Breaking Rules: Albert Combrink talks to Louise Howlett about “Cinema Serenade”

Cinema Serenade is all about the musical power of the silver screen. In fact,  it’s really a theatrical “excuse” for Louise to sing songs she has loved for many years. Oratorio and Opera arias get airtime along with jazz, musicals and pop.

Our product was hard to define – and market. Do we sell it as a classical programme with jazzy touches, or a pop programme including some bite-size classical chunks? We have so much fun weaving together these unexpected combinations and introducing audiences to new connections, and so when we have the choice, you’ll seldom find us presenting traditional programmes and recitals. Still, we face all the dilemmas of those working in the multi-genre, cross-over land.

Most cross-over material is regarded as suspect. My wife thinks “cross-over” sounds like some horrible stiff kind of brassiere! In some cases, it’s seen as classical concession to popular tastes (think Jessye Norman singing Billy Joel – not her greatest project). Or else it’s a pop singer with highbrow pretentions (think Michael Bolton yelling, er, singing “Nessun Dorma” – panned by fans and critics). Let’s not even mention Haily Westenra, Charlotte Church, or Catherine Jenkins…  maybe their “cross-overs” were a bit too tight.

You’ve probably guessed that I cannot stand most of these so-called cross-over artists. There’s an instant-pudding pre-fabricated faux-velvet sheen to it. It’s the polar opposite to the solidity of years and years of hard study, experience and dedication to technical and expressive perfection of artists that I respect. And yet Louise falls squarely into the latter category. What impressed me from the first about her, is her desire to connect to the core emotional resonances of the song.

“So,” I ask Louise, “Is this Crossover?” She replies: “In a way this is cross-over in a  real sense. I am not an opera singer trying to do jazz nor a pop singer trying to do Carmen. I am just not singing only what I am supposed to sing. Opera singers are supposed to do opera and only opera. Pop singers are supposed to do pop. I am presenting the songs as I respond to them. I don’t want to sing pop with a classical voice or vice versa.”

Instead, explains Louise, “I want to connect with the content of the song. Ironically people nowadays listen to so much music that they do not always pay attention to what the song is about. In my programmes I try to link the songs thematically, and emotionally, by really thinking carefully about the content and meaning of each song. And in doing that, one sometimes has to break the rules

What rules are Louise and I breaking then? I realise that these are the rules of classification, mostly. The music industry works by classification. Check your iPod. You can chose from relatively useless categories such as Pop, Classical,  and (my personal favourite) “World”. But what do you do with an item that  fits comfortably in a few categories? The answer is not to waste your time trying to classify these songs, but rather to present them to the audience in a convincing context. Think about how Cleo Lane sang Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. If people respond, who cares that we’re breaking some of the Musica Shelf Rules.

Will this programme have purists reaching for the smelling-salts?  So far, the audience response has been tremendous. Tell young people they are about to hear a Vivaldi Oratorio and watch them cringe. They certainly won’t come out at night, or take out their wallets for it. Put the same material into a meaningful context for them, make it beautiful, and then watch them swoon. And they come back for more – which is my personal litmus test.

So, Louise sings Carmen’s Habanera and “I will survive” in the same programme. Does she do justice to both? Judging from the standing ovations and happy concert-promoters, the answer is an emphatic “Yes!”. My own role is pretty challenging, given that there is no big-band, rock band or symphony orchestra for Louise to hide behind. The intimacy of working with only one other performer makes a recital such as this every bit as challenging as a Lieder Recital. Does one call it Cross-over? Maybe. Or maybe just call it “breaking the rules”.

Read what Chandos and Sony execs have to say about the Cross-over artists in their stables.

Also look out for our new programme, Moonlight Serenade. Here we lead the audience through a sequence of songs inspired by the Moon, the Playlist included a Schoenberg Lied and a song from the Muppet Movie – not to mention musical theatre items sung un-amplified.