Gig Review:
BBC Concert Orchestra, Carl Davis, Conductor, Willard W. White, bass-baritone

A Portrait of Willard W. White

Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, Monday 7th June 2004, 7.30pm

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Photo of Willard W. White
Willard W. White, in rehearsal
All photos this page by Richard A. Sharma and Copyright © Richard A. Sharma 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, copying, or storage by any means whatsoever including but not limited to electronic/digital means without written prior permission prohibited. Linking to individual photographs on this page prohibited.

The BBC Concert Orchestra Presents

A Portrait of Willard W. White

Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London SE1
Monday 7th June 2004 7.30pm

BBC Concert Orchestra
Leader Cynthia Fleming

Carl Davis, conductor

Willard W. White, bass-baritone


Kern, arr. Bennett - Showboat - Overture

Copland - Old American Songs, Set 1 - selection

                  1. The Boatmen's Dance
                  2. Long Time Ago
                  3. I Bought Me a Cat

Gould - American Salute

Trad., arr. Davis - Three Spirituals

                               1. This Little Light o' Mine
                               2. Deep River
                               3. Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel

Bernstein, arr. Peress - West Side Story - Overture

Porter - Anything Goes - 'Blow, Gabriel, Blow'


Schwartz arr. Bissill - The Bandwagon - 'That's Entertainment'

Bock - Fiddler on the Roof - 'If I Were a Rich Man'

Rodgers - South Pacific - 'Some Enchanted Evening'

Loesser - Guys and Dolls - Crapshooter's Dance

Trad., arr. Vinter - Three Jamaican Songs

                                1. Jamaica Farewell
                                2. Come Back Liza
                                3. Solas Market

Copland - Lincoln Portrait

Kern - Showboat - 'Ol' Man River'

Date of Review: 2004/06/10

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Photo of Carl Davis
Conductor Carl Davis, in rehearsal
Photo of Willard White
The incomparable Willard White (in rehearsal)

Some Enchanted Evening - A Portrait of Willard W. White

Photo of Willard White, Carl Davis & BBC CO
Willard W. White, Carl Davis and the BBC Concert Orchestra in concert

What an occasion! Two contemporary greats for the price of one! The one and only Willard W. White, the greatest living bass-baritone, and what's more, a great actor with it, and Carl Davis, the living treasure of a (incredibly prolific) composer and outstanding and popular conductor, together with Britain's favourite Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra.

I had been looking forward to this wonderful occasion and preparing for it for months. Liasing with the BBC CO's excellent Marketing Officer Jo Johnson, arrangements had been made for the use of a tripod and extreme long lenses (more usually used for cricket matches and wildlife photography) to obtain some unusual portraits - after all, the concert was titled 'A Portrait of Willard W. White!' - from the back of the hall during rehearsals. Lugging the extra thirty-odd pounds in weight proved well worth the effort.

Arriving early for the rehearsal on a hot, sunny day, the temperature inside the Royal Festival Hall, with the air-conditioning appearing to not be operating yet, seemed little if any lower than the almost scorching outside. A circumstance evidently not lost on most of the performers, who tried to keep as cool as possible by having sensibly "dressed down" for the occasion. Heat or no heat, however, the music was a treat. Willard White's magnificent rumble sent shivers down the spine and made your hair stand on end with sheer delight. There are many parallels to be found with one of White's influences, Paul Robeson. He radiates charisma, charm and warmth, gravitas and great dignity, and his bass-baritone is indisputably the most remarkable and exquisite since Robeson himself. Sometimes, you also catch a wicked little twinkle in White's eyes and there are signs of great humour. Willard White is something of a giant, tall and well-built , and the kind of man you would feel safe with in any situation, who would stand his ground and not desert those around him, a man with a true heart.

Willard White's illustrious and stellar career will hardly need commenting upon here. His range of operatic roles is an uncommonly wide and varied one, and his concert repertoire is equally as wide-ranging. The latter includes the programme An Evening with Willard White - A Tribute to Paul Robeson, which has recently also been issued on CD, a most magical performance. White also premiered the bass-baritone roles in Carl Davis and Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio in 1991, where he and Davis first worked together, and they have since performed the work numerous times all over the world as well as recorded it.

Equally, Carl Davis' no less illustrious career will hardly need commenting upon. As a composer, his output has been remarkably prolific and varied. His 1970s score for the BBC television series The World at War still stands as the most outstanding ever for a documentary series or film, and moreover the most fitting, summing up as it does the entire subject matter of the series in a few short minutes of music. Who could possibly ever forget this haunting, awe-inspiring music! Davis is greatly respected by his peers and considered something of a composer's composer. His improvisational skills are almost legend and greatly admired. Forty seconds of music might be required here, twenty there in a film or television production, and Carl Davis sits down at the piano and comes up instantly with exactly the required mood picture and duration. As a conductor, Davis is also keeping a busy schedule and has also made numerous classical recordings with various of the top orchestras. The day's rehearsal reveals him to be popular with the BBC Concert Orchestra's players, and good humour shows as one of his many strengths.

