The Musicall Compass have undertaken some fascinating projects in the past, combining vocal music with, for example, dance in a memorable performance of Buxtehude’s Memba Jesu Nostri in Christ Church Spitalfields. On this occasion they interspersed the nine five-voice Lamentations of Orlando di Lasso with folk laments from Eastern Europe, sung by Moira Smiley. Written to be performed during the three days leading up to Easter, the Lamentations set verses from Jeremiah’s rather morbid reflections on the decline of Jerusalem: ‘How doth the city sit solitary .. she has become a widow’. Three settings are sung on each day, each finishing with the lament Ierusalem, Ierusalem, convertere ad Dominum Deum tuum (Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return unto the Lord thy God).
A distinctive feature of Lamentations by all composers is the included of the alphabetic Hebrew letters that started each verse in the Vulgate Bible (Aleph, Beth, Ginel, Daleth etc). In the case of Lassus, these little miniatures offer delightful little essays in counterpoint. The five singers of Musicall Compass stood on the highest step at the back of the St John’s, Smith Square stage, with director Crispin Lewis conducting sideways on from one side. The nine Lamentations and the interspersed folk melodies proceeded without interruption. The folk laments came from Bulgaria, Hungary, Bosnia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Croatia, Herzegovina and, curiously, Appalachia. With the exception of the latter, these cultures have benefitted from an enormous number of influences, including Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. The resulting musical mix is compelling, particularly in the first few songs with their distinctive ornamentation, ‘catches’ in the voice, and whoops.
The evening started with Moira Smiley singing from behind the audience, later moving to different positions for each one. She also included an accordion and banjo for occasional accompaniment, and once added her plaintive voice to one of the Lamentations. The laments were generally about love, rather than any religious yearnings, but were full of the similar intense expression of Jeremiah’s woe. Moira Smiley’s voice is delightfully stable, combining ‘early music’ vocal style with folk. Her subtle stage presence was well thought out and effective.
Crispin Lewis’s conducting was attractively unobtrusive. He focussed on the emotional and expressive nature of Lassus’s extraordinary setting, which uses word-painting on every opportunity. The five singers sang with a lovely sense of consort, each voice melding with the others. Lassus often uses variations of texture, including smaller groups of singers, to reinforce the text, so the ability of individual voices to blend in different groupings is important.
- Andrew Benson-Wilson, Early Music Reviews. www.andrewbensonwilson.com
Motets and Dance
"St John's, Smith Square was the venue for a concert combining music and dance, with The Musicall Compass following on from their similar take on Buxtehude's Membra Jesu Nostri in Christ Church Spitalfields. This time it was five Bach Motets that were the musical focus.
What was noticeable about this presentation was that the choreography infused the whole performance, the eight singers and conductor of The Musicall Compass slowly moving around the SJSS stage while they were singing - they started in the back corner of the stage, facing away from the audience. In Jesu meine Freude, two of the singers peeled away from the choir to join the two dancers. Only in the very last piece was the normal stage format reached, with the conductor centre stage.
The five Motets were sung without an interval, and we were asked not to applaud until the end (which made those who hadn't read their programmes look a bit silly after the first piece). The eight unaccompanied singers produced an excellent consort sound, with well-blended voices and no interfering vibrato, and with particularly fine contributions from the three female singers, sopranos Emily Atkinson and Claire Tomlin, and also alto Cathy Bell. Their fine blend was helped by the fact that the director, Crispin Lewis, kept their voices at a gentle level, with no attempt at forcing the voices - a very welcome change from the many 'belt-it-out' vocal groups.
Julia Pond's choreography was flowing and coherent, the mood of the two dancers ranging from exuberance to gentle intertwining in a series of evolving tableaux, some evoking recognisable baroque sculptural groupings - for example, a couple of Pietás. The dancers frequently immersed themselves within the choir, moving with them as they slowly changed position, often carrying the conductor's music desk with them."
