mon 22/07/2024

First Person: contralto Hilary Summers on going beyond her baroque and contemporary comfort zones | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: contralto Hilary Summers on going beyond her baroque and contemporary comfort zones

First Person: contralto Hilary Summers on going beyond her baroque and contemporary comfort zones

On recording 'Circus Dinogad', a wacky collaboration with distinguished Dutch colleagues

Hilary Summers: 'If you don’t know each other well enough to say if something is a bit rubbish, then what’s the point?'Claire Newman Williams

Back in the summer of 2020 when the arts industry was largely dormant and many professional singers were either moodily knocking back the gin or uploading poor quality phone videos of themselves bellowing Puccini arias from their doorsteps, I received an email.

Entitled “Small Project”, it was from Maarten Ornstein, a Dutch bass clarinettist working in jazz and classical, who wondered if I’d be up for a collaboration with himself and the Dutch lutenist, Mike Fentross. It seemed like an intriguing combination so I consulted my hectic schedule. I felt that amongst dog walks and the next episode of Killing Eve, I could probably fit it in.

We pondered our repertoire choices and Mike suggested “I will give my love an apple” – a traditional English folk-song. Anything melancholy in a minor key gets my vote and having received Mike’s audio I then recorded and videoed myself singing two verses over them and sent it off to Maarten to weave his magic. Pretty soon the finished product emerged in all its glory. Which I loved. For a singer who has spent almost all of her career singing three hour baroque operas or very complicated contemporary music it was a real and rare pleasure to sing a simple beautiful tune and then to hear it revealed in this lovely arrangement

About a year or so later when the world started to open up again, it was mooted that we continue the collaboration with the excellent addition of The Dudok Quartet – a phenomenally talented group of young Dutch players, already gaining a fantastic reputation in their field. The experience of the grizzled veterans combined with the dynamism and energy of youth promised fermentation into a heady brew.

In honour of my being the only non-Dutch member, we settled on a theme of British based repertoire – baroque classics, folk songs, and traditional music from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I was determined to get a few Welsh ones in and whilst researching, came upon “Peis Dinogad” or “Dinogad’s Smock” which was an ancient medieval Welsh which, over the years, had been set to various melodies. This strange little lullaby won favour from the group and the Fearless Arrangers arranged the music we’d selected whilst the rest of us carried on walking the dog and moving on to season three of Killing Eve. Recording session for 'Circus Dinograd'The rehearsal process was a bit odd in that I would make short infrequent trips to Amsterdam and stress much more about three hour airport queues and my Schengen total than the actual music. The arrangements were lovely and gradually, over a few post session beers we began to gel and get to know each other as people as well as musicians. This honestly helps when putting together an album since if you don’t know each other well enough to say if something is a bit rubbish, then what’s the point?

After many sessions it dawned on us that some idiot had programmed nothing but slow melancholic minor key works (ahem). Maarten was stern and gave us all (me) a good metaphorical shaking and sent us away with the brief that we had to find livelier songs. And given that the Dudoks and I were well known in the world of modern music why the heck weren’t we doing anything crazy and new? Here’s a suggestion – we are seven members of the group so why don’t we have a piece based on the Seven Deadly Sins and as we are all great musicians let’s compose them ourselves!

We rushed off and by the time we next reconvened the Seven Deadly Sins had been created plus a few extras. Curiously no-one chose a specific sin – we just all went off and did what we fancied and no one clashed.

Circus DinogadTruthfully, I have often wanted to compose and I found that one 30 second Sin just wasn’t enough so I ended up offering two. I had loads of ideas but my biggest problem was notation. My trusty foolscap and pencil which once served me well when writing fugues back at Uni, was inadequate when trying to express the bizarre requirements of my creations. Happily the guys were happy to work on improvisatory instruction and the results are simultaneously glorious and strange – thanks to these fabulous players… Most of the Seven Sins turned out quite peculiarly but I think my “Avarice” is the weirdest.

Enter Jakko van der Heijden, our recording engineer and editor, whose bat-like ear and constant good humour meant that the recording sessions were speedy and fun.

What about a name? There were of course numerous suggestions but David Faber, our cellist, seemed to hit the perfect note with Dinogad’s Circus which later was switched to Circus Dinogad. I loved that the protagonist of a little medieval Welsh lullaby was bearing our shield.

As an old dog that loves performing new tricks (at least in the world of contemporary music), I've found this album such a pleasure to work on. Finally a CD that my parents would have loved (bless them – Boulez et al weren’t really their idea of fun). Proper tunes – texts that they could understand. Slightly jazzy feel to some of them. And plenty of sad minor keys to wallow in. They’d have hated “Avarice” though….

As an old dog that loves performing new tricks (at least in the world of contemporary music), I've found this album such a pleasure to work on

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