Photo of Willard White
Willard White in rehearsal
Photo of Carl Davis
Carl Davis during a break in rehearsal

Seeking to escape the somewhat stifling heat of the hall for a while during the rehearsal break, we share the lift to the ground floor with Carl Davis. He is relaxed, without airs and graces, even almost a little shy in contrast to his rostrum persona. Davis warmly remembers a mutual acquaintance whom he had worked with in the past.

Outside, a hint of a breeze provides some welcome relief.

On our way back, we meet Willard White, who also had popped out during the break, near the artists' entrance to the RFH. He greets us warmly, and talking to him is like talking to an old friend, there is no artifice about the great man.

The rehearsal resumes, and the heat inside the Royal Festival Hall cannot detract from the musical delights. As could be expected, a real cracker of a performance awaits for the evening's concert.

Regrettably, a misunderstanding arose with the RFH administration. I had queried the stipulation of "on applause only" for the concert on the photographer's pass with my BBC CO liaison and was told to not worry about this and shoot freely. Although I restricted myself to the first couple of minutes of each song, this was not acceptable to the administration, as they considered this a classical event, and was made very clear at interval time. I would like to take this opportunity to offer my profound apologies to the RFH administration for this misunderstanding.

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Photo of Willard White, Carl Davis & The BBC Concert Orchestra
Willard W. White, Carl Davis and the BBC Concert Orchestra in concert

In the evening, the Royal Festival Hall filled up rapidly. The BBC Concert Orchestra's A Portrait of Willard W. White concert seemed to have been a sell-out, or within a hair's breadth of it, for very few empty seats were to be seen and those for the most part appeared to fill up with late-comers between songs.

Photo of Willard White, Carl Davis & the BBC CO
Willard W. White, with Carl Davis conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra, in performance

A Portrait of Willard W. White opened with the orchestral overture to Jerome Kern's Show Boat, arranged by Robert Russell Bennett. The striking performance portrayed its gloomy, doom-laden atmosphere to perfection. A selection of three songs from Aaron Copland's first set of Old American Songs followed. The Boatmen's Dance, which opens Set 1, is a minstrel-show tune with a banjo-like accompaniment in the orchestra, superbly arranged and here performed to wonderful perfection. Willard W. White's interpretation was sheer delight, with his huge magnificent voice filling the hall. The ballad Long Time Ago had its origin in the Harris Collection of American Poetry and Plays at Brown University, and both Willard White and Carl Davis with the BBC Concert Orchestra's tender treatment evoked its gentle nostalgia with a magical performance. The final selection, I Bought Me a Cat, a children's nonsense song, was given an equally magical treatment, with a variety of barnyard animals delightfully reproduced in the orchestra.

The American Salute by Morton Gould, an orchestral adaptation of Patrick S. Gilmore's When Johnny Comes Marching Home, its tune in turn based on an Irish folk song, was rendered with gusto by Davis and the BBC CO.

Carl Davis' arrangements of Three Spirituals started out as two. However, Willard White then asked Davis to add a third one, This Little Light o' Mine, to his Canteloupe-inspired arrangements. According to Davis' programme notes, this is a song with deep personal meaning for White, and this request then "led to a rather wonderful disagreement between us. I saw it as a prayerful, almost defeated song, and wanted to arrange it accordingly. Willard objected, however, and felt that it should be joyful and dance-like. He won!" While we shall now likely never know what Davis' intended prayerful arrangement would have been like, I rather think I can live with that and that White was right. The arrangement is exquisite, and so was the performance, and the intense joyfulness that White brought across was positively stirring and infectious.

The second of the three traditional spirituals arranged by Carl Davis in this performance was Deep River, with an almost funereal atmosphere. Hints of Dvorak's symphony From The New World, like distant memories, added to the somber mood, and even more so did the final slow procession. Most importantly, the mood was interpreted to perfection by Willard White's sheer magic and his limitlessly versatile voice. The mood changed to dramatic and exhortative in the final of the Three Spirituals, Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel, and White might well have been a fiery preacher here, abetted by Davis' driven arrangement.

The overture from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, arranged by Maurice Peress for full orchestra, was by turns tender and rousing and energetic at the hands of Carl Davis and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Throughout this concert, Davis showed himself to be not merely a great conductor, but also a fairly flamboyant one with great flair and great rapport with both his orchestra and his audience. Carl Davis' ability to engage his audience with the occasional easy banter and his general style is exceptional, a gift not given to every otherwise great conductor, and it is indeed most delightful when one does encounter it.

The closing number of the first half of A Portrait of Willard W. White was furnished by the Cole Porter classic Blow, Gabriel, Blow, from Anything Goes. Willard White's rendition was simply delicious and left you impatient for the second half.

