From Sondheim to Swann; songs by Victor Herbert, Sondheim, Jonathan Larsen, A L Webber, Christine McVie, Bock and Harnick, David and Arthurs, Bizet, Puccini, Flanders and Swann
Ruth Armishaw (soprano) with Jonathan Berkahn (piano)
St Andrew’s on The Terrace
Wednesday 8 December 12.15pm
For the last concert of the St Andrew’s free lunchtime series, a departure from the strict canon of classical music might be permitted. This time it proved especially permissible because of the polish and style that singer and pianist brought to the job.
Nevertheless, it’s not easy to bring off songs conceived for smoky bars, cabarets or even musical theatre in the severity of a well-lit church on a bright mid-day, with a stone-cold sober audience. Ruth Armishaw did extremely well.
Many critics and music lovers cherish an almost automatic aversion to anything that smells of ‘cross-over’, in both directions, and operating with particular PC force where ethnic music is concerned – in that case, condemnation is one-way, applying solely to the white presuming to sing black or brown music. Ruth Armishaw did not risk that censure.
She began with a song made famous by Kiri – ‘Art is calling for me’ from The Enchantress by Victor Herbert. With its feet firmly in the land of operetta, this splendid song suited her operatic voice perfectly and her self-confidence carried its story effortlessly. Its rhythm and infectious, hyperbolic lyrics were vigorously yet subtly backed by Jonathan Berkahn whose contribution Ruth called attention to, jazz or pop music style, half way through the concert. It’s one of the traditions that the classical world could usefully borrow.
Though I find Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (musical? operetta?) singularly distasteful, ‘Green finch and linnet bird’ lies charmingly without being besmirched by the gruesome story and Armishaw sang it in a way that made clear Sondheim’s affinity with Menotti rather than Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The next three songs came from a range of musical theatre pieces for which she reached for the microphone; her voice, the entire atmosphere, was transformed, not necessarily for the worse, though it’s salutary to recall that till the 1950s Broadway and West End singers sang properly, without amplification. This was crooning. ‘Come to your senses’ from a show called Tick, Tick, BOOM!, which I’d never heard of, became her rather affectingly; though I could understand few of the words and thus the repetitiveness of the music somewhat outlasted its interest.
Andrew Lloyd Webber does little for me, apart from the two or three favourites and so the song from Sunset Boulevard was an empty exercise in pseudo melody, handling trivial emotions: no reflection on the singer!
Her voice in ‘Songbird’ from a Fleetwood Mac album suffered through a too obtrusive piano part.
She put aside the microphone for the rest of the programme starting with a song from a 1960s musical called The Apple Tree, unfamiliar to me, but look it up in Wikipedia – sounds attractive. The song was gorgeous, reminding me of my belief that the musical hardly survived beyond the 1960s when rock and the microphone destroyed its charm, musicality, its ability to characterise and tell real stories.
After that came the successor song to the Victor Herbert at the beginning: a lovely waltz song from 1912 called ‘I want to sing in opera’ by David and Arthurs (whom, again, I’d not heard of) in which Armishaw’s real operatic voice came through again, rather impressively.
That reintroduced opera, naturally, and she sang the Habanera from Carmen and ‘Vissi d’arte’ from Tosca. They were well projected, attractively sung with good dramatic character, first sultry, then piously self-pitying (well, isn’t it?).
Finally came a number that surprised me – a Flanders and Swan song I didn’t know! – ‘A word in your ear’. It was another little ironical, singer’s song, this time from one who is aware of her shortcomings, to wit, inability to remember the tune, with carefully faulty pitch to prove it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t catch enough of the words, a pity in the case of a song by that inimitable English pair of the 1950/60s.
’Twas a delightful way to end the St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts for 2010 which have again been particularly enjoyable, varied and simply excellent: Wellington is greatly indebted to the church’s generous cooperation and to the unflagging, entirely voluntary efforts of organiser Marjan van Waardenberg.