Salon Branoul: The Great War; WWI poetry and music

The remnants of a hurricane were lashing the country. Rain and hail poured down the streets which had turned into small waterways, above the actual canals cutting through the old part of town. The sky regularly lighted up, followed by thunder. All was dark and deserted.

On my way to meet a group of friends at the Branoul theatre, I wished I had cancelled our evening out. Though the tempest seemed the perfect background for and evening of WWI poetry and music, walking through it, I wondered if anybody would show up.

Once dry under the small porch, things brightened up. Inside the quirky Branoul theatre, the atmosphere was welcoming, warm, cosy. A few friends actually braved the storm, as did others: all of the seventy something seats of the little theatre were taken!

The interesting gentleman I’d been talking to at the entrance, turned out to be actor and tenor Alexander Oliver. He and members of the New European Ensemble delivered a truly brilliant, very impressive, sometimes hilarious, but often moving performance – assisted by the theatre’s volunteers, of course.

This performance was supposed to take an hour. It started just after nine with mr Oliver reciting Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”. Nearly each poem was followed by contemporary WWI music. Rada Ovcharova played the violin, Willem Stam cello, and Daan Treur piano. About one and a half hours later, the three musicians and mr Oliver received a standing ovation – with the audience calling them back three times.

Though I was familiar with the WWI poetry, many of the selected poems and songs had not been dealt with during courses in modern poetry. Like many, I was familiar with music by f.i. Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel – but it had never struck me as also having been influenced by the carnage of WWI. Like the poems, the music seemed to start on a fairly optimistic note, only to echo the hell of warfare’s reality.

While we stood admiring the night sky, mr Oliver had already told me Ravel’s Piano Trio would be beautiful. But the preceding pieces by Ivor Gurney, George Butterworth, Anton Webern (Drei Stücke Opus 11), Stravinsky (selections from l’Histoire du Soldat), Gitz Rice, Novello, Elgar and Debussy’s Cello Sonata nr 1 were certainly not less impressive.

There were well-known poems by Sassoon, Sorley, Manning, Herbert (The German Graves) and Owen, but also less familiar ones by Mackintosh, Halliday (The grave), Blackall (From the Front), Rosenberg (Returning We Hear), May Wedderburn Cannan (Lamplight), and Sitwell.

The whole event was “Pay As You Like”. Tickets were free and one of the staff stood ready with a large hat for donations after the performance. You pay what you think the event was worth. This time, the hat contained 50 Euro banknotes – and even these seemed too small a reward for so brilliant a performance.

One of Branoul’s many traditions is also to serve the audience a drink on the house once the performance has finished. So with drink in hand, you can mingle with the actors, musicians, volunteers, and fellow audience members in the small corridor between exit and theatre. It all makes for a very special evening.

Though most performances at Branoul are in Dutch, there are regular events in English. The next recital will focus on poetry by Anna Akhmatova and contemporary chamber music by f.i. Shostakovitch and Prokofiev.

The New European Ensemble will perform at the Amsterdam “Muziekgebouw aan ‘t IJ” on Wednesday the 5th of November 2014. The “Strange News” event is a combination of music, film, theatre around the theme of African child-soldiers and was first performed in the Spui theatre The Hague.

For Branoul’s website: Branoul
Alexander Oliver has a Facebook page. A Youtube Britten excerpt: Alexander Oliver
For the New European Ensemble website: the NEE
For a look at the Penguin Book of WWI poetry: Amazon

This post was reblogged on Reverb