Opera North Blog

Sam Lee and Alice Zawadzki on Singing with Nightingales


Award-winning folk singer, songwriter and song collector Sam Lee returns to the Howard Assembly Room on Thursday 19 April, joined by singer and violinist Alice Zawadzki for the first UK show on his Singing with Nightingales tour: a unique, candlelit concert with the elusive birds joining the performance via a live link from a secret forest location.

Late one evening in May 1924, the BBC made its first live wildlife outside broadcast, from the cellist Beatrice Harrison's garden. A nightingale joined in, and listeners were so entranced by this duet that the cello and nightingale concerts were broadcast annually, eagerly awaited by listeners around the globe. In 2014, Sam Lee presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary on the phenomenon, uncovering our relationship with the nightingale through some of the many songs and poems that feature this amazing, now endangered songbird.

Since then, Sam has taken his Singing With Nightingales concerts out to woods across southern England, with stars of the classical, world music and jazz communities joining him to share songs and stories, and to perform along with the birds. Now Sam will bring the outdoors into the concert hall with a live broadcast of the nightingales’ nocturnal courtship song, promising an unforgettable, unique event in the intimate, candlelit Howard Assembly Room.

He will be joined for the concert by Alice Zawadzki, a vocalist, violinist, songwriter and composer whose richly individual music draws upon New Orleans jazz and gospel, her classical training as a violinist, and her explorations of improvisation, poetry, and folk music from diverse traditions. Her distinctive voice can be heard on film and television scores including Disney’s African Cats and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. In 2016 she joined Sam in an improvisation with a nightingale in a Sussex wood, an extraordinary moment that was captured by BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction show.

Alice Zawadzki comments:

Improvising song with two beautiful musicians – Sam Lee, and the nightingale who had graced us that night – was a visceral and profound experience. It was a musical situation that for me, had no precedent or template, and emboldened by the keen open spirits in our company, made for an experience where pretty much anything could happen. I'm so looking forward to coming to Leeds to share this magical experience with a wider audience.

Around their music, Sam and Alice will weave a narrative of song and stories concerning the nightingale's role in folklore, landscape and migration, which has become overshadowed by their current alarming decline in the UK. The birds – small and unremarkable in appearance – winter in Africa, and mate and nest in Europe and the Middle East from April to July.

From the works of Homer and Ovid to Beethoven, Liszt, Stravinsky, and Keats’ Ode to the ‘immortal bird’, the nightingale is amongst the most mythologised of creatures, surrounded by a vast accumulation of poems, songs, symbols and fanciful imaginings. To hear why, you need only experience the eerie beauty of its rarely-heard song, which takes in mellow tones, flute-like sequences and a wide array of chatters, rattles and whistles. A typical bird may use 180 different riffs, while a truly accomplished performer will incorporate around 250.

Sam Lee comments:

The nightingale’s song has been captivating hearts and imaginations for thousands of years, but the numbers visiting Britain are rapidly falling. We want to give more people the chance to hear their magical song, and to listen in on a unique collaboration between talented human musicians and one of the finest voices in nature. I am very much looking forward to returning to the Howard Assembly Room with this wonderful opportunity for a new audience to hear it.

Coming to the Howard Assembly Room on Thursday 19 April, Singing With Nightingales is both a tribute to and a continuation of the nightingale’s long, enchanted relationship with humans, and the diminutive creature’s extraordinary influence on art and culture.

Alice Zawadzki photographed by Monika Jakubowska

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