Monthly Archives: February 2011

Impressions of the Scheherazade Showcase, 1997

Impressions of the Scheherazade Showcase
Sir Jack Lyons Theatre, Royal Academy Of Music, London
19 & 20 December 1997

Ticket

To be a fan of Renaissance in the Netherlands has always been a bit of a lonesome occupation. Their last gig in this country must have been in the stone age. Most LPs and CDs are only available in small quantities, proper information in music papers is non-existent and fellow fans are hard to find. No wonder I had given up hope long ago to hear Renaissance’ music live, even just once.

And then suddenly there was this faint sign of life and hope, with the release of the Renaissance compilation CD Tales Of 1001 Nights. In the CD’s extensive liner notes dated October 1989, David Samuel Barr wrote: “Michael Dunford and Betty Thatcher have been working for several years on Scheherazade, a full-length musical with its roots in the aforementioned 1975 cantata, which at this writing is well on its way to being staged in London, possibly preceded by a studio recording.” I have been looking forward to this musical ever since, as I quite like English musicals and saw this as a great opportunity to hear a combination of great music so dear to me in a live performance. Now, how could I get to know more about this musical?

For five or six years nothing seemed to happen. I regularly checked London’s guide Time Out to see if there was any news. And then suddenly there was this wonderful web site — Northern Lights — that revived worldwide interest in the music of Renaissance, and on top of that, it bore positive news about the musical!

Before long there was a web site dedicated to the musical itself, and no hesitation on my part when, in 1997, Michael Dunford and director Stuart Wood encouraged Renaissance fans to contribute to the musical. It only took a small investment to become a stakeholder in the musical and to get a CD and two tickets for the Showcase performance on Friday the 19th December as well. Thanks to Barry Potts, one of the performers, I was also able to go to the last performance, on the 20th December. What follows are a few impressions of the musical by a diehard Renaissance fan.

The Story
The musical needed a broader plot than used in Renaissance’s interpretation of the story in their “Song Of Scheherazade,” which eventually led to an entirely different ending. Of course, it still is a happy ending, but it is not Scheherazade who lives happily ever after with the Sultan. Her role in the story is to restore Yasmina, the only true love of the Sultan, who was presumed killed after his evil brother Za’Zaman duped him into believing she had been unfaithful to him. The final scene of the musical shows the reunited Shahriyar and Yasmina centre-stage, while Scheherazade sings that her task has been fulfilled and that she must go.

The story is less about Scheherazade the person and the person Shahriyar, but more about balance between gentle and wise feminine behaviour and blind and brutal male behaviour. Shahriyar at the beginning of the musical is a balanced person. He is respected, wise and confident in his relationship with Yasmina. So logically he defends Za’Zaman’s son, who prefers to stay a boy rather than learn how to kill animals and thus become a man. But after he has been led astray by his vile brother Za’Zaman — expertly played by Russell Wilcox — who hungers for power, Shahriyar becomes violent and brutal as well. Scheherazade brings balance. This was beautifully visualised by Poppy Tierney. Whenever on stage, Scheherazade dominates the scene by showing determination and thus becomes the anchor of the play.

Instead of Renaissance’s “The Young Prince and Princess,” Scheherazade tells two longer stories in the musical. The first story is told by Scheherazade on her wedding night, and is called “The Story Of The Hunchback.” While Shahriyar listens to Scheherazade, lying on the bed, the scene is performed by the five travelling players on stage.

The second story is called “The Story Of The Enchanted Horse.” It is the last-but-one and crucial scene of the musical. During the story, Za’Zaman is killed and Shahriyar is faced with the unjustness of his deeds. He realises he wronged Yasmina, and is reunited with her afterwards.

