“Songs for our Times” is the result of a unique collaboration between two leading British contemporary classical music composers, Stuart MacRae and Bernard Hughes, and Nigerian-American poet/lyricist and medical doctor Chinwe D. John.
I first encountered Chinwe’s writing in March 2022 when an EP of settings of some of her poems, “Within A Certain Time and Place,” was released. In an interview with me, Chinwe talked about her concerns for classical music and live concerts, especially in the light of the COVID pandemic, which had effectively silenced live concerts for nearly two years.
‘My conclusion was unless a new audience was brought in, once the core supporting demographic passed on, there would be no way for the industry to exist as we know it…..I decided to do my small bit to support an industry that had given me a lot. In my mind, one way to increase classical music’s listening audience was to commission contemporary composers and have them set music to lyrics which are reflective and relevant to our current times.’ The result was Within A Certain Time and Place, an EP of just three songs.
Songs for our Times shares the same ethos and spirit of Chinwe’s EP. She approached the composers directly and chose those who would allow her words to shine. Her lyrics explore themes relevant to our collective present-day lives: universal subjects, including the need for wisdom within the halls of power, transcendent love, an immigrant’s homesickness, and the search for inner peace. These all flow through the album evoking the spirit of our day and age and are set to music which is accessible without being overly simplistic or sentimental. Nor do the lyrics ever feel too wordy or polemical.
Two song cycles are premiered on this album – Kingdoms by Stuart MacRae and Metropolis by Bernard Hughes, their music influenced by classical music traditions, as well as idioms drawn from jazz and folk music.
Stuart MacRae’s spare, often delicate music is sensitively brought to life by pianist Christopher Glynn and tenor Nick Pritchard, whose clean yet warm voice allows the listener to fully appreciate the lyrics and their message.
‘[Chinwe] had a clear idea of how her lyrics should be expressed, but was also flexible about what exactly I might come up with’ – Stuart MacRae
Overall, Kingdoms is reflective, tender, and poignant.
Kingdoms: music by Stuart MacRae & lyrics Chinwe D. John – Tenor Nick Pritchard & Christopher Glynn
Metropolis by Bernard Hughes is more grounded, the lyrics concerned with the everyday or Chinwe’s Nigerian family and heritage. Jazz and folk idioms pervade these songs, and the overall spirit is uplifting and positive (Call Home, for example, is set to upbeat, flowing dance-like music). The cycle is sung by Ethiopian-Romanian soprano Isabelle Haile, whose bright voice brings these songs and their lyrics wonderfully to life with colour and character.
This unusual collaboration presents two contrasting song cycles by leading contemporary composers, which make for satisfying and enjoyable listening. Despite our current turmoil, the overall tone of the album is one of hope, with whose lyrics, set to beautiful, arresting music, encourage reflection but also enjoyment.
The River’s Course — album Songs for Our Times — Isabelle Haile (soprano) & piano Christopher Glynn
Songs for Our Times is released on the Divine Art label.
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