JONAH-MAN JAZZ &c
Though described as ‘Pop Cantatas’, Michael Hurd composed and gathered together groups of songs on a given theme that reached out to a younger generation, an art-form in which he was singularly successful.
Born in the UK in 1928 and studying music at Oxford University, he looked to be following a conventional composing career, but became increasingly drawn to the needs of children. The result was a number of scores they could readily perform while occasionally challenge them.
In chronological order the 1966 Jonah-Man Jazz is the disc’s earliest score, and relates, in simple terms, the biblical story of Jonah. Bordering on pop music of the day and spiced with jazzy rhythms, Hurd used a type of backing group that would be familiar to them. Next in order of composition, the story of Samson removes the steamy aspects of his downfall at the hands of Delilah. Rooster Rag relates the story of Chanticleer, Pertelote and the cunning fox, and moves around the piano rags of Scott Joplin and the musical world of Andrew-Lloyd Webber.
He employs a classical chamber ensemble for the 1987 Captain Coram’s Kids, the story drawing on the history of the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children. In content and texture it is the most serious of his cantatas. For Prodigal he returns to the bible, and, with a simple piano accompaniment, it is music that falls pleasantly on the ears.
Play the disc just one work at a time, as there is much harmonically similarity in the music throughout. Certainly the New London choir performs with considerable enthusiasm, and the accompaniments capture the differing textural colours. Good sound quality."
David Denton David's Review Corner February 2011
The works on this Naxos disc are lightly jazzy and must have turned generations of children on to concert music. They make confident and fearless communion with West End show-time, dance-band drum-kit and light Radio 2 style middle-of-the-road idioms.
Jonah-Man Jazz is irresistibly swung, concise and just sentimental enough to snag its barb on the emotional apparatus. The unison children’s voices, whether in choral or more rarely in solo participation, have impudence and the aplomb to tease out the tension between occasionally grown-up emotions and young minds. They’re all a delight to hear and very much in the same line as the Horovitz and Flanders Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo (Dutton Vocalion CDLF 8120 - King’s Singers) though that post-dates by four or five years the first Hurd work. They all, in any event, make a very pleasing effect: a listening experience as well as a valuable musical workout for young singers and performers.
Prodigal is in accustomed easy-going, melodically alluring and simple style with cross-references to the tradition established by the Mike Sammes Singers on Sunday evenings on the BBC Light Programme. The appearance of a speaker over the instruments - sometimes a child, sometimes an adult - aids the narrative arc of each cantata. In Rooster Rag there are solo voices alongside the choir among the torch-singer ballads, Busby Berkeley hoofering and Broadway show clichés.
Swingin’ Samson even finds a moment for a nicely wheezing hoe-down. Alexander Wells adeptly plays his key role in delivering the catchy and often touching piano preludes and underpinning figuration. Three of the five pop cantatas follow Biblical stories which at the time might well have been familiar to then contemporary young performers. I wonder if that would be true now. Pity that it was impossible to squeeze on his other pop cantatas including Adam-in-Eden (1981) and Hip-Hip-Horatio (1974).
The present disc is a project financially supported by the British Music Society Charitable Trust Michael Hurd Bequest. The Trust was established to further the appreciation of the composer’s output. I do hope that there will be more Hurd works recorded with support from this source especially the complex ambitious pieces.
The cantata texts are not in the CD booklet but are on the Naxos website.
Interestingly the style even across 23 years is pretty uniform - Hurd had found a successful formula and stuck with it as do Herbert Chappell (Daniel Jazz), Sheila Wilson (Crikey Moses!) and Betty Roe and as did Carey Blyton. This is wittily engaging music-making. It’s a bit old-fashioned perhaps but it transcends a genre which was bound to have found its first mark in schools and children’s choirs.
Corp has worked these many years with children’s choirs. He clearly has a sure judgement which aids in inspiring well-placed confidence in his young charges. It also instils in them an evident pleasure in music-making.