I didn’t really grasp the definitely profound and symbolic meaning of this story as performed by the entire cast. It is a complex plot as many storylines from the musical come together. Nephita’s story is a good example. She saw Za’Zaman kill his wife when she was very young and returned years later confronting him unable to remain silent any longer. Angered when she would not agree to “an arrangement,” Za’Zaman put a spell on her, made her mute and banished her. She then regained her voice after Za’Zaman’s son, Rashid, fell in love with her. In the Scheherazade’s second story, Nephita washes herself at an imaginary pool, probably symbolising the innocence of Yasmina. The meaning of the horse itself, a golden statue which can fly, remains a mystery to me, even after seeing the scene twice.

The storyline as presented during the Showcase without typical West End sets was a bit too complex to follow. Some of the people I talked to that had not read the plot — either in the Promotional CD booklet or on the website — before seeing the Showcase found the story difficult to follow, especially in the second half. Perhaps this is a result of the rewrites leading up to the first public performance. But afterall this was a Showcase performance to illustrate the creative team’s concept and what can be done rather than to demonstrate a finished product.

The Showcase performance had a gap where the story about killing the virgin brides by the Sultan might have once been told. After Yasmina has fallen from grace, the group of travelling players enter stage and their song states that Scheherazade is waiting in the wings. I had expected to hear and see the song “Future Brides” (from the Promotional CD) at this point, in which various women compete to become the next bride to the Sultan. During the break I learned that “Future Brides” had been eliminated during rehearsals. Although it was sung in one of the numbers, it was not very obvious that the Sultan had married many times between Yasmina and Scheherazade, and that he had killed his brides after their respective wedding nights.

There were also a few flaws in the storyline as written and sung. For instance, the travelling players sing in their first scene that it had been five years since the Sultan had been betrayed. During this time the Sultan has had many wives but Yasmina (disguised as a nurse) and Sheherazade return with a baby boy born the night before. What has actually happened to Yasmina after she had fallen from grace isn’t explained and the extra four years of pregnancy certainly don’t make sense. However minor, the story still needs a few corrections and further “moulding” before it can be presented to a wider audience in the West End or on Broadway.

The Music
Luckily, the Musical’s six song Promotional CD arrived two weeks prior to the Showcase, so I could have a general idea of what the music would be like. The more I listened to it, the more I recognised from Renaissance’s “Song Of Scheherazade.” So far, I have recognised themes from “Fanfare” in “Dance Of The Masks”, “The Sultan” in “In A Land Of Ancient Kings” and “The Young Prince And Princess as told by Scheherazade” in “In The Stillness Of The Room.”

The two other familiar Renaissance songs are “A Love So Pure” and “Northern Lights.” After Za’Zaman has lured his brother by creating a fantastical scene that showed Yasmina surrounded by many lovers, Shahriyar and Yasmina sing out their anger and disappointment towards each other in “A Love So Pure.” On the CD it is sung by Richard Henders, but in the musical it is a duet, which makes it even more impressive. The vocal qualities of Gerard Casey and Eve Polycarpou are beyond description. But the strength of this song lies also it its sheer musicality. No wonder that the theme has haunted Michael Dunford for so long: it has been around for many years now, as “Dreammaker” (first performed on the 1984 tour and released recently on Songs From Renaissance Days), as “Love Lies, Love Dies” (on The Other Woman, and Annie Haslam’s Blessing In Disguise). The intro surfaced in the musical several times including in the beginning of “Northern Lights.”

After the Sultan had ordered Scheherazade’s father, his visor, to prepare her for the wedding, Scheherazade presents herself by singing “Northern Lights.” I didn’t really look forward to hearing this song in the musical because I found it hard to imagine how this song could fit into the story. But it turned out to be one of the highlights of the Showcase. Poppy Tierney’s interpretation was breathtaking, and the song illustrated the hopes and imagination of the young Scheherazade. It was really amazing to see how such a Renaissance classic can be transformed into a theatrical performance.

Equally spectacular was the song “In The Stillness Of The Room,” already a classic amongst Renaissance fans. This song, performed during the wedding festivities, showed that Scheherazade was nervous about the wedding night and that she had also heard rumours about women being killed after the wedding night. With these two songs the dominance of the personality of Scheherazade had been made obvious. She was the person to right all the wrongs.