- Andrew Benson-Wilson, Early Music Review
When Baroque met Contemporary Dance in a unique collaboration at St John's Smith Square
"Choreographer Julia Pond and Conductor Crispin Lewis of the baroque music ensemble, The Musicall Compass, teamed up at St John's Smith Square's ravishing concert hall to put together a night of contemporary dance and JS Bach's motets. The motets were sung one-to-part and a capella by eight singers who were joined on stage by two dancers, Mel Simpson and Nicolas Bodych.
In this rare performance, the dancers not only performed on stage with the ensemble but danced with them as well. The Bach motets filled the hall with such wonderful buoyancy and delicacy that it was easy to see how Pond's contemporary choreography could lend itself well to these classical compositions. The dancing on stage was fluid and Lewis's choir was exceptional. They were completely in synch and harmonised beautifully together. It was really neat to see the choir actually start to move together with the dancers which is something you do not see every day in such a traditional concert space.
One of the highlights for me was when two of the singers broke off unexpectedly from the choir and started to join the dancers attempting to imitate their graceful movements. It brought quite a comedic moment to the piece and showed both a sense of humour and theatricality. When I asked Julia what inspired her to collaborate in such a classical setting she said "I was really excited about the piece because working with dancers and musicians is something I love and this was a chance to do it in a very interesting way". A collaboration of this kind is interesting for sure and also full of potential.
Conductor Crispin Lewis seeks "to explore the possibilities of interaction between musicians and dancers" and if one of his objectives is to spread the beauty of baroque music to a wider audience, I think he is moving in the right direction."
- Melissa Peleschi, Hackney Hive
Haydnʼs Seven Last Words
"Glimpses of dance and echoes of speech were performed in every alcove of the novel venue...the concept was refreshing, the performers slick and skillful" - The Londonist
"With St James's Church Piccadilly as the backdrop, this evening of classical music, poetry and dance was already set to be pretty epic...
Oliver Reynolds' ambiguous text is full and bursting with meaning - but is a clean slate at the same time.
The poetry and gradual heightening tempo and briskness of the music was also given a visual accompaniment which served as a bridge between the music and spoken word: dance.
Jo Meredith's choreography had beautiful moments of sweeping dynamic energy and whirlwinds of passionate momentum that really made you feel more involved with the music - as the dance was very much at times a mirror image, or a visual representation, of the music itself.
The Musicall Compass, the period ensemble who performed Haydn's work, was an 18 instrument group who are well worth tracking down as they perform in lots of different venues around London. Directed by Crispin Lewis, their seven orchestral movements were flawless, and complimented the setting, dance and poetry to a T. Their decision to stage an updated version of a work that would usually only be seen within a religious context was a very welcome one." - RemoteGoat
Membra Jesu Nostri - Buxtehude
"...one of the most exciting events of the year so far"
"...played beautifully by a band who were seated in front of the altar facing away from the audience so that director Lewis could see the dancers as well as the musicians and this had a very nice, and perhaps unintended effect on the sound quality; it was integrated and harmonious, more than I have sometimes heard it in more conventional settings. After the introductory movement, the band began to disappear gradually up into the northwest gallery, where, by the end of the piece, they were making a truly wonderful sound."
"The singers were magnificent performers. Not only were they responsible for a lot of clearly enunciated and beautifully modulated sound, often a long way away from both band and conductor, they acted and interacted with the dancers, involved in the movement, moved by and moving the dancers, singing from the floor and processionally. Perhaps the movement highlight was Chris Wardle and Christopher Bowen picking Lucy Anderson up and carrying her slowly out of the nave. Claire Tomlin sang with amazing tone and purity notwithstanding being nine months pregnant..."
"Musically I think purity was the hallmark of the evening. Played and sung in an entirely unaffected manner, the performance seemed effortless in many places, with the players obviously owning the piece and relaxed with it."
"This was an excellent evening, one that brought much more than I expected in emotion, clarity, complexity and in being memorable. This performance deserves a repeat and would work well in many churches. This Lewis/Meredith collaboration has succeeded superbly and one measure of that was how, gradually, slowly, they won the audience and received an enthusiastic and long ovation that was well deserved.”