By Jonty Watt
A dimly lit hall; a warmth of anticipation in the air; the rippling breaths of a mass of human bodies. The moments in the Wigmore Hall before soprano Gweneth Ann Rand’s performance with pianist Allyson Devenish, violinist Sarah Daramy-Williams and narrator Cathy Tyson, in what turned out to be a captivating evening of music. Their varied programme included compositions by living black composers (Shirley Thompson, Errolyn Wallen) and arrangements of traditional African American Spirituals, as well as a selection of classics from the European canon (Sibelius, Strauss, Dvořák, Copland, Poulenc, Satie). It was a concert intended to celebrate the history of black music-making, and I think that almost all of the (unusually diverse) audience in attendance would agree that, on this front, it was a triumph.
Gweneth Ann Rand is a soprano who performs operatic roles internationally, focussing particularly on repertoire from the twentieth century and onwards. She has been involved in the world premieres of Philip Venables’ 4.48 Psychosis and Laura Bowler’s The Blue Woman (forthcoming), and is particularly noted for her interpretations of Messiaen’s song cycles Harawi and Poèmes pour Mi.
Allyson Devenish is a musical director and pianist who draws attention to diverse voices through her music. Devenish is creative director of NitroVoX, an a capella group that tell stories of the African diaspora through spoken word and song. She has additionally directed musicals such as Porgy and Bess (Gershwin) and Kismet (Lederer and Davis). Devenish is also a respected accompanist, having recorded for the BBC, CBC, and Radio France.
Sarah Daramy-Williams is a violinist who is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Codarts Rotterdam. Daramy-Williams is an active member of the Chineke! orchestra as well as the Rotterdam Sinfonia. Her only appearance in the programme came in Devenish’s arrangement of My Favourite Things (Rodgers), but it was striking. It would have been nice to hear more of her in the rest of the programme.
Standouts in the concert were Hall Johnson’s arrangement of Witness and the world premiere of Clement Ishmael’s arrangement of By an’ by. Arranging spirituals for concert performance has represented a significant strand in black musical culture since at least the early twentieth century, with composers including Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Henry T. Burleigh, and Clarence Cameron White participating in this practice. Other composers, like William Grant Still and William Levi Dawson, wrote concert music that was deeply influenced by spirituals (Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony of 1934 is a fine example).
The spiritual is a form of folk song that finds its origins in the plantations of the American deep south. The lyrics used in spirituals frequently retell biblical stories, especially those in which ordinary people triumph over powerful foes (think David and Goliath). Because spirituals were generally not written down but passed down orally, the versions that survive today are a testament to the experience of generations of African Americans.
I found the inclusion of spirituals in the programme to offer a fascinating contrast with the rest of the music, particularly the European classics. The first half began with three spirituals followed by a selection of songs by Sibelius. In the Journal of Black Studies, Thomas Barker has argued that spirituals often function as ‘spaces of resistance’ against Western colonisation. The effect of singing spirituals immediately before Sibelius was therefore like carving out a space in which the Sibelius (and all the other music, in fact) could take on new meaning. In no way were the musicians’ voices drowned out by the weight of the tradition of the music they performed.
Another highlight was Rand’s rendition of Francis Poulenc’s song La Dame de Monte Carlo. In this song, Poulenc sets words by Jean Cocteau which tell of the highs and lows of the glamorous life of a beautiful woman in Monte Carlo. Both the music and the words were new to me, and I was blown away by the performance Rand and Devenish delivered. It was suave, sexy, mysterious. Poulenc’s sumptuous harmonies and easy-going lyricism were a delicious break from some of the more austere items on the programme. The icing on the cake was Rand’s thrillingly executed messa di voce on the very last note, which made the whole performance worthwhile on its own (the audience could not help but titter)!
Beginning the second half was Strauss’s late masterpiece, the Four Last Songs of 1949. This, for me, was the most interesting example of the dialogue between black and white histories that the concert explored. The words set by Strauss are all by white poets, and of course Strauss himself was white, but the Four Last Songs rocketed to new-found prominence with the release of a recording by the black soprano Jessye Norman and the Leipzig Gewandhausorchester in 1983 for Decca. For many, the Four Last Songs are inseparable from the sound of Norman’s voice. When Rand sang in Wigmore Hall she channelled Norman’s voice, and with it all the complex history of black women making music on a Western stage.
I wholeheartedly recommend that you take the time to listen to this concert, or some of Rand’s other performances. Devenish, too, is a creative personality worth keeping a close eye on. What has lingered with me most are some of the words Rand sang that profoundly moved me. Originally penned by Emily Dickinson, and here set to music by Aaron Copland, I can think of no more apt question following this thought-provoking concert: ‘Why do they shut me out of heaven? Did I sing too loud?’.
The concert is available to stream on Youtube until 13.11.2021 at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cvDCmAG5AQ