I was also very impressed by “Remember me”. The showcase version, sung by Ingeborg Barstad playing Nephita, was very very powerful and sent shivers down my spine. Equally impressive was the performance of Eve Polycarpou as Yasmina especially in her song “Is It Possible?” which occurs in the musical a few times and leads to the finale. Yasmina also contributed strongly to the feminine touch of the musical.

The musical also contains dialogues and quite a few songs by the company such as “A Woman Who’s Clever (Is Better Off Dead)” and “There’s A Rumour.” Songs like these usually require tremendous concentration from the audience to understand the lyrics. But although I am a non-native English speaker, I had no problems at all understanding these songs as well, which is definitely due to the high quality of the cast. But it might also have to do with the venue. The acoustics in the Sir Jack Lyons Theatre were absolutely fabulous.

Of course I am biased in my judgement about the music of the musical. Although the arrangements and instrumentations are definitely closer to, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber, than any Renaissance album, the links are obviously there to enjoy. If anything, the Showcase struck me as highly ‘musical’ and melodic. Some songs contain expressions of very strong emotions, which were noticably picked up by the audience. I also liked the central role of the piano. The three musicians who accompanied the cast, Chris Nightingale and Steve Miller on keyboards, and Chris Ridley on percussion, deserve nothing but praise. It was hard to believe that there were actually just three musicians playing. I very much look forward to hearing orchestral arrangements of the songs.

The Cast
From the sheet that was handed out at the entrance of the theatre, it was clear from the start that it was a big cast: eleven leading roles, five travelling players, and a company of 30 students from The Royal Academy Of Music and The Milennium 2000 Dance School. I heard that there had only been four weeks of rehearsals before the Showcase. But talent was obviously abundant and spirits were high, so the overall impression was rather overwhelming.

I have always admired the British for their musical and theatrical skills, and this Showcase, actually a look behind the scenes of the birth a musical, took my admiration one level higher. Michael Dunford must be a lucky person to be surrounded by so many talented people to perform his songs so well. I am confident that there will be many casts in the future performing Scheherazade on the stage, as the general feeling afterwards was very positive. If they reach the level of this Showcase cast, it is bound to become an everlasting success.

Michael Dunford

To conclude: it was great to see Terry Sullivan at the Showcase on the 19th, taking such an interest in the musical activities of a member of his former band. The other Renaissance band members were sadly missed, but as Michael Dunford has written to those who helped realise the Showcase: “We have lots of exciting ideas on how we can tie up the links between the musical and Renaissance”. I’ll be here, waiting patiently for his next move.

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Review of: Barclay James Harvest, live in Den Haag, Congresgebouw 28 May 1981

Setlist: Rock’n’roll lady, Capricorn, The song (they love to sing), Death of a city, Berlin, How do you feel now, Back to the wall, Nova Lepidoptera, Crazy city, Suicide?, Echoes and shadows, Sperratus, Love on the line, In memory of the martyrs, Life is for living, Poor man’s moody blues, Highway for fools, Play to the world, Hymn.

The first time I heard of Barclay James Harvest was in 1975, when their single “Titles” hit the Dutch charts (they even appeared on Toppop, the Dutch equivalent to Top of the Pops, as favourite of the week). I quite liked that song, but it wasn’t until 1980 when I really got to know their albums. And what albums! The more I listened to their back catalogue, the more I realised they were a very unique, and very underestimated band. This was a band that focused as much on harmony and atmosphere as on composition and technical ability. Although all their albums were quite different from each other productionwise, what connected them were the compositions of the three main writers, John Lees, Les Holroyd and Woolly Wolstenholme. Unfortunately, Woolly had just left before I became a fan. The album Eyes of the Universe was their latest release, which was much more electronic than its predecessors, and actually quite heavy. By the time their next album was released, Turn of the tide, I had become a loyal fan, and very much looked forward to seeing them live.

