Vocal Futures

Suzi Digby launches a new project for young people with Bach's St Matthew Passion at the core.

Classical music - like every art - has its fashions. And when, back in 1993, Jonathan Miller took the unorthodox step of staging Bach's St Matthew Passion, he started a trend. Sober and spiritual it may have been, but his production in Holy Trinity Sloane Square (revived earlier this year at the National Theatre) placed a sacred work within the secular grasp of the theatre. Where Miller led Deborah Warner's St John Passion followed, as well of course as Katie Mitchell's controversial post-massacre St Matthew for Glyndebourne. Last week, in the subterranean bunker that is the University of Westminster's Ambika P3 space, Bach's oratorio donned its latest costume.

Offering practical solutions while Michael Gove has floundered with postponements and platitudes, Suzi Digby is a serious force for good within Britain's music education system. Her Voices Foundation has been working in and with schools since 1993, and with this St Matthew Passion she launches a new project - Vocal Futures. Focused once again on young people, it places the Passion at the core of an ongoing series of workshops and practical encounters with classical music.

Most of this involvement takes place offstage however, leaving the production a purely professional arena. It's a wise choice, and one that for the most part avoids the mawkish sleeve-tug of sentimentality that can so easily blight Bach's purity. For neither of the Passions is strictly a dramatization of the crucifixion story; characters are fluid and often non-specific, the mood is meditative, cumulative, rather than narrative. It the great strength of Patrick Kinmonth's production that he makes little attempt to "fix" this.

Costumes are contemporary and neutral, framing action that favours an abstract sort of symbolism. Arms and eyes are raised aloft, chalices are passed from hand to hand, collective rituals of washing and mourning are played out with a tasteful lack of emphasis. Amongst the silent physical presence of a troupe of young actors, the soloists carve out more personal encounters with the text.

The alto solos become a timeshare affair, split - occasionally mid-aria - between Robin Blaze and Catherine Hopper. The logic here, exploiting the very different vocal colours for narrative development, perhaps works better in theory than practice, but the dramatic sympathy between the two singers was touching, only exceeded by the two Evangelists. While purists will doubtless object, the duality here worked well, with Joshua Ellicott and Samuel Boden each bringing a different emotional vantage point to the tragedy they recount. It was Boden however whose directness of delivery really sharpened the text (a new and occasionally unfelicitous translation from Jessica d'Este and Patrick Kinmonth) into the piercing blade it can and should be.

Willard White is opera's Morgan Freeman, and his Christus was predictably rich in gravitas. It was however disappointing vocally, and it was White together with bass soloist Stephan Loges who suffered most in the baggier passages of Digby's musical direction. By contrast, the chorus of young professionals - the two choirs split across both sides of the stage - propelled the action and energy forwards every time they sang. While Miller's choruses sing at each other, to the exclusion of the watching audience, here the seated chorus and silent actors offered a much more involving and flexible alternative. Aided by a surprisingly well-balanced acoustic the singers produced a beautiful ensemble tone, flexible enough to encompass both the lightning and thunder and the tragic fragility of the post-crucifixion chorale into a single musical trajectory.

The power of Bach's Passions is surely in what they leave unspoken, unpictured. The uncluttered symbolism of Kinmonth's direction represents an allusive negotiation between action and meditation - a semi-staging in the best and most uncompromising sense. Add to this some really excellent music, and Digby and this inaugural Vocal Future projects have made quite the start and quite the statement. I only hope someone in government is listening.

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If tattoos could talk: Glen Campbell's life in music

The late singer made a trade of music, and made it look easy.

There was a rudimentary tattoo on his left upper arm, which he’d given himself at the age of nine: a small cartoon dagger, scratched with a needle and filled with ink, 72 years ago, in the yard of the house he shared with 11 brothers and sisters in Bills­town, Arkansas. In his last years, doing interviews about Alzheimer’s in his final home of Nashville, he’d wear T-shirts and you could just make out the tip of the dagger emerging from his sleeve. But for decades you wouldn’t have seen it, beneath flower-power shirts on his late-1960s TV show, or the fitted tuxedos of the 1970s, as he played the “William Tell Overture” on his guitar with the philharmonics of the world.

