Review: Mike Westbrook - Glad Day: The Poetry of William Blake at St Giles-in-the-Fields

Mike Westbrook - Glad Day: The Poetry of William Blake
(St Giles-in-the-Fields, Sunday 8 February. Review by Chris Parker)

Initially composed for Adrian Mitchell’s National Theatre production, Tyger, many of the songs in this programme of William Blake poems set to Mike Westbrook’s music date back to 1971. Material has been added over subsequent years for performances by the composer’s Brass Band, for a 1980 Impetus recording, Bright as Fire, an Enja album, Glad Day in 1997, and – most recently – a DVD and CD, Glad Day Live (Westbrook Records), documenting a 2008 performance utilising the forces (two singers, jazz quartet, large choir) deployed on this occasion, a concert presented by the Simon Community, a charity for the homeless.

The songs have also been sung (usually by Kate Westbrook and Phil Minton, the performers here, at St Giles-in-the-Fields) with various local children’s choirs, initially in Blackheath in 1996, but also – using the instrumentation of this concert, accordion, violin, piano, bass – to mark the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth in 2007 at the Foundling Museum as part of the St Pancras Festival of Contemporary Music. This history is worth tracing in such detail because it shows how important the Blake settings have been in Mike and Kate Westbrook’s careers to date; indeed, they neatly encapsulate many of the Westbrooks’ most dearly held artistic beliefs: above all in the power of literary texts to move and inspire, but also in the importance of allowing notions of social justice, consequent upon engagement with historical, political (and spiritual) complexity, to inform their music.

It also helps explain why Glad Day, particularly its opening two songs, ‘London Song’ (‘I wander thro’ each charter’d street …’) and ‘Let the Slave’ (‘Let the slave, grinding at the mill, run out into the field’), is quite so affecting: by the time the latter culminates in Mike Westbrook’s powerfully spirited but beautifully modulated recitation of ‘The Price of Experience’ (‘What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song? Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children …’), the audience has been irresistibly elevated to a profoundly civilised plane by the perfect marriage of melody and lyric, infused with passion and delivered with utter conviction.

Such passion and conviction, indeed, imbued the whole of this performance. From the righteous indignation of ‘Holy Thursday’ (‘Is this a holy thing to see/In a rich and fruitful land,/Babes reduc’d to misery,/Fed with cold and usurous hand?’) to the visionary eloquence of ‘I See Thy Form’ (‘O lovely mild Jerusalem/Winged with six wings/In the opacious bosom of the sleeper’), Mike Westbrook’s settings (Kate Westbrook responsible for arranging the texts for ‘Holy Thursday’ and ‘The Human Abstract’, Adrian Mitchell – to whose memory this concert was dedicated – for the rest), richly deserved the rapt attention and the subsequent standing ovation they received from a capacity audience.

Impeccably played by Karen Street (accordion), Billy Thompson (violin), Steve Berry (bass) and Mike Westbrook himself (piano), and with the Queldryk Choral Ensemble directed by Paul Ayres providing stirring vocal support, Glad Day is as moving as it is musically satisfying, and its ostensibly simple (‘Can it be a song of joy/And so many children poor?’) yet uniquely powerful message (‘the hapless soldier’s sigh/Runs in blood down palace walls’) is as relevant today as ever it was.

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