Composed by Rachael Dease
Arranged by Alice Humphries, Katherine Potter and Mia Brine
Performed by Rachael Dease, WASO and Voyces
Musical Director Mia Brine
Designed by Bruce McKinven
His Majesty’s TheatreRachael Dease is a hyper-sensitive, challenging artist with a formidable skill set and a rare facility to ponder the human condition.
Those skills, and those thought processes, have produced a distinctive, and distinguished, body of work, both as an independent writer/performance artist (City of Shadows, From a Small, Distant Planet) and as a composer and sound designer for theatre (It’s Dark Outside, Rest, You Know We Belong Together).
It’s fair to say that musically and in her thematic interests her work is very specific and uncompromising. That makes her 2020 album Hymn for End Times both monumental and glacial. Its cover, a starkly beautiful and forbidding black and white image of an iceberg is most appropriate.
I have no doubt repeated listening to Hymns for End Times will reveal its depths – I can only claim to have given it superficial attention prior to this world premiere live performance, and I’m pretty sure a large percentage of the festival subscription audience at The Maj had given it none.
Which makes presenting the entire album as a song cycle an ambitious undertaking, with Dease’s mezzo-soprano vocals backed by a 22-piece WASO ensemble and 12 choristers from Voyces, conducted by Mia Brine.
In my view it fell short of its aspiration, in large part because of some strange aspects of its staging wthat left it sitting uncomfortably between recital and performance art, each detracting from the other.
Dease is a striking figure on stage with her cascading scarlet hair and luminous face, accentuated here by a long, pale priestess’s gown. Her performance style typically relies on presence rather than animation, which suits the sombre, often ethereal, quality of her music.
On this occasion, though, this was taken to an extreme, with Dease either sitting motionless and impassive in a draped chair or, just as expressionless, standing behind a microphone stand. Whether this approach was meant to convey stasis, entropy, or a paralysing existential dread was unclear, but the effect at times risked being comic.
Perhaps, left to its own devices, the cumulative effect of this physical performance might have had a transcendental effect, but that was overwhelmed by the clash with Brine’s vigorous, staccato conducting alongside Dease from the piano.
I simply didn’t know where to look.
Matters weren’t helped by a less than perfect sound, especially of Dease’s voice. Her lovely deep tones were all there, but whether it was the mix or the accuracy of sound capture, the lyric was often hard to decipher, a serious difficulty for an audience dealing with unfamiliar material.
In the cycle’s penultimate song, I Am the Always, Dease ascended to join the choir – there’s no better way to describe it – the reconfiguration of the staging and the emphatic power of the song allowed the full potential of the music and its performance to reveal itself.
If only the same could be said of all the songs that preceded it.