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Todd McNeal: Reviews

Choral Music & Songs

Roderick Williams and Susie Allan review: The Great War and its legacy captured imaginatively in word and song

Our Rating  ****

 

The Great War and the Armistice have been commemorated in numerous ways over the past year but few programmes can have been more imaginatively conceived than that of the baritone Roderick Williams.

The English late Romantics and their settings of the War Poets may have formed the nucleus of his sequence but there were fine examples too of songs by more recent composers including the Australian Todd McNeal, Ian Venables, the 91-year-old Elaine Hugh-Jones (teacher of Williams’s accompanist, the excellent Susie Allan) and Anthony Payne (in the audience).

Nor did we languish in the trenches. Rather, the programme fell into eight sections, the first half tracing an arc from imperialistic jingoism and storm clouds, through to a variety of war experiences. The second half brought three composers, then three poets, lost in action, followed by survivors and the legacy. 

The songs included the familiar, among them Finzi’s Channel Firing and Butterworth’s The Lads in their Hundreds but many that would have been unfamiliar to many (Martin Shaw’s Venizel, written by a soldier on active service at the front in the first weeks of the war), Ernest Farrar’s Silent Noon (with reminiscences of Vaughan Williams’s more celebrated setting) and three by John Ireland (The Cost, In Boyhood, The Soldier). 

 

As the sequence unfolded, introduced by Williams section by section, we were somehow aware of the long shadow of the Great War pursuing us down the years. His eyes occasionally blazing with anger, at other times divulging a quizzical smile, he is the most engaging of performers. But the arching melodic lines and the tonal colouring of the texts had one hanging on every word. This was important because at the performers’ request no texts were printed in the programme, forcing us to respond to each poet’s and each composer’s flights of inspiration. 

Curated by Eric Usadi, the Hampstead Arts Festival is now well established in the London calendar. This recital was one of several outstanding events on offer. 

Roderick Williams / Susie Allan review: The Great War and its legacy captured imaginatively in word and song

 

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St John's Downshire Hill
NW3 1NU

The Great War and the Armistice have been commemorated in numerous ways over the past year but few programmes can have been more imaginatively conceived than that of the baritone Roderick Williams.

The English late Romantics and their settings of the War Poets may have formed the nucleus of his sequence but there were fine examples too of songs by more recent composers including the Australian Todd McNeal, Ian Venables, the 91-year-old Elaine Hugh-Jones (teacher of Williams’s accompanist, the excellent Susie Allan) and Anthony Payne (in the audience).

Nor did we languish in the trenches. Rather, the programme fell into eight sections, the first half tracing an arc from imperialistic jingoism and storm clouds, through to a variety of war experiences. The second half brought three composers, then three poets, lost in action, followed by survivors and the legacy. 

The songs included the familiar, among them Finzi’s Channel Firing and Butterworth’s The Lads in their Hundreds but many that would have been unfamiliar to many (Martin Shaw’s Venizel, written by a soldier on active service at the front in the first weeks of the war), Ernest Farrar’s Silent Noon (with reminiscences of Vaughan Williams’s more celebrated setting) and three by John Ireland (The Cost, In Boyhood, The Soldier). 

As the sequence unfolded, introduced by Williams section by section, we were somehow aware of the long shadow of the Great War pursuing us down the years. His eyes occasionally blazing with anger, at other times divulging a quizzical smile, he is the most engaging of performers. But the arching melodic lines and the tonal colouring of the texts had one hanging on every word. This was important because at the performers’ request no texts were printed in the programme, forcing us to respond to each poet’s and each composer’s flights of inspiration. 

Curated by Eric Usadi, the Hampstead Arts Festival is now well established in the London calendar. This recital was one of several outstanding events on offer. 

Songs of the Sea and Sky

1. Hush, the Waves

The first movement deals with a mother and child waiting for their husband and father to return from the sea. The accompaniment imitates the waves of the ocean, providing beautiful counterpoint with the voices. At the close of this piece, the divisi in the voice parts creates a sense of longing for the father's return.

2. Flying Man

The text for this movement was created around the time of the Wright Brothers' first flight. Constantly changing meters and brilliant, original text painting depict the glorious sense of flying.

3. To Brush the Cobwebs Off the Sky

This amusing, expressive movement employs ascending stepwise scale passages to describe an old woman who magically brushes the imaginary cobwebs from "off the sky!"

...Next were settings of three poems by Walter de la Mare, by Todd McNeal, a contemporary Australian composer.  ‘Five Eyes’ I knew in another composer’s setting, but this was a most effective one.  The boys sang it in a sturdy and clear manner, and conveyed a picture of cats capturing ‘the thieving rats’.  ‘Silver’ was once well-known to primary school pupils (maybe it still is): ‘Slowly silently, now the moon/Walks the night in her silver shoon’.  The setting had a serene, calm feeling, as did I, listening.  These boys know their music and words very well...

These were...three skilful settings, sung well.

Global Search for New Musicals 2006, on Grace & Favour (1st Draft)

You are very adept in writing for this genre. The Sondheimesque' style fitted beautifully for this piece. The synthesis of the music and lyrics work seamlessly to the story and drive the narrative along. An example of this is 'Seminal Investments', the musical maturity along with the wit of the lyrics result in a hilarious yet very poignant moment in the piece. It is particularly fast pacing with many twists and turns of the plot...

As you have such a strong base from which to work, go back and look to see where you could tighten the plot... But whilst doing this, you do not need to simplify the musical style. You could even be braver in your musical choices...Please keep working on 'Grace and Favour'. It is a show that deserves with some work to have a commercial life'
Cardiff International Festival of Musical Theatre - Judges at the Global Search For New Musicals (Jul 13, 2006)

From Taxi, the biggest independent A&R Company in the World

On 'Let it Go, Brother' :

excellent song. great simple country gospel melody and a really well written lyric, beautifully focused, straightforward, and poetic. no negatives here at all. this is a really strong song …hey there todd - i really dig this song. i love the lyrical construction, really gives it a traditional folk gospel feel that is refreshing to hear. this is a very contemporary & relevant song that also has a timeless quality to it due to the deft use of traditional styles. everything is working fine here, and i don't have any negatives whatsoever. even in this simple stripped down form the song comes through loud and clear. great job…it is a really terrific song, plain and simple.
Taxi Listener ID#256 - Taxi
On 'Count the Miles':

Wo, what vivid imagery; certainly helps to paint a colorful picture of the storyline. Again the piano is compelling, and the heartfelt vocal performance is convincing. Todd- I must say that I was rather impressed by your submissions... You have the type of music could could certainly set the tone for a beautiful, lazy Sunday afternoon…Good luck, and I look forward to hearing more from you!
Taxi Listener ID#215 - Taxi
On 'Sunlight up to the Sky':

this is a really good song. some of the production is cool..like the little counter melodies with the synth. The chorus has an original musical structure and is fresh in where the melody takes the listener. lyrically, it is also less predictable. Good work.
Taxi Listener ID#282 - Taxi

Listener Reviews from CD Baby for 'All My Good Intentions'

great songs, well written, honest and beautiful! todd comes from a very unique, tender place on this record.
...Brilliant and just remember it took Billy Joel seven albums to break through. Actually this stuff may even be better! I agree with John the lyrics do stay with you, a great work!
This is a great album, perfect to have on whether you're pottering around the house on a Sunday afternoon or having friends round for dinner. It also rewards more attentive listening and stays with you. The lyrics pop into my head all the time. It's well worth the purchase!