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Preview: Hampstead Arts Festival

PUBLISHED: 09:43 23 October 2018

Roderick Williams picture by Benjamin Ealovega

Roderick Williams picture by Benjamin Ealovega

Benjamin Ealovega 2010

The Hampstead Arts Festival gets underway next month with a feast of musical treats

When Roderick Williams walks on stage, the sun comes out: well, that’s how one usually feels when this charismatic British baritone starts a recital. But not when his material forbids it, as it will when he sings settings of poems about the First World War at St John’s, Downshire Hill on 26 November, as part of the Hampstead Arts Festival.

‘I didn’t want this programme to be a survey of the “golden repertoire” of English song from the early twentieth century,’ he says, ‘though that repertoire was indeed dominated by works written in response to the war. I wanted my programme to have a contemporary quality, so there’s music by Ian Venables, Elaine Hugh-Jones, and Anthony Payne.’

But inevitably two of the dominant voices in his programme are those of Ivor Gurney and George Butterworth, whose setting of one of AE Housman’s most poignant poems will ring out with bitter-sweet clarity. ‘The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair… I wish one could know them... and wish them farewell/ And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.’

Butterworth was wounded in action but returned to fight, and was killed in the Battle of the Somme. Gurney was both wounded and gassed in the trenches, but his response was different. As Williams points out, ‘Some composers wrote about their war experiences while enduring them, but Gurney’s way to process it all was to write about it afterwards. When he was in the trenches he wrote about Gloucestershire, and about the freedom to walk wherever he wanted, so that’s the subject of the piece of music by him which I sing. But “Pain” - a poem he wrote which I also sing, in a setting by Ian Venables - deals horrifically with his war experiences.’ Its last line reads ‘The amazed heart cries angrily out on God’, but the poem as a whole reflects the mental derangement into which Gurney’s war years finally precipitated him.

‘Once 2018 is done,’ says Williams, ‘people will need a rest from the First World War.’ Yes indeed, and, as we’ve now reached a point when there’s almost nobody left alive who can remember it, I guess we will henceforth think about it differently, because it’s now passed from living memory into the realms of myth.

But Williams has another date in his diary relating to that war – at the Coliseum on November 16, when he will sing the baritone part in Britten’s War Requiem, in which Wilfred Owen’s trench poetry will be melded with the Latin Mass. ‘With eighty adult singers plus forty children, I have the feeling this is going to be a very powerful evening. But I have no idea what it’s going to be like – I know my music, but I have no idea what the story will be. This is not an opera, but it’s going to be given theatrical form by its director Daniel Kramer. It’s a very strange experience, going into an opera, but not knowing the story!’

This year’s Hampstead Arts festival promises many other good things, from John Casken’s ingenious chamber opera Kokoschka’s Doll to interviews with literary, journalistic, and theatrical luminaries. Meanwhile the Hampstead Garden Suburb Sunday Afternoon Chamber Concert Series is flying its flag, with works by the British composer Brian Elias to the fore. Elias’s music has an intensely expressive purity which reflects the sounds he heard in Mumbai where he spent a happy childhood; the solo voice – whether of a singer or an instrument – is what fires his art. In Fellowship House his songs for baritone and piano, and for unaccompanied viola, will be performed respectively on 28 October and 25 November.

Hampstead Arts Festival starts on 10 November.

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