Review: Classical Music @ Kettle’s Yard

JOE CONWAY discovered an excellent showcase of university talent in this American dominated set.

Classica Copland Kettle's Yard Music

Friday 5th March, 1.10pm. Jessica Eccelston (soprano), Nancy Johnston (oboe), and Kausikan Rajeshkumar (piano). Free.

Friday lunchtime concerts at Kettle's Yard have become a Cambridge institution. They're free, they take place in a central location – and in a gallery which boasts excellent acoustics, a Steinway grand piano, and little to distract the eye from the performers. No wonder there's usually a long queue of classical music fans stretching down the quaint courtyard before the doors open dead on 1pm.
The one downside is that there usually seems to be only a sprinkling of students among them. And this is odd because these concerts exist to showcase university talent, and you'd think people would turn out in larger numbers – if only to support their mates and discover their hidden talents.
Certainly those who couldn't make it on Friday missed a treat. Jessica Eccelston's programme may have looked on paper a bit like an end-of-year recital for soprano and piano, with little on it likely to be familiar to the audience. Yet such is her stage presence that she soon had everyone eating out of her hand.
But though her bubbly personality and her enjoyment of the material counted for a lot, it was inevitably the quality of her voice which wowed the audience. Exceptionally warm and mellow, it had something of the quality of, say, a glass of St Emilion perfectly kept at room temperature. There were simply no hard edges at all – though in her performance of three relatively serious songs by Samuel Barber, Jessica quite rightly aimed for a slightly colder, more distant tone.
However, in other groups of American songs – by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein – all was sweetness and sunshine, enhanced by a swift and tasteful vibrato. In both these sets there was abundant humour too. Bernstein's French mini-song-cycle La Bonne Cuisine was particularly witty and deft, much of it unfolding flawlessly at lightening speed. Jessica's accompanist at the piano, Kausikan Rajeshkumar, was particularly fluent in this group, his nimble figurations adding immensely to the bubbliness and hilarity of the songs.
But for me the most satisfying – as well as the most surprising items on the programme – were two songs by Charles Ives. I'm guessing that these are early or even student works, and are settings of German texts written in an unexpected Schubertian manner. How lovely to hear soprano and piano totally at one here! Alas, in so many 20th century songs, voice and piano can seem to be at loggerheads and, inevitably, with its greater volume and tonal capacity, the piano will always win in the end.Yet Ives's charming tunes and euphonious accompaniments reminded us that it doesn't have to be that way.
And, talking of accompaniment, there was an odd-work-out in the programme.The only item which didn't have a piano part and, in fact, the only songs which didn't come from across the pond, were four Blake settings by Vaughan Williams. In these rare English songs Jessica was joined by oboist Nancy Johnston who provided not so much an accompaniment as another solo line. Elegantly phrased and articulated, and with superb breath-control, Nancy's playing leant an outdoor, pastoral character to these fascinating and thoughtful songs.
I guess this is the place to end this write-up as I want to be encouraging rather than critical. In fact, as far as the music-making was concerned, there was nothing to be critical about. But .. er .. presentation is another matter. Although it was done with the utmost grace, it's not a good idea to stoop down and take a swig from a plastic bottle of Evian between numbers! A small table, a carafe and a glass are all that are needed to obviate this. Similarly, it's better not to keep snapping your sheet music into a ring-binder once the programme has started!
I hasten to say this isn't some kind of classical music snobbery coming into play here, but just a desire to stop unnecessary distractions getting in the way of delightful performances. Honestly.