Ebony Ensemble play William Walton’s FAÇADE at Stadstheater Zoetermeer

I must confess to having a particularly soft-spot for Façade – An Entertainment by Edith Sitwell and William Walton. I first heard it, or was aware of hearing it, when I was sixteen and it has been with me ever since. So, I was predisposed to enjoy the concert by the Zoetermeer-based Ebony Ensemble, led by Michel Havenith yesterday – and I am glad to say I wasn’t disappointed.

Façade, consists of short poems by Sitwell, set to music by Walton, and exists in several forms. The poems were written around 1918 and they were first performed to music in 1922 to a group of gay (in the old-fashioned sense) young things. The recited version has been through several changes and Walton later developed a Suite for full orchestra. There is also a ballet by Frederick Ashton. The twenty-seven poems performed by Ebony Ensemble yesterday were using the original scoring and sequence.

Façade really captured the zeitgeist of the years following World War One. It was a period of devil-may-care and you-can’t-get-anymore-mad-than-that and Sitwell’s seemingly absurdist poems could be compared with what was happening on the continent with Dada and the Cabaret Voltaire – although it seems there was no contact or acknowledgement between them. The piece probably owes more to Edward Lear and the inherent eccentricity of the British aristocracy.

Although for all the performers Façade is a difficult piece and requires great virtuosity, the six musicians played brilliantly and really seemed to be enjoying themselves. However, the great weight of the piece, and much of the responsibility for the success of the performance, falls on the shoulders of the person delivering the words. I think they would be pushed to find a Dutchman who could rattle off the machine-gun text so the Ebony Ensemble was lucky to find a willing and able Englishman, former singer, Robert Coupe, to take on the challenge. To continue the military analogy, reciting the text of Façade is a potential minefield – one missed beat or syllable and I imagine the whole thing would collapse like a house of cards. I am glad to say Mr Coupe fulfilled his task with skill, style and aplomb and also provided background and descriptions to some of the poems.

Now, while not everyone may be familiar with Façade as such, I think most people will be familiar with at least one of the tunes. What was less familiar was that Walton composed dance-band for the Savoy Hotel orchestra. Although most of it has been lost we were treated to some contemporary recordings by the band during the interval – for which we had to stay in our seats and was, in fact, more of a breather for the musicians than anything else.

The excellent Ebony Ensemble only plays a handful of times each year, usually in Zoetermeer, and has a wonderful repertoire. Michel Havenith must be congratulated for bringing and holding the thing together and I shall certainly be looking forward to their next concert.   Michael Hasted   3rd June  2019

Listen to ArtsTalk Radio’s interview with Michel Havenith