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Photo of Carl Davis & the BBC Concert Orchestra
Carl Davis and the BBC Concert Orchestra, in performance
Photo of Willard White, Carl Davis, & the BBC CO
Carl Davis and the BBC CO applauding Willard White

The interval over at last, the second half of the BBC Concert Orchestra's A Portrait of Willard W. White opened with That's Entertainment from The Band Wagon by Arthur Schwartz, arranged by Richard Bissill. In spite of this having never been a personal favourite, this was an immensely enjoyable performance.

If I Were a Rich Man from the Jerry Bock / Sheldon Harnick musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on a short story by Sholem Aleichem, by contrast has to be almost everybody's favourite. Willard White's interpretation was magnificent and, if one can ever speak of such a thing, the definitive one. For me at least, it left Topol's original, wonderful, performance in the shade. White just became Tevye with his finely judged acting. Both the humour and the sadness of this song were conveyed by White to perfection, without ever approaching melodrama.

The Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II musical South Pacific injected a touch of romance with Some Enchanted Evening, a song about seizing the moment and not letting it slip away. Again, sheer perfection of a performance.

No less striking and masterful was the orchestral treatment of Frank Loesser's Crapshooter's Dance from Guys and Dolls, with an energetic performance by Carl Davis and the BBC Concert Orchestra.

Three Jamaican Songs, arranged by Andrew Vinter, Jamaica Farewell, Come Back Liza and Solas Marker, provided a glimpse of the culture of Willard White's childhood and youth. Add White's deep affinity for folk music to his passionate presentation, and an exceptional performance was a foregone conclusion. These delightful interpretations bore the stamp of authenticity, quite unlike the well-known and thoroughly Americanised performances and recordings of Harry Belafonte that always smacked of, not to put too fine a point on it, bastardisation. Here we were given the genuine article, even if clad in an orchestral setting. These delicious and sparkling performances left one wishing for more of the same, for more opportunities to hear Willard White interpreting folk songs, particularly Jamaican and other Caribbean ones.

The next selection, Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait, drew upon Willard White's extraordinary rich and resonant speaking voice with all its rich, glorious sonorities. White's declaiming was simply glorious and spine-tingling.

The final song of this concert was the most moving rendition I have yet heard of Ol' Man River from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Show Boat since the great Paul Robeson's. Willard White conveyed the song's deep melancholy as well as its feeling of empowerment with immense emotional power that left my eyes very moist indeed, my spine tingling and my heart stirred. I should be quite surprised indeed if there was a dry eye left in the house.

Ol' Man River provided a fitting high note on which to end the BBC Concert Orchestra's A Portrait of Willard W. White. However, the thunderous ovation given Willard White, Carl Davis, and the BBC CO left no room for doubt that this concert was far from over.

The first encore took the form of I Got Plenty o' Nuttin' from the George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin / DuBose Heyward opera Porgy and Bess. Porgy is of course a part that Willard White has long made his own, and he is indubitably the definitive Porgy. The late 1980s Trevor Nunn production for Glyndebourne, conducted by Simon Rattle, and subsequent 1988 recording of the same production, in which White starred as Porgy, is still considered the definitive production of this opera, along with possibly the 1977 Houston Grand Opera recording. (It was, incidentally, also subsequently adapted and recorded for television.) White's rousing performance here, superbly matched by Carl Davis and the BBC CO, practically brought the house down and resulted in an inevitable second encore.

This was furnished by the Paul Anka classic My Way, originally written for and performed by Frank Sinatra and fast becoming Willard White's signature tune. His moving interpretation was, once again, matchless, you really have not heard this song until you have heard White's rendition. The standing ovation that followed was a voluminous and lengthy one, and more than deserved by White and fellow performers.

A Portrait of Willard W. White with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis, with Willard White, bass-baritone, was a glorious triumph of a concert and truly made for some enchanted evening. While no portrait ever can reveal the whole person, this programme did indeed provide a fascinating musical portrait of White, though one could, perhaps, wish for more of the funny, wicked and sexy side of Willard White, alluded to by Carl Davis in the printed programme introduction.

The performance was simply breathtaking, and Willard White's effortless magnificent voice, a voice that comes straight from a very big heart, an exhilarating delight.

© 2004 Rainlore's World of Music/Rainlore. All rights reserved.

N.B. - Soon after this review was drafted, it was announced that Willard White had been awarded a knighthood in HM The Queen's Birthday Honours. Congratulations, Sir Willard!

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Photo of Willard White and Carl Davis & the BBC CO
Willard White and the BBC CO conducted by Carl Davis, in concert
Photo of Carl Davis
Conductor Carl Davis receiving applause,
with Willard White at left
Photo of Willard White
Willard White receiving applause,
with Carl Davis at right

For more photos of the rehearsal of A Portrait of Willard W. White please go to Page 2 of this review.

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