October has offered me many diverse perspectives on singing – that wonderful activity which we can do anywhere, anytime, and with anyone (well, within reason). At the start of the month, I was at King’s Place, London, for a day focussing on the remarkable (and still not well known) tradition of Bolivian Baroque music. In 2008 I had the privilege of touring the Jesuit Missions in the Bolivian lowlands of Chiquitania. Here in the 17th and 18th centuries, Jesuit priests not only built churches, but – to my mind, rather miraculously – instructed the local folk in the arts of music: instrument making, composition and performing. And here – in another miracle – the tradition was kept alive for over two hundred years after the expulsion of the Jesuits by the Spanish monarchy in 1767. Here is a photo of the beautiful Santa Ana church from my travels in 2008: The music from this tradition was a secret until the inspiring Priest and musicologist Pyotr Nawrot arrived in the region half a lifetime ago. In King’s Place at the start of October, he gave a fascinating presentation about the repertoire, full of his wonderment and excitement for the tradition, mixed together with a beautiful modesty. In the evening, the excellent Florilegium, led by charismatic recorder player Ashley Solomon, gave a fine recital of the music. On the platform with the players were Bolivian singers performing items of their home repertoire. The whole experience was fantastic; one of the striking things to me was that for these young Bolivians, it was their singing that had allowed them to travel, with their music, to a faraway land where they performed to the likes of me. Singing was very much the catalyst to my experience of the following weekend. My friend, Jamie Lonsdale, presented a soirée in his beautiful Oxfordshire home in aid of Sobell House Hospice. There were some wonderful young singers taking part: Alexandra Kennedy, Mary-Jess Leaverland and Jennifer Clark (some fabulous coloratura Strauss). The main star, though, was Jamie himself. Jamie has told me that he came to singing somewhat late, but what joy he is having – and giving – through his newfound love of song from the inside. Among his items, he gave a most tender and warm-hearted première of my ‘Lullaby’ which I wrote for him, and ‘Fifty Shades’ (a combined Lonsdale/Knight number that links to a well-known bestseller) went down a storm! Best of all, Jamie’s singing habit led to the raising of a handsome amount for a wonderful charity. A third singing-focussed weekend on the trot took me to the beautiful church of St.Mary-on-the-Bridge, Putney, where my new friends of the 1885 singers were performing a concert of tango-inspired music, including Palmeri’s Misa a Buenos Aires. They kindly opened the event with a performance of my La Vida de Tango (written in 2015 for Malvern Festival Chorus). There was no doubting the joy that this team of enthusiastic singers, led by their choir-founder Alison Hunka, conveyed to their impressively large audience. There was little doubt that their singing created a strong community spirit and focus. They made my evening by inviting me to conduct the final movement of the cantata as an encore at the end of the concert. Reflecting on these three October weekends, I recalled a poster I saw a few years ago in a school in Oxford: I don’t sing because I’m happy, I’m happy because I sing. It is my guess that the Bolivian singers at King’s Place, Jamie Lonsdale and his guest soloists, and the good folk of the 1885 singers in Putney all finished their performances with a strong sense of happiness. Their faces certainly suggested this. And then I turn my thoughts to our schools and ponder: why is it that singing is not more celebrated and promoted among our children? You would have thought that an activity that offers such inter-cultural connection, community cohesion and charitable benefit might be seized whole-heartedly by headteachers, and that the happiness it brings to those who participate might be so valued that there was none of the reluctance, sadly so often experienced by music teachers, to afford music departments ample time for the rehearsals that allow choirs to flourish. After all, it’s not just the singing that would be flourishing … it would be the happiness too. Surely we can’t have too much of that?
