Sunday, July 3, 2016
“It is important for a nation, in creating an identity, to celebrate our unique heritage, and not be limited in scope,” said Natalia Dopwell.
A coloratura soprano and creative director of the Classical Music Development Foundation (CMDFTT), Dopwell said it is for this reason the foundation has commissioned Songs of the Islands. It is a new songbook derived from music and poetry of the Caribbean and reinterpreted for classical performers. The music is arranged for piano and voice, and will be premiered on July 9 during the T&T Opera Festival 2016.
UK-based composer Dominique Le Gendre arranged the pieces; she also composed music for the pieces that were originally poems.
Dopwell said the idea for the collection came from her personal experience as a Trinidadian studying in New York and missing out on opportunities to perform because there was no suitable music from her home country.
“Although we have a lot of music in this country, not very much of it was written down in a way where you could hand sheet music to a pianist and perform it. We have two collections of folk songs, one by Edwin Carter and the other by La Petite Musicale, that were written down, which are actually quite difficult to get your hands on.
“However, the folk songs were never intended to be performed by solo performers in a concert setting, they're more meant for large groups and choirs with a lot of movement and repeats and drums to make it interesting. For a solo performer, they don't do anything vocally challenging and they tend to fall very flat so that's why you don't hear solo performers performing them very often.
“I just kept thinking it shouldn't be so hard for [T&T] singers to get their hands on music from our own country to perform in this way.”
Dopwell said she had heard of Dominique Le Gendre, a UK-based, T&T-born composer, while performing in a web-cast concert. Le Gendre had composed a full-length opera called Bird of Night, based on the Caribbean legend of the soucouyant, for the Royal Opera House (ROH2), Covent Garden, in 2004.
They began corresponding via email and Le Gendre asked Dopwell—along with rapso group 3Canal and singer Nickolai Salcedo—to sing in the workshop performance of Jab Molassie, a musical theatre work adapted from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat. The work was commissioned by Calabash Foundation for the Arts, and staged in 2014.
Based on this relationship, the CMDFTT commissioned Le Gendre to compose the new songbook using sources from T&T and the Caribbean. Dopwell said the three main sources are traditional spirituals, folk songs and poems from Caribbean poets like Claude McKay and Derek Walcott.
“The folk songs are very light and fun to perform, and then she's got some that are more like ballads and then you've got these spirituals that are more contemplative. There's everything from spirituals to patois to folk songs to Call of the Rosebud which is a Jamaican patois poem, then some contemporary Caribbean writers. It's all written for solo or duet voice and piano.”
The performers will include Dopwell, Eddie Cumberbatch, Danielle Williams, Leandra Head, Jude Balthazar, Rory Wallace and visiting Canadian husband and wife pair Justin Welsh, baritone, and Cara Adams, soprano. Pianists Jeffrey Middleton and Byron Burford flew in from New York for the Opera Festival.
Dopwell said all but two of the songs had never been performed before “with the exception of two from Derek Walcott that were debuted last year in three places: they were sung at the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad, and I also sang them in both Poland and London last year.”
Dopwell said one of the performers was blown away to hear about the collection because “he could finally say, maybe at the next recital he performs at, alongside Mozart and some spirituals, he could perform something from his own country in a concert hall and really stand up there and say, ‘This is from my country’.”
She is happy that the collection has been created. “It was very difficult for me to have those opportunities be missed just because no-one had ever taken the opportunity to invest in this genre. It's important for me because I know there are many other talented singers coming behind me that are going to face the same problem. I'm just happy to have had the opportunity to create something new for classical singers from the Caribbean region, of which there are many.
“We have a long history of Caribbean classical singers that goes largely unnoticed and that history is important.”
The CMDFTT’s Songs of the Islands will have its stage debut at Queen’s Hall, St Ann’s, on July 9, at 8 pm. After the performance sheet music from the collection will be available online at the CMDFTT web site.
Creative director of the Classical Music Development Foundation (CMDFTT) Natalia Dopwell. File photo