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One hell of a ride: Gweneth Ann Rand on An Imperfect Tapestry

British soprano Gweneth Ann Rand returns to the Howard Assembly Room on 1 December with her regular collaborator, pianist Simon Lepper. She talked us through her hand-picked programme, which she describes as “a personal reflection of Black voices”.

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“I think that song recitals are the ultimate form of communication, because you have the potential to touch every single person within one small space in a different way.

You have to make them feel safe enough to take that journey with you, but if you can do that, it’s one hell of a ride. That’s what you want when you go to see a film or any other art form, and I think that’s what you should get from a recital: you should be able to clutch your pearls in horror at one moment, and luxuriate in something wonderful the next. You want the highs, the lows, lights, action, everything. It has to be that rollercoaster; something that you can talk about for days afterwards, and that’s what I wanted to try and do with this programme.

It’s called An Imperfect Tapestry because there are so many holes all over the place: it’s not a straight line. I thought it would be interesting to weave it in a different way; not to try to make it a traditional tapestry, because it’s not.

We start with Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child because it was important to begin the journey from a familiar point. I asked my Mum, who’s 83: where do you think music starts for Black people? She replied, ‘spirituals’. People like Marian Anderson would include them as part of a regular recital, as a way of bringing in her heritage. Then they went out of favour, but I think that to put them back into the main programme is a wonderful thing. Spirituals are a way for people to talk from their soul about what they have experienced, and about what they want the world to be one day: there’s a sense of hope.”

The first half of the programme also features Debussy’s settings of Baudelaire poems, and Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, which employ the words of Évariste de Parny: both works by white men viewing Black cultures through an exotic – and erotic – lens.

“You don’t have to have experienced everything that you sing to be able to communicate it. We’re getting into very strange territory with questions what people should and shouldn’t sing; what should and shouldn’t be said. I think that works like these can and should be performed for a million different reasons: firstly, because they’re fabulous pieces of music. Secondly, there are people these days who write about how wonderful their lovers are, so what’s the difference? If you’ve been heartbroken, or if you’ve had to watch someone walk away… everyone’s got that somewhere in their toolbox. Emotional resonance makes them unproblematic. As long as it’s not fetishised, as long as it’s done from a position of truth and sincerity, there shouldn’t be an issue, because the songs essentially are all emotional.

There are a couple of things that would never normally get included in a classical recital, but which were pertinent for the world at the time they were written. Strange Fruit  really works: it totally changes the colour and breath of an evening. And Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair is a song closely associated with Nina Simone, who studied to be a concert pianist at Juilliard. When she was told she would never succeed because of her colour, she managed to become something else that was quite magnificent in its own way.

So much by Florence Price has been performed within the last 18 months in this country, whereas before you’d be lucky to hear a single piece. Her music’s phenomenal, her story is quite incredible, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to say: look, there’s something else happening (even though she’s already happened, so to speak!). There are so many different types of music out there, all of them classical in their own way, all of them having got here by a different route. This is an introduction: it’s an invitation to open your peripheral ears, to make sure that you can hear other things.

I want to show how Black people were represented in music in the past, and to create an arc that arrives at how we present ourselves in this time. There are people living and writing now, doing fantastic things and saying something about the way that we feel today. I was lucky enough to meet Hannah Kendall at a friend’s recital, and at dinner afterwards I asked her if I could perform Processional; we’ve got a new arrangement of another spiritual, By an’ By, by Clement Ishmael, who might not be best known as a composer but that’s what’s in his blood. Having been unable to fly all over the world as a musical director during lockdown he’s been writing constantly, ‘like a tap that never turned off’, he says.

We close with Decisions by Adolphus Hailstork, an American composer who’s in his eighties. It’s a phenomenal piece of music, with words based on a Martin Luther King speech which felt especially powerful after the summer of 2020.

In 2015 I found out that I had a tumour behind my throat. Luckily it was benign, although I had to rehabilitate for about a year following surgery. That means that every time I step on the stage, I have it on my mind that that could have been the end of my career, and my attitude to what I do and how I do it is completely different. There is a wanting to share, a wanting to communicate every single thing possible, because that time is precious. The one thing I refuse to do is mask myself, because if I can be sincere and true it means I can reach more people. So when you sing about heartbreak it’s always good to remember yours, because then it’ll come from a completely true place. It makes for a much more intimate and charged atmosphere. Which is not normal, I guess. But it’s definitely more fun!”

Gweneth Ann Rand and Simon Lepper perform ‘An Imperfect Tapestry’ in the Howard Assembly Room on Wednesday 1 December.

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