A brilliant celebration of Bernstein & co. from Wallis Giunta at Cadogan Hall

But, in what genre, who would hazard a guess, given Giunta’s evident
passion and affinity for, and accomplishment within, anything from opera to
blues, art song to jazz, music theatre to cabaret? On the evidence of this
Chamber Prom, the mezzo-soprano doesn’t simply sing, she truly performs: every textual line is inhabited vocally, gesturally,
physically, and the characters to which she gives voice, spirit and
presence are immediately, viscerally and compelling ‘real’. Her tone –
high, middle, or low – is simply gorgeous, though it was the full,
flickering hues of the middle that I found most stunning; and, if in this
recital, Giunta didn’t have to call upon an enormously extended range, then
she was even from top to bottom, and seemed happy to slip out of her
natural comfort-zone when music and drama called – and to incorporate all
manner of spoken and sung sounds, sound-effects and percussive gestures as
the repertoire demanded.

The English texts of the songs by Bernstein and his contemporaries, and
also that set by Bushra el-Turk (b.1982) whose BBC commission offered us a
song inspired by and in homage to Bernstein, were crisply enunciated, no
matter how racy the rhythms or tongue-twisting the consonants. Indeed,
versatility might be considered the quintessence of Giunta’s art, and in
this regard she seems to have found the perfect accompanist in Michael
Sikich, whose studies at the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Schubert
Institute in Baden, and with Peter Bithell and Julius Drake at the
Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where he received the Piano
Accompaniment Prize, have been complemented by mentoring in jazz piano by
Barry Green at the GSMD and working as a bandleader and pianist for the
jazz group Cut Time. Such experience and range resulted here in
accompaniments characterised by a soft but sure touch, precise but animated
rhythms, and a latent friskiness that always supported and never
overpowered the singer.

In Aaron Copland’s ‘Pastorale’ (composed in 1921, first performed the
following year, but not published until 1979), Giunta’s silvery tone
effortlessly served the simple beauty of the unornamented melodic line. The
setting of Edward Powys Mather’s ‘Song’ (translated from the Kafiristan)
eschews any ‘eastern’ mannerism, instead fore-grounding the innocence faith
in the joy that love can bring, a quality evinced by Giunta’s floating
octave rise: “Since you love me and I love you/ The rest matters not.” The
song seems to speak of a belief in ideal love, which is given a sensual
twisty in the dusky harmonies of the closing repetition, “I love you”, and
of a heavenly bliss which here was exquisitely captured by Sikich’s three pianissimo notes at the close, which dissolved gently into the

Perhaps Giunta tapped into her Irish roots in ‘Sea-Snatch’; it’s an
ancestry she shares with the composer of the Hermit Songs Op.29,
Samuel Barber, who in this song set lines from Sean O’Faolain’s poem – in
which the poet cries out to heaven as the sea brings turmoil and death. As
the wind consumed and swallowed the ailing poet, and the ship’s timber was
devoured by “crimson fire”, Giunta’s melismatic appeal to “O King of the
starbright Kingdom of Heaven!” burned with fervour and stirring potency. In
contrast, in ‘The Monk and His Cat’ Giunta purred with the self-satisfied
contentment of the theological scholar who finds peace and fulfilment in
the company of his “white Pangur”.

Two songs by Marc Blitzstein let Giunta off the leash. Though her hands
were clasped, as if in prayer, for the opening self-introduction by the
“Victorian and modest maid”, the subsequent revelation that, despite her
neatness and discreteness, what she really loves is “LECHERY/ Simple
LECHERY”, released wry and riotous emotions and Giunta relished the
lascivious ‘maid’s’ indiscretions and confessions – I was put in mind of
the insouciant defiance and rejection of archetype of Thomas Hardy’s
‘Ruined Maid’. The opening reflections of ‘Stay in My Arms’ were poignant
and Giunta suggested a universal relevance beyond the song’s romantic
confines: “In this great city, is there no peaceful, pretty place where
noise is not?/ A little quiet, somewhere amid this riot, would help things
a lot.” The subsequent varied sentiments of the unfolding stanzas were
vividly communicated.

Sondheim’s ‘The Miller’s Son’, from A Little Night Music, seems
purposefully designed to trip up the singer who dares to tackle it – “It’s
a wink and a wiggle/ And a giggle on the grass/ And I’ll trip the light
fandango./ A pinch and a diddle/ In the middle of what passes by.” – but
Giunta sailed through as if it were a breeze, literally enacting every
gesture from the “flings of confetti” to the “rustle in the hay”.

The mezzo-soprano exhibited similar adeptness as an enunciator in the
opening four Bernstein songs which form La bonne cuisine. She
pattered pianississimo through …mile Dumont’s recipe for ‘Plum
Pudding’, her clarity showcased here and in the following ‘Queues de Boeuf’
by Sikich’s finely etched unison accompaniments. ‘Tavouk Gueunksis’ lilted
louchely to an oriental pulse and tint, Sikich’s percussive ostinati clattering edgily, while the instructions how to cook a
‘Rabbit at Top Speed’ had a purposefully, sometimes manic, drive, coupled
with occasional lyrical expanse ‡ la Candide. Giunta displayed a
flawless control not just of enunciation but also of intonation and rhythm,
and she crowned her vocal-culinary demonstration with a flamboyant air
kiss: “mix them together … and serve!”