Rob Barnett, MusicWeb International
An admission immediately; my request to review this disc was fuelled by a strong dose of nostalgia. Back at Childwall Primary School Liverpool in about 1969 we sang Jonah Man Jazz and a couple of those brilliantly catchy tunes have stayed with me ever since. The pleasure in coming back to this many years down the line is to discover that they remain as fun and as infectiously toe-tapping as ever. My one surprise was to realise how ‘new’ the piece was when we performed it then.
Michael Hurd claims not to have invented the ‘Pop Cantata’ form which might indeed be the case but he was certainly a pioneer and remains one of the best composers in this genre. The most famous of all is the Andrew Lloyd-Webber/Time Rice Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. This originated as a classic Pop Cantata before being expanded into a full West End musical. For anyone who is dismissive of Lloyd-Webber I suggest you watch the enthusiasm and delight which young performers still get from singing the original. Given that Joseph originated a couple of years after Jonah I wonder if the young Lloyd-Webber and Rice were at all influenced by the earlier work?
The concept is far from complex; short choral works for children to sing taking their storylines from the Bible or significant historical events. The musical vocabulary is direct, simple and above all fun. Several times in the liner Hurd – who died in 2006 - is quoted as saying how important it was to him that the performers enjoyed themselves. A composer’s note to performer’s reads; “Above all, there is no point in approaching the work in any other spirit than the determination to have fun. If so moved, let hands clap, fingers click and voices add yelps of encouragement”. The music draws on popular styles with a gently jazzy edge. Most of the time the writing is for unison voices but when there are harmonies they are as telling and effective as they are straightforward – proof of which is I could remember ‘my’ descant in When Jonah sank down into the sea the instant the music started.
Hurd wrote the libretti too and he manages to steer a skilful path between the gently witty and appealing to his chosen audience. I rather like another quote from the Hurd website at http://www.michaelhurd.org.uk/ which perfectly encapsulates my own memory of singing this work; “In these less reverential days, the faintly naughty thrill of such lines as "the Lord he said: 'Well, this ain't right'" might be missed but as an antidote to what Michael described as "an endless diet of part-songs about flowers" this sort of music for young performers and their teachers must have been a very refreshing breeze indeed.
A quick check on the web shows a very large body of work of varying lengths and on a wide range of topics nearly all aimed at young performers. The five cantatas here are presented in bright-as-a-button performances by the New London Children’s Choir. I have one little negative – just a couple of times I feel conductor Ronald Corp chooses tempi that are a fraction steady. The upside is every word stays commendably clear which reduces the problem that there are no words printed in the liner - although they are available to download from the Naxos website I believe - but overall I think he could have pushed his young singers more.
I remember we had just a pianist and I did not realise a version existed with an instrumental accompaniment. This is very simple, I guess aimed at school performers too. In Jonah-Man Jazz this accompaniment does sound rather perfunctory. But with those two minor carps out of the way the rest is all positive. The choir and all of the soloists are excellent. I like very much the fact that the choir do not sing with an overly rehearsed blanched tone. These are kids singing with gusto. Likewise the various narrators used in the works pitch the style of the narrative to perfection. They say their short linking lines simply and effectively, again nothing arch or knowing.
Another part of Hurd’s great skill is the variety he crams into such a short period of time. None of the works outstay their welcome and there are usually more than half a dozen widely differing songs in the quarter hour time frame. Away from Jonah I knew Swingin’ Samson. Here, Hurd rather neatly chooses American musical styles for each movement so Clip and Clip when Samson’s hair is cut rather wittily is a barbershop quartet style with other songs encompassing everything from Stephen Foster to jazz and a hoe-down. How brilliant of Hurd to educate his singers even when they do not realise they are being educated! Samson is scored for a simple piano/bass/drums line-up. The pianist is the choir’s regular accompanist Alexander Wells who does a commendably good job throughout the whole disc.
For my taste producer/engineer Michael Ponder has given the piano a slightly recessed position in the sound picture which detracts from the sharpness of attack of some numbers – an effect which compounds the impression that certain sections would have benefited from an extra 10% vim from the stick.
The latest of the five works presented here is Prodigal from 1989. It seems irrelevant to state that stylistically little has changed in the near quarter century since Jonah. The formula works, the performers are not bothered about any musicological time-line so why change? As with the other works I am sure it is great fun to perform but from the outside the level of invention seems slightly lower.
