Monday, November 2, 2009

RIP Ian Wallace (1919-2009)

(Let no one say that the very best popular music is not art music as well. Ian Wallace sings Flanders and Swann's deathless Hippopotamus Song with gusto. Needless to say, a choral arrangement of it for the Collegium will be forthcoming in the not too distant future.)

Another fine British singer died recently, and one that holds a special place in my own heart. Ian Wallace was an English bass-baritone equally at home in popular music halls as he was on the stage of Covent Garden and Glyndeborne. The son of an MP, he found the drudgery of law too dreary for his own lively temperament and set about a career in the theatre.

To be sure, Wallace paid his dues in the opera house. Often staking a corner for himself in Basso Buffo (comic bass) roles like Doctor Bartolo in The Barber of Seville and Leporello in Don Giovanni. Unfortunately any British singer in this repertory had to compete with his contemporary Sir Geraint Evans, a true giant of the stage.

(Ian Wallace sings The Income Tax Collector by Flanders and Swann. Donald Swann plays the piano)

But Wallace was not an opera giant so much as a jack of all trades. In addition to opera singing he had plenty of work appearing in musicals, in recitals, in Shakespeare and in vaudville. But perhaps his greatest cultural mark was to take on a then little-known composer/lyricist team and champion their music to his extremely diverse legions of fans. If not for Ian Wallace's championing and often commissioned their songs, perhaps no one would have ever heard much of Michael Flanders or Donald Swann. But thanks to his efforts, the songwriting team Flanders and Swann are beloved British institutions with a body of funny songs that do not grow old.

(The Wart Hog)

But how he earned the special place in my heart was in a later incarnation of his life. For nearly thirty years after his retirement, he was one of the scarily erudite panelists on BBC4's musical quiz show, My Music. And nearly every Sunday morning for a number of years, a pre-pubescent exasperatingly knowitall version of the musical giant you all know as Evan Tucker used to sit with his father in a Ford Taurus with the radio tuned to NPR. On the way to and back from violin lessons and chamber music practice, they would try to match wits with Ian Wallace, John Amis, Denis Norden and Frank Muir and then listen to Wallace sing at the end of every broadcast. 100% of the time, we were found wanting. But it gave a rare young listener a sense of just how much there is to know about life's most inexhaustible topics. Fifteen years of boring people with incessant yammering about it later, there seems more to know now than there ever was before.

(A Transport of Delight)

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