His accent came and went, too, as he adapted his vowels and crossed his Ts for the sophisticated compositions of his regular musical partner Jimmy Webb, another southerner making his way in LA. Campbell was the son of a sharecropper but he didn’t like getting his hands dirty. When he left home at 14 to become a musician, it was a practical move for the family – the money was good, and without him there was more room in the house.

As the first-call guitarist in the elite LA session group the Wrecking Crew, he played on 500 tracks in one year. Carole Kaye, who later delivered the bass line on his most famous song, “Wichita Lineman”, told me they all went out to buy big diamond signet rings with their wages one day. Glen peered into his: “Hey, look, I can see Russia,” he said.

Dirt poor, down-home, authentic – he may have been those things, but it was not his business to claim to be. He wasn’t a songwriter; he was an interpreter of other people’s material – a concept almost alien in a modern musical climate that expects songs to be a reflection of an artist’s inner life. He would take the most urbane track and throw it back at his audience with an incandescent ordinariness. “It is like a bird flying, it’s like somebody breathing, it is easy for him,” his musical director TJ Kuenster said.

Exactly how he achieved it was more mysterious. He had a habit of speeding things up, injecting light and energy into songs and turning them into something kinetic and fresh. His vocal entries often lagged a fraction of a second behind the beat, making each one sound like a spontaneous thought.

On his prime-time TV show, with his hair sprayed into a high wave, he’d awkwardly navigate the light comedy of the day: the Smothers Brothers riding hippos through the studio, or the skits with Sonny and Cher. His talking voice was chirpy; then he’d sit down to play Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and it was as if a switch had been flicked. His face fell into a state of instant clarity, intense but faraway, with sometimes a hint of pain – though you knew the pain wasn’t his.

He never sang about himself, which made the private self a separate entity. There was the lost Glen of the late 1970s, blank of eye and huge of beard, free­basing cocaine in a Vegas hotel room, having fisticuffs with his girlfriend. There was the middle-aged golf-playing Republican, baptised in a freezing creek under the watch of his younger wife; then tanned and born again, happily doing his Donald Duck impressions on stage. There was the lapsed Glen who hit the whiskey again as a pensioner, drove drunk, attempted to knee a policeman in the genitals, ran down a freeway, got snapped for a famously bad mugshot and spent ten days in prison, where he still managed to perform an impromptu set on a couple of hay bales.

But at any point in the 55-year ride, amid the personal dramas and lapses of musical taste, he’d open his mouth and what came out was deeply serious. You couldn’t imagine him writing a shopping list but he had an ear for poetry – teeing up particular lines in Webb’s songs for his audience, asking how someone so young could write “Asleep on the Wind”, an impressionistic portrait of a legendary bird that spends its whole life in the air. He’d take Webb’s tracks away and arrange them for his guitar, playing them back at their composer in his trance-like state. When the song was over, he’d snap out of it and laugh. “Those chords! If I start thinkin’ about them I miss ’em! I love it! Write me another one like that!”

When I noticed the tattoo sticking out of his T-shirt, faded like a biro scrawl, it struck me as strange that the same piece of skin had passed through so much of 20th-century music, with its changing notions of what it means to be “authentic”. The arm had travelled from sacred harp singing in Steinbeck’s south to Bob Wills’s hayseed country shows in the golden age of 1950s TV; from Vietnam protest songs to the stifling world of residencies in Las Vegas – and finally to the life of a “country legend”, via the theatres of Missouri and the golf courses of Arizona. In middle age, he recorded religious albums that sounded as pure as “Wichita Lineman”. Once again, he was acting as a funnel, for a different kind of light.

He was the real deal not because he turned his personal experience into a marketable commodity but because he made a trade of music, and made it look easy. He followed the gold rush, sold himself, got himself back just in time – yet in his playing, and the very touch of his tongue on his teeth, he was astonishingly truthful. It was the ultimate life in music, and in that sense, too, he is a piece of time lost. 

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear