A vocalist accompanying himself on the guitar (or one of it’s predecessors) is one of the oldest and most prevalent tropes in western music. From Blondel to Billy Bragg it’s always been with us but it’s quite rare in the world of modern art music where the roles of singer and accompanist are trades as rigidly delineated as anything in a Clydeside shipyard. Doug MacNaughton breaks the rules by playing a variety of kinds of guitar and singing in a range of styles. For that question of style is vital too. The mechanics of doing two jobs simultaneously affect singing style and centuries of performance history offer a bewildering range of stylistic choices. It’s an issue I examined once before when reviewing a Bud Roach CD for Opera Canada.
Yesterday in the RBA Doug took on a number of different styles as he performed a range of 20th/21st century works. First up was John Rutter’s Shadows. Most of Rutter’s music is choral for church performance, much of it for children, and “modern” is not the first word that springs to mind. Shadows is a setting of eight texts taken from English poetry of the 16th and 17th century on the, then especially popular, themes of transience and reality vs. illusion. The settings are almost naive. I think one could slip a couple into a recital of Dowland songs and no-one would notice. So the text is primary and it was good to hear it sung clearly and with every sense of “getting” the texts.
The second piece was quite different. It was the premiere of Dean Burry’s A tinfoil mobile. Commissioned by Doug, it’s a setting of a rather odd poem by Dave Margoshes which looks at life from the viewpoint of a very young baby particularly concerned about his parents’ interest in sex. It’s funny in a rather weird way. Dean’s music makes use of a wide range of the capabilities of a steel string guitar to bring it alive in a pretty complex and sophisticated way.
Doug then showed his versatility by performing four jazz standards; Alexander Vinitsky’s Evguenia, Lenny Breau’s Five O’Clock Bells and his own arrangements of Love is here to Stay and A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square. Pleasant enough but not really my thing.
The concert finished off with a real oddity; Donald Swann’s (of Flanders and Swann) setting of a late Tolkien poem Bilbo’s Last Song about the final voyage to the Isles of the Blessed. Now I’m not, unlike Doug who clearly has more than a few hobbit genes, a LotR geek but what struck me about this quite beautiful song is how little the ocean figures in LotR and how odd that really is for an English epic. Still, nice way to finish.
You can see more of Doug in the current COC production of The Marriage of Figaro where he is singing a particularly “batty” version of the gardener Antonio.