Cambridge Voices / Chela / Harmonia Quartet
St Paul's Church, Hills Road, Friday June 30th 2006
So I went to this concert, with a handful of other people, and jolly good it was too.
Cambridge Voices opened with a striking performance of Lotti's Crucifixus, with the eight voices singing from the corners of the church -- a kind of Baroque surround-sound. From there they took us on a rapid tour through several centuries of choral music, pausing along the way for a couple of very silly novelty pastiche songs. A good selection of music and a great sound throughout; it was particularly lovely to hear true contralto voices (as opposed to the all-too-usual sopranos with good sight-reading skills) singing the lower female part.
Next was a complete change of mood as Chela, the Cambridge Georgian choir, took the stage, singing as they strode into the room. Not knowing the language (scant programme notes merely indicated the general subject matter of the songs: drinking, death, the Georgian church, beautiful black-eyed girls) I was listening to the voices as instruments; a cappella choirs often have a woodwind-like (not to say reedy), fluting sound, but these voices sounded far more string-like: fuller, warmer, more vibrant. (I suspect I also associate open fifths -- frequently used in this style of music -- with string-playing.) At times the handful of singers sounded like a choir of three times the size; when I complimented charismatic choir-leader Derek Willcox on this in the interval, he immediately (and with an un-ironic smile) said, "It's our ancestors. The Georgians believe that when they sing, their ancestors sing with them. That's what you heard."
The final group, the Harmonia Quartet, suffered slightly by comparison with the previous two (in fact the concert felt as though the groups should have been in reverse order, with the Cambridge Voices 'headlining'...) but gave a cheerful and very competent performance of some well-known madrigals.
Cambridge Concert Orchestra
St Peter's Hall, Wilburton, 1st July 2006
I'm not really qualified to review this concert from an audience perspective, because the front desk of the second violins is not the best vantage point from which to hear the orchestra as a whole; but in general the concert seemed to go well. The audience tapped their toes, laughed at our compère's jokes, and seemed to particularly enjoy the Radio 4 UK Theme, singing along with every tune. Our biggest enemy was the heat: the racing semiquavers of the William Tell Overture left us gasping for breath, and tuning was a problem throughout, though the worst affected was one poor first violinist who, attempting for one last time to re-tighten the instrument's slackening strings, was rewarded with the loud CRACK! of her bridge breaking. Ouch.
Regina Spektor + Only Son
The Junction, Cambridge, 2nd July 2006
Despite rumours circulating in the audience, it seemed fairly clear that Only Son (aka 30-year-old Jack Dishel, former guitarist with the Moldy Peaches) was not really the only son -- nor indeed the son at all -- of 26-year-old Regina Spektor. A shame, really, as this generation-bending feat would have been a far better claim to distinction than his music, a pleasant but unremarkable blend of acoustic guitar and occasionally-quirky lyrics. Nothing to complain about, but nothing to write home about either.
Regina Spektor, on the other hand, seemed determined to make up for her diminutive frame with her dynamic and distinctive musical presence. A bold a cappella opening song instantly silenced a hot and restless audience, and set the scene for an evening in which singing took centre stage: Spektor displayed a voice both strong and expressive, moving easily between various styles, from rough to smooth, and incorporating some clever percussive sound effects. Her lyrics are kooky yet knowing (perhaps at times too knowingly kooky: there's more than an element of "look at me, I am small and cute and oh so zany", but overall it worked well, probably helped along by an enthusiastically affectionate audience), whether attacking universal themes from individual and often surreal angles, or spinning off into a more opaque brand of craziness full of bedside visits from Ezra Pound or giant marauding statues of Baby Jesus. Comparisons to Tori Amos have been made, but Spektor's imagery feels more concrete and less melancholic; and her delivery, though piano-led, tends more towards jazz than ballads, with a brighter-edged sound than Tori Amos's multi-layered piano lines. I was strongly reminded of Dory Previn in places (but without lyrics or CDs to hand as I write this, you'll have to go off and do your own comparative research!).
All in all, an original sound and a captivating performance. I'd definitely go and see her again.