fri 23/02/2024

Benjamin, Jaya-Ratnam, Harper, Milton Court review - black musicians take centre stage | reviews, news & interviews

Benjamin, Jaya-Ratnam, Harper, Milton Court review - black musicians take centre stage

Benjamin, Jaya-Ratnam, Harper, Milton Court review - black musicians take centre stage

Brilliant British soprano’s recital is chock full of neglected songs

British soprano Nadine Benjamin

This recital was a welcome opportunity to hear songs by a panoply of black composers – many of them women – ranging from Amanda Aldridge (1866-1956) to Ella Jarman-Pinto (b.1989), performed with extrovert glee by Nadine Benjamin, accompanied by Caroline Jaya-Ratnam, with readings by Michael Harper.

This programme would make the ideal basis for a recording project, as this repertoire is not only underrepresented in the concert hall, but also on disc. And yet it deserves to be heard, and drew a notably more diverse audience to Milton Court than would perhaps normally be the case for a vocal recital.

The only complaint was that squeezing as many as 30 songs by 27 composers – plus 12 poems – made for a programme that felt over-stuffed, although clearly, having been given this platform, Benjamin and co-curator Elizabeth de Brito wanted to include as much as possible. But there were perhaps three or four too many “slow and quiets” and I would have enjoyed a couple more “short and fasts”.

It was the latter category that best encapsulated the programme’s title: Songs of Joy. Innocent Ndubuisi Okechukwu’s Ome N’Ala was an energetic workout and, at the other end of the evening, Franz Hepburn’s Yes, consisting of simply that one word repeated, joy reduced to its simplest kernel. Rosephanye Powell’s Songs for the People had echoes of Ethel Smyth’s suffragette hymn, Nadine Benjamin dancing, whirling and swaggering about the stage. She also delighted in the elation of Avril Coleridge-Taylor’s Sleeping and Waking: “And rising may I sing for joy.”

Pianist Caroline Jaya-RatnamOf the slower songs, I was really captured by Undine Smith Moore’s mini-scena, depicting an enslaved child’s dialogue with its mother about being sold “down to Georgia”. Benjamin was in her operatic element here, inhabiting both roles with the subtlest of physical changes, before floating an exquisite high final note, that floated downwards, a little bit like the end of Gershwin’s Summertime. Equally gripping was Richard Thompson’s Black Pierrot and the magical stillness of Ella Jarman-Pinto’s This Little Rose, Caroline Jaya-Ratnam (pictured right) treading delicately through the piano part.

Jaya-Ratnam’s playing throughout was sympathetic, unostentatious but assertive, and an ideal support for Benjamin, who roamed the stage, out front, behind the piano, sitting on the piano stool – even starting the second half by bursting onstage with her first line. The reader, Michael Harper, is a singer but also a dialect coach, and he put this skill to work as he read Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou – and, touchingly, Pat Parker’s "My Lover is a Woman", about the black lesbian experience. His reading of a poem glorying in having big, big hair was all the better for Harper himself having very little.

The theatrical conception was mostly effective: poems and songs elided, texts back-projected, the theatricality of Benjamin moving about the stage, reacting to the readings without ever switching off focus. But the lighting was overdone and at times positively distracting. Less would have been much more in this respect.

But in terms of the music itself, I have nothing but praise for the singing – and overall performance – of Benjamin, the sensitive musicality of Jaya-Ratnam. This all came together in the final bars of the final piece, Errollyn Wallen’s Peace on Earth, Jaya-Ratnam joining in singing and sweet and fragile harmony: “Hear them singing. Peace on earth.”

@bernardlhughes

Rosephanye Powell’s 'Songs for the People' had Benjamin dancing, whirling and swaggering about the stage

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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