Programming a Prom that is an homage to Nina Simone presents many challenges. Firstly, everything she accomplished was contextualised by her back-story: the political activism in the 70s, her well-known abruptness of manner, her marital abuse – all of this was present in the room for all her performances. Secondly, the songs; although she wrote many numbers, the songs that mostly brought her to fame were written by others – Gershwin’s I loves you, Porgy, Donaldson’s My baby just cares for me, Rodgers’ Little Girl Blue – and performing them, one might argue, is just covering songs that others besides Simone have sung. Thirdly, the orchestration; although some of her recordings were generously orchestrated, Simone at her best sang accompanied by herself at the piano, or with a small ensemble.
Wednesday’s Prom addressed these with varying success, and although it was an entertaining and slickly produced evening, it’s probably true to say that Nina Simone wasn’t always present in spirit.
The Metropole Orkest under Jules Buckley were completely at home in the idiom – this is very much their territory – and they gave us some great sounds: fat brass in African Mailman; slow brush-cymbal and celesta in Little Girl Blue; rich strings in I put a spell on you; a quiet little sax chorus in Plain Gold Ring; squirty trumpets in I’m going back home; a full-on big-band sound in Work Song and a cracking up-tempo show-tunes ‘train rhythm’ in Mississippi Goddam. There were solos aplenty, and all were adeptly delivered, particularly the extended guitar riff in See-Line and the trombone solo in My baby just cares for me.
A number of arrangers had contributed, and all of them made clever use of the forces available. The pared-down quality of Sebastian Koolhoven’s Ne me quitte pas was the most arresting, providing just enough support to the vocal line to shine, but supplying bags of quiet and multi-layered texture.
The two vocalists, Ledisi and Lisa Fischer both have voices that carry echoes of Simone, although clearly, the singing was very much in their own style, albeit that there were references to Simone’s vocal signatures. Of the two, Lisa Fischer’s voice has the richest, creamiest texture, and the slightly husky quality added just the right balance of sexiness and pain to numbers such as Plain Gold Ring, I loves you, Porgy and Dido’s Lament. For the protest-songs See-Line Woman and Dambala her voice and stage-presence movingly portrayed anguish and anger in equal quantities.
Ledisi’s voice has a higher timbre, which worked brilliantly with up-tempo numbers such as Mississippi Goddam and I wish I knew… Her Louisiana background was evident from the effortless way she slipped into the classic Norleans brass-band-hymn-and-massive-upbeat-march idiom of I’m going back home. The Albert Hall’s sound system, though, always happy to throw a curve-ball, was not kind to her upper register, which it imbued with a hard edge that was almost unpleasant for numbers such as Be my husband and Baltimore.
As aforementioned, it was a highly enjoyable concert, with some classic hits in nuanced and inventive arrangements sung and played by a group of consummate vocalists and players. It was perhaps the second half, though, that came closest to summoning Nina Simone’s spirit, through its high concentration of protest songs written either for or by her; of these, Simone’s own Four Women (for which Ledisi and Fischer were joined by two of the vocal backing group LaSharVu) was the most poignant and moving.