It was a privilege to be at the Parabola Arts Centre last Thursday for the WW1 Piano & Poetry evening. The venue was packed, there was a palpable level of expectation and excitement, and even the persistent and heavy rain couldn’t dampen the mood.
Over two hours we were treated to a carefully choreographed mix of wartime related piano pieces, historical data brought vividly to life through military historian Margot van Bers Streeter and, of course, Benedict’s evocative and often incredibly moving readings from an array of poets, authors and military commentators.
I must confess to not knowing an awful lot about the piano pieces chosen, but even to my untrained ear it was clear that we were being treated to some exceptional performances. Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen (more of him later) were both superb as they played a variety of key wartime related pieces including Stravinsky and Debussy.
I’ve had an interest in WW1 since my university days, and had read or had some awareness of quite a few of the pieces that Benedict read so beautifully. I was delighted to see Siegfried Sassoon feature heavily, with Benedict reading several extracts from Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, the second novel in Sassoon’s epic trilogy about the life of George Sherston (and really more than semi-autobiographical).
Benedict read some particularly heart wrenching poetry from those who died in battle, including EA Mackintosh’s In Memoriam and the achingly beautiful In Flanders Fields (John McCrae).
Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum was perhaps the most moving piece of all, with Benedict’s baritone delivery the perfect pitch for a war poem which is both harrowing and shockingly graphic.
Benedict read a terrifying piece of prose around the horrors of mustard gas but I’m afraid I can’t recall the author (if anyone knows please do let me know). There was also a Robert Service poem but again I’m afraid that my memory is letting me down (possibly around the use of the bayonet?).
The DH Lawrence prose was something I hadn’t come across before – with the author describing the sheer relief and joy at having failed his army medical.
After the interval, Benedict abandoned his notes in favour of his iPad and read an extract from Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End. I think it might have been from ‘No More Parades’ - and I definitely remember the text from reading the book- but I’m not 100% sure if it was from the second or third volume.
The evening closed with some, quite frankly, incredible, playing from Charles Owen. I don’t think there was a single individual in the Paraobola left unaffected by his playing of Ravel’s Frontispiece and Le Tombeau de Couperin. Seemingly quite embarrassed by having to take a bow at the end, it took some persuasion from Benedict to get him to reappear on stage alone for an encore that he thoroughly deserved.
The evening had kicked off with an introduction from the director of the Cheltenham Festival, and the totally unexpected but very welcome news that Benedict had very kindly offered to stay behind following the performance and meet members of the audience.
And that he did! We believe that Benedict (along with his parents) was at the Parabola for over an hour – during which time he signed countless books and programmes as well as posing for lots of photos. It was incredibly sweet and generous of him to offer to do an impromptu meet and greet and the organisers were genuinely delighted. We had been to a similar affair at the PBS Sherlock screening in New York and were somewhat concerned that it might get a little out of hand – but it was organised impeccably by the team at the Parabola and there was exactly the right amount of security / keeping the line moving / letting the fans spend a few moments with him.
Following all the excitement we disappeared off to the hotel bar round the corner for a restorative glass of wine (and where the other performers were also having a few drinks) and to relive the evening. It was lovely to meet up with other BC fans, swap stories and discuss what had been a highly memorable and absolute joy of an evening.
In case you haven't seen it, here's a short video of Benedict talking about the readings and his fascination with the period:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZbce9oM ... e=youtu.be
Couple of our photos (taken on a mobile phone so apologies for the poor quality):