Prom 45 – Mississippi Goddam: A Portrait of Nina Simone
(Royal Albert Hall. 21 August 2019. BBC Proms. Review by Rachel Coombes)
LaSharVu, Ledisi and Lisa Fischer with the Metropole Orchest (Photo: BBC/Mark Allan)
Long-standing Nina Simone fans, and anyone who has seen the rather brilliant Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, will be all too aware of the tumultuous personal and political circumstances that drove the singer’s music-making. But younger generations may be unfamiliar with just how embedded ‘the Priestess of Soul’s’ music was within the struggle that urban African-Americans faced in the mid-20th century: her most admired songs are now de-contextualised within ‘feel good’ Spotify and radio playlists.
The title of Wednesday night’s Prom Mississippi Goddam – a reference to her first ‘civil rights song’, written in 1964 – was a marked reminder of her somewhat controversial emergence into the public eye as a beacon of social activism in the racially fractured landscape of 1960s America. The song itself, a response to both the deadly church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama and the murder of the Mississippi civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963, was reportedly the work for which she most wanted to be remembered.
Leading proceedings was Jules Buckley and his exuberant Metropole Orkest, a group synonymous with lively, toe-tapping Proms experiences (last year’s event with Jacob Collier was particularly memorable). Joining the Orkest to pay homage to Simone were two singers making their Proms debuts: Grammy Award-winning Lisa Fischer and the singer, playwright and actress Ledisi. Nina herself claimed ‘Sometimes I sound like gravel and sometimes I sound like coffee and cream’; certainly, the versatility of her voice was acknowledged in the contrasting timbres of these two vocalists, although neither was able to emulate those idiosyncratic imperfections which arguably lie at the heart of Simone’s vocal beauty (and nor did they try, obviously).
Fischer’s ability to bend and shape her soft, rounded tone in perfect synchrony with the ebbs and flows of the orchestral lines was remarkable, and worked impeccably for the Gershwin standard I Loves You, Porgy, and the 19th-century African American seaport song See-Line Woman. The full-throated richness of Ledisi’s voice captured the punchy vitality with which Simone performed so many of her folk and gospel numbers – ‘I’m Going Back Home’ was a particular highlight.
Ledisi and Lisa Fischer with Jules Buckley and the Metropole Orchest (Photo: BBC/Mark Allan)
In his programme note Buckley revealed his ambition to ‘shine a light … on a few genius and lesser-known songs’ in Simone’s repertoire. While the lush orchestrations of the dependably high-octane crowd-pleasers such as Feelin’ Good and I Put a Spell on You swelled to fill the cavernous interior of the Albert Hall, the un-showy, lesser-known numbers including Plain Gold Ring, from Simone’s debut album, and the impassioned spiritual Dambala, provided contemplative intervals during which the emotional sincerity associated with so much of Simone’s singing was laid bare.
A surprisingly successful reworking of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas demonstrated the compatibility of Simone’s classical training and her jazz career (and was, incidentally, emblematic of the increasing cross-fertilisation within Proms programming in recent years). Following the evening’s eponymous song – which Ledisi tackled with a heartfelt intensity – was Four Women, a slow-grooving, majestic testimony to the suffering of four black female characters. The song offered an opportunity for two singers from the trio LaSharVu, who had thus far provided backing vocals, to join Fischer and Ledisi in a defiant display of vocal virtuosity.
On the whole the orchestrations were masterful and subtle, remaining faithful to Simone’s own sense of musical precision. Some, such as ‘Little Girl Blue’, with its introduction built around the melody of Good King Wenceslas, lent themselves particularly well to the orchestral format. Buckley’s choice of repertoire was well balanced – the absence of some of her most famous numbers (To Be Young, Gifted and Black, I Ain’t Got No – I Got Life) was made up for by the inclusion of rarely heard songs which reflected the impressive breadth of Simone’s musical inspirations.
This Prom is on BBC iPlayer for 30 days. It will be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on Friday 13 September, and shown on BBC Four on 30 August.