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Review: The Modernist Revue

Josh Phillips, University of Glasgow

The Modernist Revue was a celebration of all things modernist, held in King’s College London’s chapel, whose ornate splendor proved a fitting backdrop for the proceedings. The evening was compered by Zeb Soanes, whose voice might well have been familiar to anyone who wakes up to The Today Programme or falls asleep to The Shipping Forecast. Composer Elena Langer and librettist Emma Jenkins’ opera Rhondda Rips it Up! kicked off proceedings. Performed by soprano Stacey Wheeler and mezzo-soprano Kate Wolveridge, and accompanied by Satoshi Kubo on the piano, Langer and Jenkins’ opera pays tribute to Margaret Haig Thomas, Lady Rhondda, a suffragette who was imprisoned for arson, was force-fed in prison, and on her release went on to found the magazine Time and Tide. She also found time to jump on Asquith’s car, and survive the sinking of the Lusitania. The Modernist Revue featured all-too brief snippets from the opera, ranging from the comically pompous Asquith enumerating the reasons why women were incapable of serious thought in a Gilbert and Sullivan-esque patter, to a prison soliloquy on hunger strikes, to tipsily conceiving Time and Tide.

Next up was a selection of songs chosen by the Woolf and Music project. Soprano Olivia Boen sung six French chansons set to music by Germaine Tailleferre in 1929 — the same year that Woolf published A Room of One’s Own. Accompanied by pianist Lana Bode, these six ballads had more than a hint of subversive glee and a rich vein of ribald humour tinged by melancholy. Next the same duet played two selections from Debussy’s children’s ballet La boîte à joujoux, the story of a nocturnal Toy Story dream carnival narrated by Boen, and set to a score that veered giddily from animal parades and military marches, to waltz, to jazz.

Deborah Pearson’s reading of Paris: A Poem celebrates the centenary of Hope Mirrlees’ 1919 poem, and was somewhat of a world premiere, marking the first time that the poem had been read aloud in public. Pearson gave a wonderfully rich reading of Mirrlees’ densely allusive, fragmentary, and typographically playful evocation of her adopted city. It’s worth noting, though, that Pearson did not read the entire poem: the poem’s racial politics are sometimes questionable at best, and the decision was made to excise some of the more offensive lines entirely. Having said that, Pearson’s reading was delivered with charisma and empathy.

Amit Chaudhuri’s compositions, ‘One Fine Day’ and the ‘Famous Blue Raincoat Suite,’ the latter of which takes its inspiration from the Leonard Cohen song of the same name, provided a melodic interlude between Paris and the next act. Oliver Jarvis played saxophone and Matt Hodges the piano while Chaudhuri sang, his compositions drawing from Indian classical traditions, jazz, and, of course, Leonard Cohen. Closing the event, Isabella McGuires Mayes danced an extract from Schéhérazade, a ballet choreographed and performed in 1910 to an orchestral suite by Rimsky-Korsakov first performed in 1888. Spanning music, poetry and dance, The Modernist Revue was a fitting tribute to the daring and imaginative salon culture that did so much to shape modernism.

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