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22 August 2019

Prom 45: Mississippi Goddam: A Portrait of Nina Simone is a thrilling celebration of a musical icon

By Emily Bootle

Call me dull for opening a review with a description of the queue, but at the Royal Albert Hall, the queue for Prom 45 – “Mississippi Goddam: A Portrait of Nina Simone” – is extraordinary. Lines of people snake from all the different entrances to the building, winding round it and out in different directions. There are plenty of the usual Promming types, but also young people and people of colour, all here to celebrate the life and work of a black woman who lived through the civil rights movement, dedicating her life to activism and pushing musical boundaries.

Nina Simone’s oeuvre is a programmer’s dream. She is known – as per her 1967 album title – as the “high priestess of soul” as well as being considered a jazz great, and was also a performer of show tunes. Classically trained, Simone frequently wove this tradition into her work, often in snippets of Bach. Her ability to traverse such a wide variety of genres both vocally and emotionally is what smoothes her body of work into one brilliant, cohesive mass – proof of the dexterity of her vocal.

Simone’s music became markedly spikier with the release of “Mississippi Goddam” in 1964, which she referred to as her first “civil rights song”.  It was composed following the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four African-American girls were killed. Though the song is in the style of a show tune, it is underpinned with a fury and political awareness that would come to define her legacy.

Jules Buckley, conductor and programmer of this prom, is sensitive to this, and assembles a programme that showcases Simone’s most soulful and melancholy reflections on her personal relationships as well as songs with political and cultural resonance. Her romantic songs are largely explored in the first half, including “Plain Gold Ring”, “Ne me quitte pas” and the legendary “My Baby Just Cares For Me”. In the second half, which opens with the ferocious “Work Song”, Buckley chooses later and more politically aligned work, including “Mississippi Goddam” but also the atmospheric “Dambala” from Simone’s 1974 album It Is Finished, which viscerally explores experiences of slavery.

The programme takes a deep dive into Simone’s catalogue – but it is the performers who make it sparkle with life. Buckley conducts the Metropole Orkest, a European outfit based in the Netherlands that integrates symphony orchestra and big band. The ensemble is shiny and fluid, shifting effortlessly from simmering strings to sizzling drums and racy saxophone solos. They slip from Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy”, recorded by Simone in 1935, to a rendition of Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”, composed in 1688, without a bump. They are reserved and quiet in dark moments and punchy in bigger numbers such as “I Wish I Knew How (It Would Feel to Be Free)” and “I’m Going Back Home”.

Nina Simone never actually recorded “Dido’s Lament”, but it is included as a tribute to her love of classical music. It is one of many songs performed that transgresses the boundaries of traditional soul singing (already a difficult task) and thus proves the utterly extraordinary abilities of the two American vocalists: veteran backing artist Lisa Fischer and R&B and jazz singer Ledisi. Fischer sings the lament in its traditional operatic style, but incorporates supremely controlled soul riffs and turns. The tone and range of her voice is as varied and supple as an orchestra, jumping octaves with ease and subtlety. Ledisi – who counts Stevie Wonder and the Obamas among her fans – has the same fiery kick in her voice as Simone herself; every song she sings leaves the audience stunned that a single person could produce a sound of such enormous power.

The two women have incredible, almost chilling stage presence: Fischer, shrouded in silky black drapes, weaves her way across the front of the stage like a giant spider, contorting her body in time with her own vocal movement. Ledisi opens in a skin-tight, scarlet, floor-length fishtail dress with puff sleeves like an overgrown rose; she snarls and shuffles theatrically, always staying true to the intensity that so often underlies Simone’s work. Both are seemingly in awe of the orchestra and each other: when one of them walks to the microphone to open the next song, the other laughs and shakes her head in disbelief, as if to say, “How can I follow that?” They cheer each other on from the side of the stage. “We’ve been silly this whole trip,” Fischer tells the audience in between songs. “It’s just been so much fun!”

And then they sing together. The two perform “Be My Husband” acapella, with the three female backing singers. It is given reams of breathing space, but holds the force of a symphony. “Four Women”, an intimate portrayal of black womanhood, is similarly performed with two of the backing vocalists, the four women introducing themselves in turn in each verse – Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, Peaches. Ledisi takes “Peaches”: following three slow, brooding verses sung in low alto, she pitches her entry up the octave for an emotive climax. Finally, there is the encore, the infamous “Feeling Good” in duet, performed with breathtaking vocal ability. Over Ledisi’s near-final note in belting soprano, Fischer harmonises a third above with unabashed ease. It closes a concert that has been a celebration not only of Nina Simone’s work but that which mattered to her: blackness, womanhood and the multitudinous power of music.

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