Monday, July 21, 2008

Folking about: Proms 4&5 (RAH and Kensington Gardens)

A day devoted to folk music has been sneered at in some quarters, but I think it's absolutely right that the Proms should do this sort of thing, not least because the SCCM* scene could take instruction from the folk scene: a small, minority interest that for many years seemed threatened with extinction at the hands of indifference, a perception that this was a dead or dying genre with nothing to say of any relevance to the modern world, and well-meaning but misguided fundamentalism on the part of some of its most zealous advocates. Sound familiar?

We sauntered into Kensington Gardens at lunchtime to find the Folk In The Park mini-festival in full swing; scratch choirs and orchestras merrily hacked their way through some choice tunes, if to slightly limited effect to those of us who weren't right at the front (but that's open-air singing for you), while nearer to my eyes and ears some Morris Dancers did their stuff. Morris Dancing's had a terrible press over the years, unfairly I think, which I suppose is down to the general public's desensitisation to the point where jumping over each other with bells strapped to your legs and whacking clubs together can't substitute for actually getting your cocks out and waving them about. A shame, because in the right hands (stop it) it's a raucous affair with a healthy lack of reverence for its own traditions. I hadn't realised what a major part of it all was having the musicians hurl abuse at the dancers. The climax to our outdoor sojourn was a short set by Bellowhead (of whom more later).

The clouds began to cover the sky, so it seemed fortunate that it was time to head over to the Albert Hall for the first concert of the Proms's first Folk Day (the way they went on about it, you'd think folk hadn't existed before Roger Wright decided to bring it to South Ken, but I shall not continue in this measly-mouthed vein, as I come to praise the Folk Day, not to bury it).

This was a bit of a hodge-podge of a concert (rather as the First Night was): We began with an a Capella turn from the excellent young singer Bella Hardy (of whom more later also) which then segue into a performance of Vaughan Williams' English Folk Song Suite by the Royal Northern College of Music's wind band. Being an afternoon concert, and hence rather more al fresco than your normal RAH affair, there was a smattering of applause after the first movement, which obviously utterly confused the lighting technicians, as the stage then went dark, then after a while the lights went up, but on the wrong group, and finally the RNCM were given back enough illumination to continue. They played very well, too.

The other group was the London Sinfonietta, which now lit up a second time to play for the first time: a couple of Percy Grainger arrangements. Grainger's a fascinating figure in the history of the folk revival, and undoubtedly we owe him a great debt, but his arrangements outstay their welcome and come across now as an eccentric curiosity. Then, after another turn from Bella Hardy, they were joined by Monica Bacelli for a performance of Berio's Folk Songs, the work he composed for his sometime wife, the late, great Cathy Berberian.

These are wonderful arrangements, subtle and glowing. They're also completely lost in the cavernous Albert Hall, and especially after the (miked) Hardy, the (unmiked) Bacelli) came across as distant and affected. She's a fine singer, but fell between the stools of not sounding folky enough, yet also sounding less convincing in her theatricality as Berberian would (a problem anyone's going to have in this work). The audience was getting restless, and that didn't really help. So all in all, this first half ended with proper folk:1, art-folk 0.

The second half began with Folkestra, a group of Northeastern young players organised by Katheryn Tickell, who turned out to be largely the flowery-dressed young lasses we'd had standing next to us in the first half. They play beautifully, and have an easy-going air about them that doesn't however distract from the evident care they put into their performance. And they had a clog-dancer, which is always a good thing.

For me, the highlight was the next act: Muzsikás, a quartet of Hungarian fiddlers who played a selection of traditional tunes with an energy and authenticity that was a marvel to behold. The audience began clapping along spontaneously, and I realised that what I really wanted to do was listen to this lot all evening, preferably in some small Eastern European bar. This was something quite startling: folk music, not reconstituted and revived, as English folk of necessity is, but a living tradition, ancient and yet utterly contemporary. They then joined forces with the London Sinfonietta for a performance of Bartók's Romanian Folk Dances, the classical ensemble alternating with the folk one, presenting their own versions of the dances, then coming together for the finale. This was a stunning performance by all involved, an entirely successful coming together of the art and folk strands of the concert. It also confirmed the suspicion I've long held, that contrary to what you might think Bartók's use of folk song is a watering down rather than a spicing up of the original's rough, dissonant harmony.

Which left Katheryn Tickell's "Confluence" rather redundant, as that was clearly intended to do the same thing, adding Folkestra into the mix for the climax of the concert. Unfortunately, having brought everyone onstage there seemed to be no real reason for the work beyond this inter-disciplinary jam, and the whole thing meandered along pleasantly but inconsequentially. It came across like a precis of what had gone before, done for no real reason than because they could.

The evening concert, meanwhile, featured three acts, two of whom we'd already caught a glimpse of. Bella Hardy had already demonstrated during the afternoon what a beautiful voice she has, and her set here was equally impressive, adding her own fiddling and harp and concertina to the palette to produce a sound that managed to fall entirely within what you might call a purist definition of folk, but never seeming anything other than fresh.

Martin Simpson, meanwhile, represents another aspect of tradition in a set that I wasn't sure I was going to like at first, as after Bella Hardy it seemed to have a whiff of noodling about it. However, he's such a persuasive performer that I soon settled into the more introspective mode, and ended up thoroughly bewitched by his mellifluous guitar style (and was impressed by the way he avoided those awkward pauses you often get while a player re-tunes by making little sketches of music out of his string adjusting, wryly commenting on the unashamed way classical musicians tune up.

Bellowhead are in some respects about as far from traditional or purist as it's possible to get, and yet they escape the trap of crossover hell by the simple fact that no matter how loud they get, no matter how many Latin rhythms or dance beats they throw in, everything they do has its roots very firmly in the folk tradition. There are different ways to extend and revitalise a tradition though, and giving it a good (friendly) kicking can be just as effective a way as tender care.

It's easy to knock this sort of day as tokenism, and I guess the proof of that particular pudding will be in whether further potions are served up in future years. I hope that happens, as this day has scratched the surface of a very deep mine that could be profitably explored for a long time. When you think that a century ago, as Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp travelled around the British Isles collecting folk songs, that this was a tradition on the brink of extinction, it's remarkable what a healthy and diverse landscape now exists, and it's a thought worth dwelling on that without Vaughan Williams there might not be Bellowhead. It's fascinating both in its apparent unlikeliness and its potential to spark new connections and evolutions, and this is just the sort of thing the Proms ought to be nurturing.

*So-Called Classical Music

1 comment: