Isolation Songbook

‘Isolation Songbook’
Helen Charlston, Michael Craddock, Alexander Soares
City Music Foundation
St Pancras Clock Tower Concerts, 29 July 2020

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Since mid-March, musicians have been denied their chance to play in public and many have also been denied their financial livelihoods. Their response to this has varied, from adapting to the joys of Zoom teaching to producing their own impressively imaginative lockdown videos on social media. If have so far avoided the temptation of reviewing these for a variety of reasons, not least because they are readily available anyway, so comments from me would be largely irrelevant. But we are now seeing the slow emergence of live concerts, albeit nearly always on-line.

My first review of a live concert since mid-March is courtesy of the City Music Foundation. In June, while still in lockdown mode, they started a series of weekly Wednesday Clock Tower concerts, broadcast live from the Clock Tower of the former St Pancras station, on their YouTube channel and available for a week after the first broadcast. The most recent concert was the result of a similarly enterprising, and very well promoted, concert from 2018 CMF Artist mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston and her partner (and almost-husband) baritone Michael Craddock, with Alexander Soares as the pianist.

The background to their concert was Covid-19 related, their Isolation Songbook stemming from a series of home videos that they posted (pictured), and a poem written to replace their Covid-cancelled wedding. As the momentum gathered, a wide-ranging series of composer friends were encouraged to offer their own compositions, while a crowdfunding scheme was set up to match the donation from a “generous supporter” that had covered the costs of the live-stream concert and their own performer fees, so that composers and poets also received commission fees for their contribution to the project.

For full details of the event, and a link to download the programme, with details of the 15 composers and librettists, click here. The event itself can be viewed via this link, until 5 August.

The music was wide-ranging in style, although the ghost of Benjamin Britten was never too far away. The texts were well chosen by the composers, who were given a free rein. They ranged from a clever and well-acted/sung version of AA Milne’s The King’s Breakfast to a powerful reading of Katharine Towers’ The Way We Go. A little sequence Concerning Cows: A Rural Song Cycle had some of the shortest, and funniest, pieces,  including a musical version of Ogdon Nash’s “The Cow is of the bovine ilk / One part “Moo! /  The other milk” and a little piece based on Morecambe and Wise: I saw three cows / On a warm sunny hillock / I thought, “tomorrow / That grass’ll be millock”.

One of the most musically interesting pieces came from singer/composer Héloïse Werner with her version of Ali Lewis’s The Orange Vendor, no doubt reflecting her own experience of writing her own one-woman operas. Elliott Park’s Skysong reflected the return of birdsong during the Corona-induced silence in his garden. The poem that replaced the wedding (18th April) was set to music by Owain Park.

Viewing numbers of the live feed fluctuated during the live broadcast, but peaked at around 150, a slight surprise, given the amount of prior publicity about the project. But a CD is planned next year, so it will reach a much larger audience, as will the current availability on-line. Not surprisingly, given the amount of lockdown rehearsal time possible, singers Helen Charlston and Michael Craddock were outstanding, both in their singing (which has a remarkable similarity in style) and their presentation of the pieces. It can’t have been easy performing with no audience but a few cameras and, presumably, a very limited crew behind the cameras.

Special mention must go to pianist Alexander Soares. Not being part of the Charlston/Craddock social bubble must have meant limited rehearsal time for him, but his musically sensitive playing and coordination with the two singers were exceptional. One amusing Covid-related occurred in a musical fly-catching incident towards the end when Charlston and Soares did a high-five, followed by copious application of hand sanitiser.