The most ambitious work here is Captain Coram’s Kids. At nearly nineteen minutes this is significantly longer than any of the other four cantatas as presented. It differs in other ways too; the story is historical rather than allegorical or biblical and the music is more overtly serious in relative terms. Thomas Coram was an 18th Century Philanthropist who founded the Foundling Hospital to care for destitute children. Famously Handel gave a charitable performance of The Messiah for the hospital as well as donating the manuscript of the Hallelujah Chorus. All of which rather neatly gives Hurd an ‘in’ to write pastiche baroqueries as well as music of a gently more lyrical and serious nature. One moment had me thinking of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast which came as a bit of a surprise! The accompanying group is expanded – logically – to include a string quartet and four woodwind. All of the playing here is a delight and adds to the impact of the piece.
This recording has been made with the support of the British Music Society Charitable Trust which in turn made use of the Michael Hurd Bequest. This is not a disc that should be listened to at a single sitting – the deliberate similarity between the works makes such an exercise one of diminishing returns. But approached individually these are works of enormous charm and no little skill performed with a smile and considerable panache. For anyone wanting to investigate these pieces with a view to performance I cannot imagine better reference recordings. Group singing remains the easiest and best way to introduce children to the experience of collective music-making and this style of music is an ideal vehicle.
Aside from Jonah I mainly know Michael Hurd from his fine biographies of Ivor Gurney and Rutland Boughton. The liner mentions some other vocal works which I would like to hear, there is a great deal of craft and skill that goes into the creation of such superficially simple music. No-one is going to pretend this is ‘important’ music but anything that stays in the memory for forty years with such pleasurable clarity has to be a winner.
Nick Barnard - MusicWeb International
Singing in schools is at last coming back into fashion. In the immediate post-war period it was a normal part of any child’s education but by the 1960s many teachers felt a need for some kind of updating of what was being sung. Possibly the first “pop cantata” was Herbert Chappell’s “The Daniel Jazz”, a setting of Vachel Lindsay published in 1963, but it was soon followed by a dozen or so by Michael Hurd, starting with “Jonah-Man Jazz” in 1966.
The five examples on this disc give a good idea of the genre. The composer makes it plain in his introductions to the works that they were written for fun and should be performed with that in mind. Inevitably they are most effective in a school situation where the whole class or even whole school can take part whatever their level of musical ability. Given a teacher able to interest the children in the musical style (perhaps a little outdated now) and encourage them to enjoy the ingenious lyrics they do indeed work very well indeed. It is good to have them recorded but it does bring the risk of a too careful approach, losing or at least reducing the element of fun and even of risk that live performance can involve. Fortunately for the most part that is avoided here.
The composer offers performers the option of using only a piano as accompaniment or of adding jazz percussion and bass. These options are used in Prodigal and Swingin’ Samson respectively along with even more elaborate orchestration in Jonah-Man Jazz and Captain Coram’s Kids. Although John Addison acts as narrator for those two works children are employed as narrators in Rooster Rag and Swingin’ Samson. I found this and the more sparse instrumentation more effective as being more in keeping with the unpretentious nature of the music. In general the performances are effective and spirited although they would have benefited for much of the time by a closer balance for the choir – the piano does tend to grab all the attention at times.
I mentioned the amusing lyrics but you need to access them from the Naxos website (all nine pages of them) to read them. It is tiresome but worth it – and then you are able also to join in the delightful audience song in Swingin’ Samson. Unsurprisingly it would be a mistake to listen to more than one Cantata at a time, but they are worth hearing in that way. I hope that this disc, sponsored by the British Music Society using the Michael Hurd Bequest, will be followed with another including other pop cantatas including Hurd’s splendid “Hip-hip Horatio” with its parody of oratorio recitative, Herbert Chappell’s “The Daniel Jazz”, Joseph Horovitz’ “Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo” and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat” in the 20 minute version made before it became grotesquely extended. In the meantime this reminder of a genre which must have introduced a whole generation of children to the pleasures of singing is very welcome.
John Sheppard - MusicWeb International