it was, under Ible’s sensitively crafted reading, to which his players responded as one. At times somewhat harmonically unusual, the piece had an overall effect that was nevertheless extremely poignant and moving throughout all its nine-and-a-half minutes or so. The composer, in fact, wrote two alternative endings, one for cor anglais solo, the other, and the one he favoured, for solo voice, singing the traditional Norfolk folksong on which the music is based. With Ible’s now-legendary skill for effective programming, he was simply able to ask his female soloist to do the honours here, which she accomplished with such simple yet heartfelt sincerity.

From Norfolk it is not that far over to Stratford, for Cole Porter’s take on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, alias Kiss Me, Kate. Bern was again on top form in ‘So in love’, switching imperceptibly from the passion of the former to the humour of Cole Porter’s ‘Let’s do it, let’s fall in love’. Keeping with the love theme, Bern finished her set with Gershwin’s evergreen ‘The man I love’, again a powerful rendition. It accorded so perfectly with some of the issues faced back in the 1920s, yet still uncannily relevant today, given that song was originally part of Gershwin’s government satire ‘Lady, Be Good’, and known as ‘The Girl I love’. It first appeared in masculine garb a couple of years later in the anti-war satire Strike Up the Band.

It did, however, seem only right, that the last word should go to conductor Ible and his Sinfonietta, when they brought the evening to a close with another musical potpourri, in the shape of a Tribute to Rodgers and Hammerstein. Most of the best-known melodies were present, and skilfully juxtaposed, which really seems to bring the absolute best from the orchestra.

Of course, while the overall theme was one of jollity and lightness, everyone involved did so exceptionally well to disguise the fact that this was the very last concert that Simon Ible will conduct for Peninsula Arts and Plymouth University. This follows his decision to retire later this summer, after first joining the University back in 1999 as its Director of Music, and being a founder director of Peninsula Arts in 2005. He will be sorely missed, and the city, as well as the University, will be the poorer on his departure.

It would therefore seem apposite to allow him to make the closing address: “It’s been very exciting, sometime scary, more than a little crazy, often emotional, occasionally frustrating, constantly challenging but mostly great fun and an enjoyable 18 years. Thank you everyone for all your support, interest and enthusiasm!” Clearly he will now go forward a happy man, and immensely contented with all he has achieved, both musically, and in the wider sense, across the South West. We all wish him well.

Philip R Buttall

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