The parish church of St Giles-in-the-Fields turned out to be the perfect place for last night’s performance of Glad Day, Mike Westbrook’s settings of William Blake’s poetry. Situated close to the modern junction of Charing Cross Road, Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and New Oxford Street, and known as the Poets’ Church, the present building was completed in 1733 on the site where first a monastery and chapel and then earlier churches had ministered to lepers (St Giles is their patron saint) since the 12th century. The first victims of the Great Plague of 1665 were buried in its garden.
Blake was born in nearby Soho and in his time the church stood next to the warren of dwellings known as the Rookery, London’s most notorious haunt of thieves and prostitutes, immortalised in Hogarth’s Gin Lane drawings and Dickens’s Sketches by Boz. It’s a gentler place now, although had Blake, Hogarth and Dickens been living today they might have been interested to leave the church, turn left down Denmark Street, cross Charing Cross Road and witness the sights of 21st century Soho on a Saturday night.
The concert was in aid of the Simon Community, which recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of its work with London’s homeless population. In the church’s soft yellow light Westbrook was joined by two solo singers — his wife, Kate, and Phil Minton — and the 30-voice Queldryk Choral Ensemble, conducted by Paul Ayres, plus the violinist Billy Thompson, the accordionist Karen Street and the double bassist Steve Berry.
They began, appropriately enough, with the searing images of “London”, sung by Kate, before Minton delivered “Let the Slave” and Mike Westbrook himself recited “The Price of Experience” above a lulling choral vamp: “It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun / And in the vintage and to sing on the wagon loaded with corn. / It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted, / To speak of the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer…”
“Holy Thursday”, “The Tyger and the Lamb” and “Long John Brown and Little Mary Bell” were among the texts, most of them arranged by the late Adrian Mitchell and the others by Kate Westbrook. The audience remained silent between the individual pieces, reluctant to disturb the mood, but the dramatic conclusion of “The Poison Tree”, on which tango rhythms propelled Kate’s bitter vocal and Thompson’s dazzling fiddle solo, provoked spontaneous cheering.
The musicians were given plenty of space for unaccompanied solos, each one relevant to Westbrook’s overall structure while ensuring a constant variety of texture. They all shone, with Berry’s dark-toned bass outstanding throughout, and particularly when he launched “The Human Abstract” with an improvisation located somewhere between Charles Mingus and Charlie Haden, which is not a bad place to be. But nothing was more quietly electrifying than the transition from Minton’s open-hearted vocal to Thompson’s spirit-possessed violin which led from “The Fields” to the concluding “I See Thy Form”.
Westbrook has been working on this material for many years, and it is among his several masterpieces. Like his fellow pianist/composer Keith Tippett and his old associate John Surman, he came out of the jazz ferment of the 1960s and found his way to a music in which he can employ everything he has learnt while making profound use of his indigenous heritage. For his admirers who couldn’t make it to last night’s concert, there’s a new DVD and CD, called Glad Day Live, of a performance by the same singers and musicians, filmed at Toynbee Hall in Whitechapel five years ago. Highly recommended, of course.