Music

Hints of Scrooge at the Arts Council of England

There's little festive cheer in the world of opera, as the Arts Council England's funding cuts loom large

Robert Bathurst and George Maguire

Robert Bathurst and George Maguire in Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol. Image: Manuel Harlan

In this current production of A Christmas Carol, the Arts Council England as Scrooge is wreaking havoc upon the lives of many Bob Cratchits.

The on-going recent National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) funding allocation – where, as previously reported, there were several catastrophes, including the withdrawal of English National Opera’s core support, among others – is starting to be understood in real terms.

Welsh National Opera (WNO) has announced that it will no longer be able to tour to Liverpool, with immediate effect, due to “budget efficiencies” brought on by the “substantial reduction in its public funding”. WNO faces a £2.2 million (35 per cent) reduction in financial support from Arts Council England, jeopardising its ability to continue to work across Wales and England, where it serves cities including Truro and Southampton.

When the NPO shake-up was first revealed last month, improving provision away from London was the supposed rationale. As the Arts Council England cuts start to bite, it is becoming increasingly clear that ‘levelling up’ is actually ‘notching down’, and that regions outside the capital are immediately suffering as a result. God bless us, everyone!

Southbank Centre’s version of A Christmas Carol offers more promise. Dickens’ classic tale has been reworked time and again; for stage (Simon Callow), opera house (Thea Musgrave; Iain Bell) and even Kermit and Miss Piggy, but this time the story takes an American angle as sooty Victorian streets are swapped for the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee in the Great Depression. The setting sees Ebenezer as the owner of a mining company town, with music composed by none other than Dolly Parton (Queen Elizabeth Hall until January 8).

Reimagining a story so intertwined with festive tradition is a daunting task. When Ilan Eshkeri was asked to write the soundtrack for the The Snowman and the Snowdog, the 2012 follow-up to The Snowman, he was – understandably – nervous.

The Snowman is part of Christmas, I didn’t want to graffiti over it,” he says. But far from distracting from the original 1982 animation, The Snowman and the Snowdog complements the earlier work, bringing the characters to new generations.

To celebrate its 10th anniversary, composers Eshkeri and Andy Burrows are hosting concert performances of The Snowman and the Snowdog (December 17, Birmingham Town Hall and December 20, London Theatre Royal Drury Lane). Burrows – a former member of Razorlight and We Are Scientists – had a dog just like the titular character at the time, and both musicians loved the challenge of writing for “effectively a silent movie”.

However, with the iconic Walking in the Air – composed by Howard Blake and sung by Peter Auty (and not Aled Jones, as is often thought) – ringing in their ears, Eshkeri and Burrows knew they needed to set themselves apart from the original score. “We wanted some moments of nostalgia but this is very much a contemporary soundtrack,” explains Eshkeri. “The magic – in some ways a character on its own terms – has a particular theme.”

There are also some witty moments, such as the inclusion of the theme tune to Ski Sunday, which the composers watched as children, embedded into the music that accompanies the snowman and snowdog as they hit the slopes.

Eshkeri describes recruiting their friends for the original recording: as well as the London Metropolitan Orchestra, former Bond member Haylie Ecker, Emmy the Great, Dominic Howard from Muse and Ash’s Tim Wheeler all feature. This year’s performances will include ‘very special surprise guests’ – if the original line-up is anything to go by, it will be a Noughties indie dream come true.

Listen

John Metcalfe Platoon

Centuries-old festive favourites are given a modern makeover in Carols Without Words (out now via Platoon), a new winter warmer by viola player and producer-arranger John Metcalfe. Featuring classics such as Silent Night and God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen through to the more recently popularised Carol of the Bells – famously used in the Home Alone soundtrack – the collection provides the perfect alternative Christmas album.

Metcalfe, who performs with the Max Richter Ensemble and has orchestrated music for the likes of Peter Gabriel, Coldplay and Blur, reworks the well-known (and here wordless) melodies in a variety styles, taking inspiration from ambient electronica, pop and baroque traditions.

Claire Jackson is a writer and editor

Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol is showing until January 8, 2023

The Snowman and the Snowdog concerts are showing December 17 and 20

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