An evening where Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries can rub shoulders with Sherwin’s A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and Sullivan’s Nightmare Song seems an unlikely proposition until you understand that they were items chosen to accompany readings from the works of Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s literary output is a fascinating patchwork of different styles and genres. Initially known for his Sandman series of graphic novels mingling Greek myth and contemporary cultural references, he has since written several fantasy novels (one of which, American Gods, has become a major television series), a collection of analytical essays on topics as diverse as music, ghosts and the Oscar ceremonies, books for children, a re-telling of Norse myths, and poetry. With the late Sir Terry Pratchett he co-authored the immensely popular novel of end-times Good Omens – now made into a television series starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen.
Gaiman himself read most of the passages, although his wife, the performance artist Amanda Palmer, read the poem The Mushroom Hunters and sang A Nightingale …, and David Tennant popped in for a surprise appearance to read (with casual brilliance) an extract from Good Omens. Gaiman is an engaging presenter; with a slightly transatlantic drawl (although born in the UK, he now lives in the USA) he delivered his material in a style that was relaxed, witty and urbane, and which had the audience (many of whom were clearly fans) in the palm of his hand, and without any kind of ostentation or condescension he quietly demonstrated his genius with language and narrative.
The music was delivered with practised ease by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the Estonian conductor Mihhail Gerts. As a collection on their own, the musical items represented a strange and incoherent mix. As well as the aforementioned pieces, the programme also included Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Gershwin’s ‘Walking the Dog’ (from the musical Shall we Dance?), and a couple of pieces of theatre music by Sibelius – ‘Valse Triste’ (written for Death) and ‘Oriental March’ (written for Belshazzar’s Feast). Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, Bernard Hermann’s ‘Prelude’ (from Truffaut’s film Farenheit 451), and an oddly chorus free rendering of a section of the ‘Dies Irae’ from Britten’s War Requiem added to the mix. As an encore, the choice was David Arnold’s theme music from Good Omens.
In microcosm, however, the music worked, in that each piece was paired with an appropriate reading. The baritone Simon Butteriss’ slick rendering of ‘The Nightmare Song’ followed an extract from The Ocean at the End of the Lane in which the young, fictional Gaiman is taken by an aunt to see Iolanthe. The opening bars of ‘Valse Triste’ gently underlaid the closing triplet of Vampire Sestina, Hermann’s Prelude to Farenheit 451 preceded The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury, the author’s utterly magical short story tribute to his friend and mentor, and The Ride of the Valkyries preceded the passage on Fenris Wolf from Norse Mythology. The opening Dukas piece was clearly Gaiman’s whimsical, frame-setting self reference.
The performances went beyond mere incidental music. With a lavish orchestra under his direction, Gerts squeezed every drop of mood out of each vignette, controlling timbre, rhythm, dynamic and tempo with elegantly minimal gesture, to give us a cheeky clarinet and lush strings in the Gershwin, a gentle and mannered rubato for ‘Valse Triste’ some solid brass in the Wagner and a rendering of Jherek Bischoff’s arrangement of the Sherwin that brought its opulent orchestration to the fore.
Perhaps not a musically coherent evening, but one that was, nonetheless, brilliantly crafted as a total experience by a subtle intelligence. This was, after all, devised by a man who can craft a sestina.