London Sinfonietta – Olga Neuwirth’s Hommage à Klaus Nomi

Olga Neuwirth
Five Daily Miniatures [UK premiere]
…miramondo multiplo… [UK premiere of this version]
Hommage à Klaus Nomi (a songplay in nine fits) [UK premiere]

Andrew Watts (countertenor)

Alistair Mackie (trumpet)

London Sinfonietta
Garry Walker
Gerry Cornelius [Nomi]

Sound Intermedia (sound projection)

Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel

Reviewed: 11 February, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Klaus Nomi illustrationThere have been few figures in recent years who have left more of a bizarre imprint on the musical world as Klaus Nomi. Born in Germany he grew up with rock but took classical singing lessons. Finding little to keep him in his homeland he moved to New York in the early 1970s and settled on Upper East Side where his theatrical countertenor voice, over the top androgynous appearance (blue air and black lipstick) made him a huge hit with the New Wave crowd and gay audiences. A number of quirky electronic pop albums followed before he succumbed to AIDS in 1983.

This kitsch icon was a childhood idol of the Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth. Her Hommage à Klaus Nomi is a re-working of nine of his songs, themselves re-modelled versions of classic songs from Marlene Dietrich to the Wizard of Oz, with a little bit of Purcell thrown in for good measure. Andrew Watts has had great success in the role of Nomi, the sequined tie the one concession to the German’s glamorous dress sense. The song-cycle opens with some silent grainy footage of Nomi backstage, fooling around, applying make-up. Later on there is more silent film, in a concert and also backing David Bowie. It seems we are looking at a silent-movie star whose song choices suggest that he felt he did not belong to the modern era.

Those classic songs were handled with gleeful abandon by Watts who milked them for all the camp he could muster. Neuwirth’s setting for chamber ensemble (including synthesisers and electric bass) is stylishly different, adding a jazzy, cabaret feel. It’s all great fun but even then these are slight confections and one wonders whether they would have been better left alone in their glamorous electronic-pop time-capsule where they slotted in so neatly.

Earlier Watts had performed Neuwirth’s Five Daily Miniatures, a 10-minute setting to words by Gertrude Stein. Over an accompaniment of piano, clarinet, violin and cello, Watts swooped, whooped and spat out his lines, as if each word and each sound was being turned over and examined.

The second work saw the London Sinfonietta’s principal trumpeter, Alistair Mackie, taking the solo role in Neuwirth’s …miramondo multiplo… from 2006. It’s a 20-minute piece spread over five movements or “musical stories”, pitting the soloist either in conflict or in mutually benign conversation with the rest of the musicians and straddles a whole host of genres from Miles Davis to Aaron Copland. Those influences are most recognisable in the second movement where the loneliness of the trumpet echoes Copland’s Quiet City. Mackie handled the considerable demands and varied styles with aplomb and with a fine, pure tone.

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