A 50th Anniversary celebration of the music of Cole Porter
20 August 2014
Concerts can be the most magical of events, especially when there is a full string section bolstering the orchestral accompaniment and the auditorium is itself a place of great beauty. Concerts provide an opportunity for music to be heard afresh, as orchestras make their magic and soloists get a chance to concentrate just on the music, to deliver melodies and harmonies and lyrics as if that was all that was important. This is especially so when the material the focus of the concert is a composer who wrote endless show-tunes and popular hits. The performers have a chance to marry their talent with that of the composer/lyricist, amply supported by the glorious sounds of a marvellous orchestra and in the ambience of the auditorium, and to either re-imagine the first performance of a number or seek to stamp their own seal upon the number.
London has many fabulous concert venues: the Royal Albert Hall, the London Palladium, the Southbank venues, St Martin’s In The Fields, the list goes on. Cadogan Hall is one of those great venues.
The Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra is one of the great concert orchestras. Richard Balcombe is one of the most distinguished of concert conductors, a prolific orchestrator and recording artist. The Musical Theatre Company at the Royal Academy of Music routinely produces accomplished musicians who can sing with beauty, style and panache. Cole Porter is one of the greatest composers who lived in the Twentieth Century. Jenna Russell is one of the best vocal performers appearing in the West End today.
So the prospect of a Concert featuring all of those first-class ingredients is irresistible. Which is why such a Concert is now being presented by Cadogan Hall.
Hold that thought.
Skip forward to interval, as, trembling slightly, I headed to find a programme seller to purchase a programme and peek at the promise of Act Two. The patrons were not moving quickly, actually they never do at Cadogan Hall, and so one had to patiently wait as the orderly, but painfully slow, crowd made their way up the aisle. Which meant that I happened to be adjacent to a theatre luminary as he exited his central row seat, remarking, in a jocular and pretentiously “in-the-know” way:
“Ah, Maria…she just doesn’t care anymore.”
“No,” giggled the companion, making then an indiscreet reference to health issues.
The luminary nodded, sagely, beaming along: “She has her priorities right” he opined.
Having just heard Jenna Russell deliver a sublime, haunting rendition of “Miss Otis Regrets”, the notion of dispensing rough justice was firmly on my mind. It seemed completely justifiable to kill the luminary for such a statement.
But then the worthy maxim “Don’t shoot the messenger” popped into my mind and I realised that he was right. Maria Friedman had not cared at all about her performance in the first half. She made wrong entrances, joked about her mistakes, missed cues and lyrics, mugged during delivery of tunes and remained emphatically removed from the material and the performance.
Having delivered a laboured version of Begin The Beguine (in the sense of giving birth – you see what I did there? – you can see how this experience has altered me…) Friedman, a performer I have often enjoyed in Concert, albeit not recently, a director I admire because of her splendid version of Merrily We a Roll Along, lectured the audience about the antics of the matinee crowd: apparently they had had the temerity to sing along and La Friedman wanted no repetition for this performance. It was revolting to endure. Friedman’s speech I mean, not the thought of the matinee audience.
And, unfortunately, it set the tone for the evening. Even Richard Balcombe became complicit, loftily informing the audience that You’re The Top was fiendishly difficult to remember but that La Friedman and Clive Rowe (we will return to him) had “nailed it” in the afternoon. Somewhat inevitably, La Friedman then proceeded not to “nail it”.
After the delightfully played original overture from Anything Goes which opened the programme (it really was wonderful to hear Porter’s score played with a full string section, shimmering and buoyant) and a quite spirited rendition of Another Openin’ Another Show led by the totally committed, sprightly and immensely talented Chorus it was, apart from the truly beautiful contributions of Jenna Russell, all downhill.
Apart from La Friedman, the soloists other than La Russell were Graham Bickley and Clive Rowe. Bickley is blander than blancmange and, although he has a serviceable voice, it is not one that shines in Concert mode. The male soloist from the Chorus made more impact. Equally, the material he sang did not really suit his high baritone voice. Where Is The Life That Late I Led (from Kiss Me Kate) needs a rich Howard Keel sound, deep, darkly toned, chocolate smooth – Bickley does not have that voice.
Clive Rowe is unique. No doubt. But his pantomime approach to everything he does reduces his performances to a string of sausages – all the same. Porter’s work needs a light, sophisticated touch to resonate properly, especially with a full orchestra in the frame. De rigeur sloppiness is the antithesis of what a Porter song deserves, but that is all Rowe managed here.
Only Russell delivered the goods. What she sang, she sang effortlessly, evocatively and with real commitment. Some of the choices seemed incomprehensible – why sing Down In The Depths when she could have sung All Through The Night or So In Love? Difficult, beautiful songs which would have suited her top register supremely well. Oh, what might have been.
Just before the limp finale of Act One (a lacklustre Who Wants To Be A Millionaire), the Chorus got another moment in the sun. Be A Clown, the number plagiarised for Singing In The Rain (where it appeared as Make ‘Em Laugh) was delivered with panache and flair; three soloists featured and each was excellent of tone, timbre, clarity and attack. I wish I knew their names – they are all ones to watch.
Back to the interval and the much sought after programme seller. The programme revealed that Act Two promised only one solo for La Russell (I Like Paris In the Springtime, a lovely song but hardly one equivalent to Russell’s range and skill) and a duet with Rowe – Friendship from Anything Goes.
The rest of the programme promised emphasis on Rowe, Bickley and Friedman in a string of songs that no one needs to hear them sing, at least in the lacklustre way they had approached the material in the first half of the programme.
The luminary had been only part right. Yes, La Friedman did not care, but neither did Rowe or Bickley. Only La Russell was giving her all – exemplified by her exquisite Miss Otis Regrets.
Even with the lustre of the Chorus, the skill of the orchestra, the genteel refinement of Cadogan Hall and the glory that is Jenna Russell, there was not enough to warrant sitting through any more.
At £35 a ticket, the general standard here was, frankly, unacceptable. The thing that defines professional performers should be their professionalism in performance, not the fact that they are paid. Everything should be properly rehearsed, properly learnt, properly sung and performed, with energy and commitment.
As a whole experience, this was the equivalent of the local school end-of-year concert. If you were friendly and forgiving, you could have a good time.
If you were expecting a professional concert of Cole Porter music, you were mostly disappointed and likely to be fleeing home at interval.
No wonder the matinee audience sang along – they knew how to save their sanity and get bang for their buck. It’s not every day you can sing with a full orchestra after all.