Review: CLASSICAL Sunday Soiree Royal Albert Hall, London The London Coffee House Exchange Amadeus Centre, London

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
After years of accepting received wisdom on concert presentation, it seems that a growing number of performers are prepared to kick over the traces of tradition and revive the spirit, if not the substance, of Variety. The combination of music, spoken drama and poetry in one programme is hardly new, yet the unfashionable idea of giving an audience a little bit of what it fancies in an informal setting makes a refreshing change from the worthy, po-faced offerings all too often subjected on that vanishing tribe of regular concert-goers.

Two very different but effective approaches to the "problem" of programming have recently been explored by Bettina Jonic's Little Garden Company in its series of Sunday soirees at the Royal Albert Hall and, more expansively, by the London Coffee House Exchange, a joint venture from Anthony Rooley's Consort of Musicke and Don Taylor's First Writes Theatre Company.

Casting an eye over the tatty chairs, stark decor and fay, arty types assembled last week in the Albert Hall's General Scott Room inspired memories of university seminars I wish I'd missed, an impression not helped by the promise of a programme devoted to "an eclectic selection from the works of Federico Garcia Lorca" and a dreary opening set of jazz standards dispatched with little feeling by the intonationally challenged Simon Lawson Trio. Cue Bettina Jonic to transform the mood with a blues piece composed for her in the Sixties by Harrison Birtwistle for a production of Lorca's Yerma. The Accrington-born Birtwistle may lack the authentic voice of anguish here, but Jonic milked every drop of expression from his setting of "I cannot complain if all that I had eludes me", moving on to give spellbinding accounts of Billie Holiday's desperately bleak "Strange Fruit" and "Good Morning Heartache". Lorca readings by Nelson Fernandez, Bob Sherman and Sandor Eles, whose dramatic delivery of "Five in the Afternoon" proved especially moving, matched Jonic's powerful emotional range in the blues.

Lottery cash from the Arts Council's Arts 4 Everyone scheme allowed the London Coffee House Exchange to present an ambitious, at times rambling, evening of short theatre pieces, 17th-century ale-house songs, extracts from Eccles and Congreve's Semele, a fragment from Abbess Hildegard's Ordo Virtutum, unknown Broadway tunes, and even the first performance in modern times of Ben Jonson's Masque for the New Exchange, recently rediscovered hidden among a collection of state papers in the Public Record Office.

Anthony Rooley wished to revive a setting in which performers might perform, the audience listen, and then together chew the fat, just as Dryden and Purcell might have done with the wags of London's coffee houses after a production of King Arthur. A bright idea, but its realisation was dimmed by an over-abundance of acts on the bill and the cramped conditions of the Amadeus Centre, the overall pacing not helped by a late kick-off. When I left at 11.25pm the admirable City Waits were in full flow, their main set having started more than four hours after they'd delivered the evening's overture session. With Isla Blair, Chris Emmett and Kenneth Haigh adding experience and bravura to the youthful First Writes Company, and Evelyn Tubb on mouth-watering form in the songs of Eccles, the intervening sandwich of playlets and musical miniatures could hardly have been more appetising.