October 11, 2013
In a mesmerising 21st century tribute to celebrate Benjamin Britten’s centenary, jazz singer Ruthie Culver and her sparkling ‘Utter Jazz’ quartet joined with actor Sam West to thrill a packed Playhouse with their re-workings of Britten’s settings of W. H. Auden’s poetry, alternating with the quiet brilliance of the poems.
Benjamin Britten’s brief collaboration with W.H. Auden in the 1930’s resulted in some irresistible, tantalising musical settings of Auden’s poetry and lyrics, and a terminal severance of future friendship. Auden, seven years Britten’s senior, was distracted and frustrated by Britten, whom he described as ‘playing the loveable, talented little boy’.
‘Underneath the abject willow’, which was performed last night, was a come-hither advance, which Britten rejected. Yet in Britten, Auden said he had never seen ‘such an extraordinary musical sensitivity in relation to the English language.’
Taking on these giants demands bravery and talent. Ruthie Culver and her fellow musicians in the Utter Jazz Quartet had both. Their ‘vibrant re-imaginings’ of Britten’s music, as he had done with Purcell, for ‘contemporary conditions’ was masterly, including swing, samba, blues and grooves. Britten himself loved Cole Porter and blues.
Ruthie Culver’s warm presence, her eclectic jazz style – evoking German Kabbaret and Brecht/Weill or confessional French chansons, or the sheer foot-tapping, throaty snarl of ‘O tell me the truth about love’ – each performance took us into a different mood, and musical world.
The sheer virtuosity of the accompanying Utter Jazz Quartet was astonishing. At one point pianist Dan Hewson and double bassist Jonny Gee formed a horn section. Mick Foster, a ‘multi-reed player’ contributed dazzlingly on so many diverse instruments, that Ruthie Culver commented Foster had only been limited by the size of the van. Andrea Trillo’s drumming showed similar versatility and range, strengthening the conviction of many song styles. The quartet’s wish to make music more improvisatory was brilliantly accomplished thoughout the show.
Sam West’s readings of Auden’s poetry provided a superb, still counterpoint to the vibrancy of the jazz numbers. His reading of the Musée des Beaux Arts was unforgettable. His ability to move the audience with Auden’s unparalleled conversational pieces, or paradoxes and rhymes, was masterly.