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Review: Grand Union Orchestra’s ‘Song of Contagion’

MUSIC:ED reviews Grand Union Orchestra’s new family show

MUSIC:ED reviews Grand Union Orchestra’s new family show

Grand Union Orchestra (GUO) has been a fixture on the London music scene for over 30 years. Led by composer and multi-instrumentalist, Tony Haynes, it has at its heart the grandest kind of union – that between people of different cultures – although, of course, its name also references London’s great canal, the source of much coming and going in its own right. The orchestra brings together musicians from all over the capital across a variety of musical genres and styles. It also features a host of singers from across the world and these become the voices – and representatives – of the different kinds of music.

Song of Contagion puts the singers at the front and rightly so since their songs tell the story of this new family show. Performed at the recently refurbished Wilton’s Music Hall in Cable Street, E1, the first song, sung by GUO stalwart, Davina Wright, with vocal backing from Mahamaya Shil and Delwar Hossain Dilu, takes us back 150 years to a time when cholera raged unchecked in London and Kolkata: ‘Turn the corner into Cable Street – a sharp breeze from the river catches you, sometimes the scent of the sea… the street remembers.’

And so begins an epic performance which not only looks at the history and politics of five diseases but also explores the music of the associated countries and continents. Thus, Song of Cholera moves between the UK and India; Song of HIV between the US and Africa; Mosquito Songs (dengue and zika) between Africa, the Caribbean and Brazil; Song of Broken Hearts (cardiovascular disease) worldwide via London and the music of Marie Lloyd and Mind Songs (mental illness) between Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

This last section looks particularly at post-traumatic stress disorder, described in the programme thus:

‘Three singers (Delwar Hossain Dilu, Jonathan André and Maja Rivic) tell their tales, individually at first, then overlapping. A survivor of the Bangladesh/Pakistan war obsessively recalls being hunted down in the mountains; in Angola, a Portuguese conscript soldier wearied of the relentless jungle warfare attempts suicide; a refugee from the war in Syria tries to console her child, haunted by the loss of her father and husband.’

This provides one of many thrilling moments when four jazz soloists – two trumpeters (Claude Deppa and Shanti Jayasinha) and two saxophonists (Chris Biscoe and Tony Kofi) – improvise frenetically over a climax in which all the singers eventually join, culminating in an echo of a medical orderly’s refrain: ‘Horror of war, beyond what words can tell.’

It’s powerful stuff and comes from a place of passion, integrity and protest. Again and again, the show delivers gut punching, heart-wrenching messages about ‘politicians’ self-interest, patient activism, media headlines, corporate lobbying and national guilt’. Most of the time, the musical performances match the clarity, scope and ambition of the vision but, occasionally, there are weak moments – the odd tuning issue in the string section and, possibly, an over-reliance on the sheet music. Perhaps this is unfair – after all, classical orchestras use scores – but there was a sense that the piece was not quite ready for performance (admittedly, Music Education UK attended on the opening night) and this was exacerbated by the slightly laissez faire attitude of some of the musicians to being on (and at the side of the) stage – don’t chew gum or check your phones, for example! In a piece of such blistering dramatic possibilities, it would have been good to see GUO take the staging to the next level: scale back the music stands, commit to the visual as well as the aural experience. But these are small niggles in a performance with so much heart. (And to be fair, with funding for music other than classical at an all-time low, perhaps there just aren’t the resources to achieve this.)

GUO does a staggering amount of outreach and runs the Grand Union Youth Orchestra (GUYO), providing young Londoners from all cultures and backgrounds with an opportunity to make music together. Both orchestras are hugely deserving and Tony Haynes should be applauded for his unswerving commitment. Song of Contagion is extraordinary, ambitious, heartfelt, mind-boggling. Thoroughly recommended.

Song of Contagion ran from 13-17 June 2017 at Wilton’s Music Hall and will tour throughout 2018.