Sunday evening I fulfilled one of my long-held ambitions: I attended the opera at the Teatro Colón. For those who have not had the privilege, this is one of the great opera houses of the world. Opened in 1908, the theatre was closed for major renovations when I was last in town, and re-opened in 2010. There is a sumptuous interior with no fewer than 6 tiers to the horseshoe galleries, and a capacity of nearly 2,500 seated and a further 1,000 standing. The performance was Don Giovanni, and very fine it was. Erwin Schrott was an excellent Don, and ably supported by Simon Orfila’s Leporello. María Bayo as Donna Elvira was the pick of the female singers. There was a dazzling set, with much gold paint, not least on the wide picture frame which defined the proscenium arch. If the staging of the final scene was a little low on visual impact with the ghost of the Commendatore singing from the orchestra pit, this did little to dilute the power of the performance. Occasionally the orchestra was a little lacking in refinement, but it was great to see the onstage players at the end of Act I getting caught up in the action, some hiding behind double basses. The whole experience was wonderful to witness: a capacity audience who were engrossed in the piece, and a theatre that offered everything you could want – comfy chairs, wide open sight-lines (I could see much of the orchestra too), and a wonderful acoustic. The ambience in the foyers and bars was friendly, unpretentious and elegant. I already am looking forward to my second visit – opera in the Colón very much remains on my ‘to do’ list. Buenos Aires is, of course, the city of Tango. The night before I was at a small-scale tango show at the charming Café Tortoni. A famous venue in the centre of the city, the main room is all art deco and very atmospheric. As to the show itself, there was an ensemble of three musicians (piano, bandoneón, and bass guitar), a singer and a dancing couple. It was undoubtedly authentic and without the trappings of the bigger touristic shows; on my first visit to Buenos Aires my enjoyment of a tango show was curtailed when they struck up with ‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina’. On this occasion, much as I respected the playing of the three highly experienced musicians, I confess I was a little underwhelmed by the performance. Fluent and stylish, yes, yet there virtually no eye contact between them – not that they needed it, so many times had they shared the repertoire, but that was perhaps the problem. The spirited (formidable, even) female singer belonged to the same tradition and delivered rather too many songs in full chest voice, further amplified by the PA system. It was left to the young dancers to inject some charisma; it would have been good had the programme featured rather more of them. In fairness, the previous evening had raised the bar astronomically high. On this occasion I was at the wonderful Torquato Tasso Club to hear the Tango-Fusion group Escalandrum. They are a line-up of six musicians: two saxophonists, a bass clarinet, piano, string bass and drumkit. They gave one of the most memorable performances I have ever attended. To select individual members of the team would be unfair – they are all fantastic musicians and a brilliant, creative group. Gustavo Musso on soprano and alto saxophones was simply stunning with his dazzling solos, often traversing the full range of the instrument in passages of breath-taking virtuosity at break-neck speed. There were some sensuous solos on tenor sax from Danián Fogiel, and the most amazing bass clarinet playing (including extraordinary heights and some highly colouristic ‘shronking’ sounds) from Martin Pantyer. Mariano Sivori (bass) and Nicolás Guerschberg (piano) were also utterly brilliant as the bedrock of the ensemble. There was a star, however. At the drums was Daniel Piazzolla – grandson of the mighty Astor, whose music I have loved and admired for many years. He was so absorbed in his playing, always creative in rhythmic invention and palette of timbres, and it was clear that he was savouring every moment of the interaction of his band. And the thing that was simply wonderful (and unforeseen) was that the entire programme was his Grandfather’s music, re-worked with such imagination to twist rhythms, harmonies and textures in fresh, piquant and witty ways that I can only imagine the great man would have himself been delighted, notwithstanding the lack of any bandoneón (which, strange to say, seemed not to matter at all). What a wonderful tribute from a highly talented grandson and his amigos. I have always loved Buenos Aires, but these three consecutive evenings took the love affair to new heights. What a wonderful city to provide such musical riches: from a confident production of one of the great European operas in a decidedly marvellous opera house, to its own special voice of tango in guises both old and new. On my final night before flying home, I walked at a late hour through Plaza Dorrego – the heart of tango. It was Monday, and San Telmo was stangely empty; a new week had begun, perhaps even the Porteños needed a few bars rest. But in one corner of the square a small group of players were having a gentle practice. The tango goes on… I shall have to return.