Bushra El-Turk’s ‘CrËme Br˚lÈe on a Tree’ was even more visually
demonstrative and Giunta didn’t let her need for a score here – the rest of
the recital was sung from memory – inhibit her one iota; indeed, I longed
to know whether the facial tics, slaps, claps, puffed and pouting cheeks,
shoulder twitches and nose-pinching had been prescribed by El-Turk or were
Giunta’s own invention. Spoken text, whooping repetitions and explosive
commands directed at Sikich – who lurched finely through the perfected
custard’s jiggles and wobbles – were capped with the nonchalant
declaration: “You’ll notice a few nooks and crannies on the surface. That’s
fine.” I suspect that a few brave singers may attempt to show their own
gastronomic prowess in encores to come …

On Saturday evening we’d had the opportunity, courtesy of John Wilson and
the LSO, to enjoy Bernstein’s

On the Town

, the foundations of which were laid in the 1944 ballet Fancy Free. Set in a bar, the ballet had opened with a juke box
playing the blues number ‘Big Stuff’ – a song subsequently recorded by
Billie Holiday. Giunta’s middle-range had a wonderful silky warmth which
was complemented by Sikich’s lazy, unassuming accompaniment; and, with the
nous of a doyenne of musical theatre, the mezzo’s final statement, “it may
be that you’re the guy”, diminished with sensual invitation, as her
unwavering gaze pierced the Cadogan Hall audience.

There was a Bernstein ‘novelty’ too: Conch Town, Bernstein’s
never-published 1941 ballet – which would provide material for both Fancy Free and West Side Story – in a two-piano and
percussion form as completed by Tom Owen and Nigel Simeone in 2009, and
here receiving its UK premiere. Sikich was joined by pianist Iain
Farrington, timpani (and sometime tambourine player) Owen Gunnell and
percussionist Toby Kearney, and the quartet convincingly shaped the dance
episodes, conveying a sense of an evolving narrative during which two
beat-bending rhythmic ideas maintained a toe-tapping presence. The
3+3+2+2+2 pattern, announced quite sparsely and unobtrusively, with a
gentle Cuban tint, might have alerted listeners to the forthcoming
appearance of this motif in a more well-known melodic guise, explicated in
an anecdote by Stephen Sondheim about the composition of West Side Story: ‘Lenny came back from a vacation in Puerto Rico
and said that he’d come across a wonderful dance rhythm called the
huapango, and he said, “And I have an idea for a tune.” And he went to the
piano and he started going “Ya-ta-ta ya-ta-ta tum-tum-tum” with the idea of
alternating between six and three, six and three … And, many years later,
a friend of mine found in a box of Lenny’s papers an unproduced ballet he’d
written called Conch Town [composed in 1941], and the friend said,
“Look on page 17.” And there, on page 17, was “Ya-ta-ta ya-ta-ta
tum-tum-tum.” He made up that whole story so he could use that old tune
and, of course, I fell for it.’


The pianos’ running melodies chased each other with a propelling sway, and
a contrasting section of similar-motion chains provided a temporary still
centre above with Sikich’s high right hand indulged Bernstein’s melodic
explorations with quasi-improvisatory grace. The musical editors
demonstrated attention to orchestrational detail worthy of the originator,
the climax of the ‘America’ prototype being coloured with a tambourine
flourish – produced successively by hand, one timpani sticks and, at the
last, two.

Giunta and Sikich closed their recital with Bernstein’s ‘What a Movie’
(from the opera Trouble in Tahiti which the composer later adapted
into A Quiet Place): the perfect medium for the singer to confirm
both her operatic and music theatre instincts. She acted with aplomb – as
‘Dinah’ lamented the banality of the “Technicolor twaddle” she’d endured,
and imagined real ‘trouble in Tahiti’ – and relished the
declamatory, lyrical and explosive vocalism equally.

Sondheim provided the encore: ‘Send in the Clowns’. As Giunta seemed to
quickly brush aside a tear, I glanced around the Cadogan Hall. She wasn’t
the only one.

Claire Seymour

Proms Chamber Music 7: Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano), Michael Sikich

Bernstein – ‘La bonne cuisine’; Bushra El-Turk – ‘CrËme Br˚lÈe on a Tree’
(BBC commission, world premiere); Bernstein – Fancy Free ‘Big
Stuff’, ‘Conch Town’ (completed by Tom Owen and Nigel Simeone, UK
premiere); Copland – ‘Pastorale’; Barber – ‘Sea Snatch’ (from Hermit Songs Op.29), ‘The Monk and His Cat’; Marc Blitzstein –
‘Modest Maid’, ‘Stay in My Arms’; Sondheim – ‘The Miller’s Son’ (fromA Little Night Music); Bernstein – ‘What a Movie!’ (from Trouble in Tahiti).

Cadogan Hall, London; Monday 27th August 2018.


Recounted in Andrew Milner, ‘More Insights from Sondheim’, The Sondheim Review, Summer 2012: 41.

image_description=Proms Chamber Music 7: Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano) and Michael Sikich (piano)
product_title=Proms Chamber Music 7: Wallis Giunta (mezzo-soprano) and Michael Sikich (piano)
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Wallis Giunta

Photo credit: Dario Acosta