Assuming that all the planets are in the right alignment, the television astrologer Russell Grant will be in Lichfield Cathedral early next month, hosting a “A Celebration of Richard Rodgers”.
This “Sound of His Music”, presented by the Chetham’s School of Music Orchestra from Manchester and West End soloists has been devised by Damian Thantrey, himself a busy performer and director. He explains the complexities behind the creation of this project.
“There’s no doubt that this project – which is a three-way co-production for the Lichfield Festival, Cheltenham Festival and Chetham’s School of Music – is the biggest thing that I have ever devised and produced. Had it been in the early part of last year, when I was away working in Europe for more than six months, it might have been more of a struggle! However, as the bulk of the project coincided with my appointment as guest artistic director for the 2018 Lichfield Festival (while the wonderful Sonia Stevenson is away on maternity leave), I’ve been able to have a ‘singing sabbatical’ in the main, freeing up much more time for the stresses and strains of producing and festival planning!”
Damian goes on to tell me how he set about devising the programme.
“Originally, after we worked together on two operas for her first two Lichfield seasons (The Magic Flute and Così fan Tutte), Sonia had suggested the idea of doing a musical for 2017. However, it proved almost impossible to get the rights to anything we could have realistically put on, and so I suggested instead a ‘greatest hits’ evening of music by Richard Rodgers, concentrating on the huge successes he had with Oscar Hammerstein II and the classic numbers he wrote with Lorenz Hart.
“Once we had confirmed the project, I began work with a long-time collaborator, director Lee Blakeley, and we compiled a very long list of potential material. When we began to whittle that down, what quickly became clear was that the focus of the show should be the extraordinary (and extraordinarily different) female characters that Rodgers created. So, rather than set-up a simple chronology with the Hart songs in the first half and Hammerstein in the second, we played instead with juxtaposing songs and characters from the different shows. Rather than having an evening of stand alone numbers, I hope we have given the evening a dramatic arc as a result.”
Richard Rodgers was a musical genius, I venture, and Damian responds enthusiastically.
“I couldn’t agree more – this is really the music that inspired me to become a singer. Although I have ended up mainly singing operatic repertoire, my first amateur stage role was as Emile’s son in South Pacific – no doubt hollering my way through the little duet! - and one of my professional highlights was singing Lun Tha in a sumptuous production of The King and I (the French premiere) at the Châtelet opera house in Paris, alongside the great American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, and the French movie star, Lambert Wilson.
“In the last few weeks, Lee and I have been working to prepare the spoken material for the show. As I listen to each song again, there is never a note wasted, or an idea repeated, or a colour that is less than absolutely right. If you take a song like Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered, you already have genius (and daring!) lyrics that would stand out with no music at all. And yet, somehow, through that simple, repeated motif, Rodgers embellishes those words even further; all the pent-up longing and frustration in Hart’s lyrics is heightened even more by his music. The trouble with putting an evening like this together, with such a rich catalogue to choose from, is that the journey from long to shortlist, and on to final programme, involved a lot of soul-searching and heated discussion…personal favourites did not always make the cut!”
Damian then tells me about the link between the Lichfield Festival and Manchester’s Chet’s.
“Since I started in my post as guest artistic director for next year’s festival, I have discovered the long history that exists between the Lichfield Festival and Chetham’s School of Music, with its supremely-talented young musicians frequently appearing either in orchestral concerts or as soloists in the festival’s extremely popular Young Artists series. Sonia was clearly keen to maintain that this year and I’m also hoping to work with their symphony orchestra next year as part of my own 2018 planning. I think it’s wonderful that we are able to feature youth so prominently. From their point of view, I’m sure that for some of the students this will be a first encounter with Rodgers’ music – I hope we give them a taste for it…”
Does Damian have any plans for Lichfield 2018 formulating?
“Of course! I’d rather not go into specifics just yet, as all of our focus is on the 2017 festival and the fabulous programme that Sonia and the team have put together. However, as a local boy from just down the A38 in Burton-on-Trent, I know that there are artists from the area who have gone on to have hugely successful international careers, so I hope to feature some of them. Also, in what will be the centenary of the emancipation of women and the Representation of the People Act, I’d like to focus on extraordinary women – both as performers and creators, and through works created specifically for a woman’s voice.”
- A Celebration of Richard Rodgers” is presented at Lichfield Cathedral on July 8 (7.30pm). The Lichfield Festival runs from July 7 to 15. Details on 01453 412121.