BJH gig poster 1981

The first occasion to see them in concert was on 28 May 1981, in The Hague, on the first leg of their massive European tour. As coverage of the activities of BJH in the Dutch media was almost non-existent, I hardly knew what to expect. I had seen some photographs in German magazines of previous tours, and their concerts seemed very atmospheric. So with lots of anticipation I went to the Congresgebouw with my brother.
As we arrived rather early, we went for a walk around the concert hall while the soundcheck was going on. When we passed the bus, someone wearing dark glasses was getting off, and we thought it was a roady, as the band had to be on stage (or so we thought). The guy stopped for a second when we passed and looked at us, as if expecting something from us, but as we didn’t react, he more or less shrugged his shoulders and went inside. Only then I realised it was John Lees… Since it appears to be John’s hobby to have a completely different appearance with every tour, he certainly had me fooled, as I hadn’t recognised him in time. Sh*t! Not a very good start…. Luckily Mel followed John not long after that, and he gave us a signed postcard for consolation.

Signed BJH card

It was the first time for me to be inside the Congresgebouw, which is a great concert hall. The acoustics were said to be tremendous there, so worthy of a BJH gig. It was almost sold out, and we had rather good seats, not close to the stage, but more or less in the centre of the hall, so what more could we want? I wondered a bit about the ceiling above the stage. There was this strange construction, and I couldn’t clearly see what it was. They were long laths, or something like that. Could they be attached for better acoustics? But their shape was rather odd. Anyhow, no time to wonder about it anymore, as the show started right on time.

The opening song, Rock’n’roll lady, was my brother’s favourite, and Capricorn and The Song were among my favourites from Eyes of the universe, so the start couldn’t have been better. Great sound, nice lighting, good atmosphere. Death of a city, the next in line, was to me one of the best songs from Turn of the Tide. I was (and still am) very fond of those ‘dark’ songs by John. I guess Turn of the Tide was much of a transition album for the band. It has a much more open and commercial sound than their previous albums, but also still many reminiscences of their older material. In that respect it was the last album from their post-Woolly area to have fully convinced me. Most of their later albums, though very good, never really got to me that much anymore.

With the first classic song of the set, Berlin, it became clear that this was going to be a spectacular gig in terms of audiovisuals as well. Not only did they use back projection as well (with Nova Lepidoptera a huge moon landscape was projected), but I finally realised what that construction on the ceiling was: it was part of the light show. Indeed a huge hydraulic construction which could be moved in many ways, and even get the shape of a butterfly…..

BJH live in The Hague 1981

I had expected a lot from this gig, but I was completely mindblown by what I experienced. This was such a professional band, with great feeling for combining music and stage design. There was a good mix of old and new songs (I never expected to hear songs like Crazy City or Suicide?) as well as heavy and delicate songs (Sperratus was superb, as was In Memory of the Martyrs). It was obvious that the audience was, like me, very very impressed. When it was time for the encores, everybody was standing on their chairs shouting (much to the dismay of the staff of the Congresgebouw, who walked down the rows with small flashlights, asking everybody to please stand on the floor, not on the chairs….).

Although it was my first BJH gig, it was no surprise to hear them end with Play to the world and Hymn, which seemed to me the most logical encores as well. Play to the world is such a great ending to Eyes of the universe, and Hymn being their prototypical song, can only be used at the beginning or at the end.

I was rather overwhelmed with all the impressions I got during this concert, and I still look back at it as one of the best concerts I have ever attended. Not that I needed confirmation from the press, but the gig even got a very positive review in a leading music magazine, which had always been rather negative about the band. Because of this great gig, I went to see BJH on the second leg of this tour in Dortmund in April 1982, but that was a bit too massive for me. The band had reached megastar status in Germany, and easily sold out gigs in the Westfalenhalle. In my humble opinion BJH never really was a band for these big halls. Venues like the Congresgebouw do much more justice to their sound and show.

Luckily, BJH came to the Netherlands a few more times in the years that followed. And although these gigs were not in the Congresgebouw anymore, they only strengthened my conviction that they were one of the best live bands around.

Check out more photo’s of this gig