#BRISTOLPROMS: Day 2, Part 1- Alistair Debling, Jonathan James, Alice Maria Sparey

Alistair Debling shares his thoughts on Day 2 of #BRISTOLPROMS:


VOCES8, photo by SWNS

This evening, VOCES8 opened my second night at the #BRISTOLPROMS with a confident display of slick harmonies and sophisticated staging in the Theatre Royal, with the help of John Retallack. Their opening set, Wood, rattled through jazz classics with precision and good humour – the impeccable blend of the eight voices upstaging the accompanying visuals, which often failed to replicate the same sophistication. Soon after the audience flooded out into King Street and across Queen Square to St Mary Redcliffe Church, where I eagerly awaited the second, classical half of the concert, named Stone. Tavener’s The Lamb has always been a favourite, but tonight my highlight was the Tallis plainsong, which sandwiched the contents of the Stone programme. Under the spell of 8 voices St Mary’s vaults and pillars hummed with the same metaphysical force that has surged through places of worship for the five centuries since Tallis’s death and will surely continue to do so for centuries to come. As I closed my eyes and let myself drift into the shifting renaissance harmonies I felt I could be anywhere in time.

The evening’s late night concert was given by Jon Boden and the Sacconi Quartet, who jovially worked their way through Elvis Costello’s Juliet Letters. The ensemble’s energy was infectious, and by the encore the whole audience was singing along. Once again I felt transported across time as despite the pop influences and contemporary dress Jon Boden’s storytelling alluded to that of a wandering bard in Shakespeare’s own time.

In an evening featuring jazz, classical and folk music for the voice, one couldn’t help but feel the rush of energy and sense of togetherness that comes from listening to and participating in choral music. William Byrd is quite rightly quoted in the programme: “Since singing is so good a thing I wish all men would learn to sing”.

Alistair Debling is a graduate of the Bristol Old Vic’s Made in Bristol programme and is currently studying at Harvard University in the USA. He has worked with the Young Company for a number of years as a freelance Musical Director and recent credits include ‘The Grandfathers’ (Bristol Old Vic, National Theatre), ‘I Would Not’ (Bristol Old Vic, National Theatre) and ‘Jason and Medea’ (Bristol Old Vic, National Student Drama Festival, International Youth Arts Festival)

Jonathan James also shares his thoughts on Day 2:

VOCES8, photo by SWNS

I often get recommended to listen to various different groups on CD, and normally when I get given an ‘a capella light music’ one, I politely listen to three tracks, just to take a temperature, and then consign it to the cupboard. In the same way you wouldn’t have more than three scoops of velvety ice cream, I would argue.

And so it was that I had steeled myself for another slick a capella concert tonight, somewhat cynically. However, from the first finger-snap VOCES8 blew that cynicism away and I was left rapt for the entire gig. Yes they are incredibly slick – they ooze panache, right down to the polished brogues – but the astute programming and sheer stage presence win you over immediately. What’s more, because their individual voices are surprisingly quite different you don’t get that anodyne, over-smooth blend that can rob the sound of character. (Sometimes I find that kind of blend like listening to voices behind glass. Not tonight, though.) The harmonies in their arrangements were so outrageously good I had to chuckle, and I looked forward to each closing chord, voiced exquisitely softly so that your ribs hummed in agreement.

Sometimes, I did want some of the arrangements to be slightly rawer and to allow the magnificent voices to let rip. The version of  ‘Jailhouse Rock’ was a little fey, as if Elvis had put on a smoking jacket and pink cufflinks. But you couldn’t question the immense skill or flawless execution from all on stage. They have admirably sharp ears, all eight of them. 

The highlight for me was yet to come, with the wonderful setting of church repertoire – with a suitably Marian theme – in St Mary Redcliffe. This was an inspired idea: serving the fine vintage red wine after the sparkling cocktails. The group made excellent use of the space and for me the most moving moments were when they placed themselves in the chancel, cloistering the sound away so that it came to us wreathed round ancient pillars and stone, from a distant time. It was truly transporting. The same control from the first half was on display, this time with warmer voices burnished by the famous St Mary’s echo. The final Amen marked an evening of exquisite singing that brought out the best in the music and in its setting. 

After such aural opulence, I found myself hesitating to rush in to the late-night  Boden/Sacconi Quartet gig.  I wanted to hold on to the sound a little longer, linger in the bath a little while longer. Curiosity got the better of me, and I was glad to have caught them. The quartet played with vigour and utter commitment, and Boden was the perfect Costellian troubadour – that great reedy, folksy voice of his serving the lyrics well. I had managed to speak to a Ben and Robin from the quartet a bit before and had a sneaky preview of their parts. This was no default ‘bed-of-strings’ lazy writing but involved, well crafted material. Sometimes so involved and busy that, on stage, the voice got overtaken, particularly in the opening songs. A balance was soon found though, and the quartet writing became more supportive whilst never losing interest.  It was a great cycle of ballads, performed with guts and a relish for detail. Costello’s barbed yet touching lyrics were communicated with real conviction. I’m going to buy the CD (and listen to all of the tracks!).

Jonathan James is a music educator, conductor and writer. He will be doing a talk on Schubert’s Quintet this Thursday at 6pm in the Studio, for those wanting to get behind the music.

Singer/Songwriter Alice Maria Sparey on Tuesday’s Dancefloor Bach workshop:

Dancefloor Bach, photo by SWNS

Fancy footwork, coupled with the imagination that I wasn’t in the dark Studio in Bristol Old Vic, but in a superior court where I wore a huge poofy dress, a corset that I probably couldn’t breathe in and a big (let’s say pink) wig with fruit in….rather like Marie Antoinette but probably more off the rails.

In a relaxed environment the workshop gave a one off opportunity to feel what it was like to be a lady in the 1700’s, dancing in a royal court room to Bach. Now, who can you say they’ve done that?! 

I was hoping to see Tom Morris join in (maybe even in a leotard), he did however watch from a distance.

Holding myself in the proper fashion I learnt the correct movement/footwork of the period with a partner, which created a calmness that didn’t feel like any other dance I had done. Only ever so slightly verging on Ballet. 

I quote “this was the cool rave music of their day” (Jane Gibson – Choreographer) It’s true!!! That did make me laugh, coupled with the peace sign she threw out there. 

It wasn’t that it was different to how we dance to music that struck me, but it was more the fact that I felt that I was part of the music; I was the one who had control over the music. 

In the concert hall the most important couple would start the dance and set the pace, pretty difficult job for the musician, this is Bach we are talking about! The structure of the dances would become more prominent with practice, which would’ve come in between horse riding, painting and sewing lessons I should imagine. Back then we learned that if you could dance then you just HAD to be intelligent. 

Kudos goes to the wonderful live Cellist Peter Gregson played to us in many timings that were wanted by the choreographer (bravo), Peter gave us helpful information about the music throughout the workshop, while Jane created the movement, which apparently takes 12 hours to choreograph for 1 minute of Bach music!

I felt honoured to be in the workshop with such talented minds of classical music. To be honest if I had been born in that era I would have probably never experienced such a thing! I have a feeling that the lady teaching us would have though. 

Such fun!

To find out more about #BRISTOLPROMS, please click here.


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