Grange Park Opera rounded off its 2019 season with two one-off events featuring opera singers who are right at the top of their game. First came ‘A Starry Night with Joyce DiDonato’, while the very final night of the season saw baritone Sir Simon Keenlyside abandon his usual repertoire to present a night of jazz.
In a very useful programme note Keenlyside explained why he, a classically trained opera singer, wanted to tackle an area that some might claim he was ill qualified to take on. First, he grew up with jazz and blues as much as Haydn quartets and Mozart quintets, but more importantly some of the early protagonists of the Hollywood musicals were classically trained with Howard Keel performing Saul in New York and John Raitt auditioning for Carousel by singing Il barbiere di Siviglia.
The evening saw Keenlyside and a five-piece orchestra perform a disparate range of songs, with the programming proving absolutely key to the success of the evening. Each piece was there to make a point, or to offer us a version of a song that we might otherwise be unlikely to hear today. Keenlyside’s introductions were also comprehensive, so that our attention was drawn to what was significant about each choice, as well as to facts that aided our understanding of the development and performance of jazz over the twentieth century.
In this way, popular tunes such as Irving Berlin’s ‘Isn’t This a Lovely Day?’ from Top Hat rubbed shoulders with less well known works, while the most highly regarded composers within this wide genre, such as Kurt Weill and George Shearing, were displayed alongside less appreciated librettists. I, for one, had not realised P. G. Wodehouse’s influence in this sphere, with Keenlyside pointing out that, had he not been such a successful novelist, he would have been acclaimed as one of the greatest librettists of the first half of the twentieth century.
Keenlyside deliberately performed some songs with a microphone and some without to reflect his fascination with just how the introduction of that device changed everything. He expressed his awe for John Raitt, who was typically singing eight shows a week to a 3,500 seat theatre with no amplification, but also explained how occasionally in other instances megaphones were used before the invention of the microphone.
Keenlyside relished the opportunity to present (virtually) the original 1910 version of Irving Berlin’s ‘Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon’, which, with its hints of the Steptoe and Son theme tune, was almost tantamount to a Victorian music hall number. In everything he did, he was supported brilliantly by Matthew Regan on piano, Howard McGill on clarinet, flute, saxophone and percussion, Gordon Campbell on trombone, Richard Pryce on double bass and Mike Smith on drums, and the evening also included several solely instrumental pieces.
Keenlyside himself had a highly engaging performance style, as the smoothness in his excellent baritone made for some highly polished presentations, and ones in which it really felt as if he was exploring the emotions inherent in the songs. As a rule, he excelled even more in those that he performed without a microphone, less because that device acted as a hindrance, and more because the repertoire he sang without it was that which really allowed the rich romanticism in his voice to come to the fore.
Although it was the rarities on offer that truly made this concert worthwhile, it was equally a joy to hear performances of songs with which many in the audience would have been familiar. One particular highlight was the ‘Soliloquy’ from Carousel in which Keenlyside genuinely captured the sense of a man dreaming about how it all would be. By the same token, however, this made his expressions lack something in terms of monumentality. For example, he moved on too smoothly after the moment at which Billy realises that his future son might be a girl, rather than making it seem as if both the song and his world had come to an absolute standstill. The evening, however, remained both innovative and enjoyable to the end as it contained three encores that even included one of the less well known versions, at least in terms of the words, of ‘Mack the Knife’.
Grange Park Opera’s 2020 season runs from 6 June to 19 July. For further details visit the designated website.