In review: A Shropshire Lad

In review: A Shropshire Lad

Jenna Simeonov

I went to another installation of the Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, to hear COC Ensemble members Iain MacNeil and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure sing. The program was two sets of song by English composers: George Butterworth’s Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad and Ivor Gurney’s Ludlow and Teme, both with texts from the 63 poems in Alfred Edward Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. On its own, I’m not necessarily crazy for English song from the Great War, but both Iain and Jean-Philippe, as well as pianist Jennifer Szeto spoke about the poet and composers; I’m glad they did, because it was clear that all three of them connected with Housman’s poems and their musical settings.

The concert was a beautiful, simple look at the Ensemble artists singing us some songs. Bass-baritone Iain MacNeil began with the Butterworth set, and it was such a treat to be able to hear him close-up and unfiltered. He took great care with these songs, enjoying the words and saying them to us with importance. He has a really gorgeous sound in his middle and lower voices, and in his top I heard some exciting changes in the sound, which is losing its slightly muscled qualities and growing bigger and more consistent. He took some beautiful risks with soft singing, too; the high, mixed-voice beginning to the final song, “Is my team ploughing?” took some bravery.

Tenor Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure then sang Ivor Gurney’s Ludlow and Teme, seven (mostly different) songs from A Shropshire Lad. These were more speech-like, with moments of lush singing tightly interwoven; they seemed tricky to sing, and it was obvious that Jean-Philippe had done his detail work. He loved the words he sang, and he sang them with his honest, easy sound. In “Ludlow Fair” he had some great big singing, with an obstinate and virile sound that added to the list of things that surprise me about Jean-Philippe. There were two poems that were set by both Butterworth and Gurney, and when we heard them in Ludlow and Teme, it served as a reminder for the listeners how two composers can set a text so differently.

At the piano, Jennifer Szeto played with that warm, meandering English-song sound. I’ve always felt that English song composers around this time write piano parts that are complementary to the voice, but slightly removed from the poetry; it’s often less of a real-time commentary, as in German Lieder, and more various “backdrops” for a song’s affect. Jenn had an understated autonomy in her playing, aware of the voice yet not reactive. I liked it; it was a mature balance of leading and following, all with a pretty sound.

So, it was another delightful daytime concert at the Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. Next up in the Vocal Series is Gypsy Songs, featuring mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal, bass-baritone Robert Gleadow (both in the current Falstaff), and pianist Stephen Philcox on October 23rd at noon. See you there!

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