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Reviews / Review: unorthodox to the last note

Pianist Neil Georgeson and soprano Anna Dennis offered music new and old, conventional and unconventional

Maintaining a balance between comfortably familiar and the challengingly unorthodox can be quite tricky to pull off in a classical concert. However, this is a trick that Life Story pulled off with aplomb for an eager Mareel audience on Thursday night, writes Alex Garrick-Wright.

Life Story was the second concert of Shetland Arts’ 2016-17 Classical Season headed by Shetland pianist extraordinaire Neil Georgeson, this time accompanying accomplished soprano Anna Dennis.

Neil, who grew up in Shetland and is now based in London, has regularly wowed audiences on his home turf over the years. He first met Anna at the Royal Academy of Music, and has collaborated with her frequently; despite Anna having performed all over the world, this is her first time coming to Shetland. A consummate vocalist, Anna’s linguistic versatility was sure to be on full display in a concert that featured songs in several styles and languages (including Shetland dialect).

The two wasted no time, not even for introductions, before sweeping onto the stage and straight into a spirited rendition of Mahler’s Das himmlische Leben (The Heavenly Life), a wide-ranging piece about a child’s idea of what goes on in Heaven. As Neil soon explained, this Life Story was to be told backwards, starting at Heaven, moving through death and age, with the pieces getting brighter both thematically and musically until birth.

As promised, the very next piece was Varèse’s cheerfully named Un grand sommeil noir (The Great Black Sleep), a powerful and heavy number that used short periods of silence from the piano accompaniment to great effect.

From death in French, the audience was ushered onto madness in German, with Strauss’s Drei Ophelialieder (Three Ophelia Songs), based on Hamlet’s tragic Ophelia, who goes mad and drowns in a river (Neil did promise that the first half was dark). Anna’s singing was wonderfully evocative of Ophelia’s deteriorating mind, moving between sweet playfulness and frantic rambling, given more power by Neil’s discombobulated and eerie piano.

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The first half’s last piece, Life Story (from which the concert took its name), was by far the most interesting. As a Tennessee Williams poem set to music by contemporary English composer Thomas Adès, it was more risqué than might have been expected, dealing with an illicit hotel room liaison that ends in an implicit fiery death for both parties.

It was momentarily jarring to hear Anna sing in English for the first time, but Life Story was where Anna’s world-renowned voice was allowed to truly shine, with long, sustained notes of glass-shaking strength and perfect pitch. The melody itself was all over the place, a staccato start leading into a complex and bewildering piece that allowed Neil to really show off his prowess on the ivories. Life Story was, while not actually particularly musically pleasing to listen to, a technical marvel that did both performers proud.

While there was an excellent, whimsical selection pieces by Britten, and a variety of Mussorgsky Nursery songs, the absolute highlight of the second half was Neil’s own composition, A Starn Sign. This intriguing number was on a Christine de Luca poem in Shetland dialect set to music. Anna had so far managed to sing in German, French, Russian and English with excellent pronunciation in all of them, and did not let Shetland down with a fantastic performance that covered the entire length and breadth of her range, with a number of impressive vocal flourishes.

Neil, for his part, was leaning inside the guts of the piano, gently playing the strings themselves with soft-headed percussion mallets, creating a soft, low, ethereal sound that wasn’t providing musical accompaniment so much as it was creating a stirring, otherworldly atmosphere. He soon switched to gently, strumming the piano strings like a horizontal harp, before playing conventionally for the last little bit. Distinctive but incredibly effective.

While a jolly Stravinsky Pastorale brought the audience to the end (or start) of the Life Story, an enthusiastic response drew Neil and Anna back for an encore of a song that Anna’s mother used to sing as a lullaby – Noel Coward’s The Party’s Over Now; a smooth, relaxing and easy-going end to a varied and thoughtful concert.

Neil puts a lot of work into planning a concert – he’s a great believer in presenting the audience with a varied and interesting programme of music, trying to move the crowd both into and out of their comfort zone multiple times over the course of an evening.

Life Story was all about this – the music was chosen and arranged based on a common thread, not on musical flow or familiarity. It offered music new and old, conventional and unconventional. Unorthodox to the last note, Life Story was a life well lived.

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