Bright as Fire: The Westbrook Blake Salisbury Festival
Friday 06 June 1997
Mike Westbrook's settings of the poems of William Blake have a long and noble history. First conceived for the musical Tyger, written with Adrian Mitchell and staged at the National Theatre in 1971, they were then performed by Westbrook's brass band throughout the Seventies, added to for Glad Day, a television musical from 1977, and later recorded as an album, Bright As Fire. They've been disinterred several times since, but this was still a very rare outing. It's one of the great, fortuitous yoking-togethers of the century: Blake's forthright lyrics, and Westbrook's English-Ellingtonian music, the words sung brilliantly by Kate Westbrook and the extraordinary Phil Minton, and accompanied by a septet with three great sax players in Peter Whyman, Chris Biscoe, and Alan Wakeman.
There was also the addition of a vocal chorus, the Senior Girl's Choir of Leaden Hall School, many of whose parents were in the audience. The sense of fond parents watching their offspring lent an unusual piquancy to the music, which is not always easy listening. As Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton sang the beautiful "Lullaby", you could sense that for many in the crowd they came across as an eminently nice couple, and they warmed to Kate Westbrook's Julie Andrews intonation and Minton's impressively formal mien. They hadn't, you felt, ever seen Minton barking like a dog in his own, often confrontational solo performances.
Though the pressure of bums on pews began to tell as the long performance proceeded, the closing numbers made you forget any discomfort. Westbrook's settings for "The Fields" and "I See Thy Form" are among the greatest British music of the century - bold, optimistic and inspiring - and they were delivered with stately yet heartfelt authority by the band. By the end, as the children's chorus entered once again, there was barely a dry eye in the house.
But finally, something must be done about the problem of Phil Minton. He's such a major star that he should - like Ute Lemper or Paolo Conte - be playing sold-out concerts at the Festival Hall. Though he probably isn't bothered, he's so good that it's not fair to keep him in obscurity any longer. While pop singers get feted just for copying Scott Walker singing Jacques Brel, Minton - who has been singing Brel for years, among much else - is one of the greatest vocal performers in the world, bar none. It's about time that he got his due. Phil Johnson
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