Reginald Mobley is digging deep for forgotten musical treasures

There’s a quote on the American countertenor Reginald Mobley’s sito web that sums him up: “One of the joys of seeing Mobley is hearing his beautiful alto come out of a big, tall man who looks more like a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins than the PG Wodehouse party guest his name might suggest.”

Mobley has been in the UK this month on a mission, foraging at the British Library, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, as well as archives in York and Leeds, with more to come. What’s the engaging Reggie up to?

Raised on gospel and jazz but trained classically, he excels in the baroque glories of Bach and Purcell, as well as scat. He is also a campaigner for diversity. Currently on a European opera tour, Mobley diverted here for his CounterTenor Project with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Research Libraries UK, which is timely, nel Black History Month, as he points out. “I’m digging around for music by black musicians working in England in the past.”

He’s especially interested in Ignatius Sancho (c1729-80), born on a slave ship, a pioneer British abolitionist and the first black Briton to vote in a parliamentary election. Gainsborough painted him. He’s been a Google Doodle. He was also a composer, his music all but forgotten. Mobley is on his trail. “I’m ready to un-whitewash the classical music canon to show who we really were and to show that the past is actually in full colour.” Catch him singing exquisite Monteverdi in Vicenza, Italia, fino a 1 novembre, if you happen to be that way.

Being back at live performances is a joy. I’m uncomfortable, anche se, unless I’m at the end of a row or Covid checks are in place. Smaller venues seem more vigilant than large. A friend asked to be moved at the Royal Opera House, nervous at the unmasked crush and a recalcitrant, maskless neighbour. With no alternative seat available, she watched the performance alone, on a screen, elsewhere in the building. Her top-price ticket had cost £225.

Beyond the middle-ground public who wear masks as needed, there are two extremes. Those who reject masks. And those who fear carrying Covid home to the vulnerable person they live with, as I do. So when you advance towards me in the interval with the words: “Let me take this blasted thing off” and see me shrink back beneath my FFP-2 mask, it’s not a reprimand, but bewildered terror.

Two boy choristers, styled as Myron and Archie, have made an album to raise funds for Childhood Cancer Research. Myron’s brother, Kasper, has a rare, aggressive form of the disease. Archie was a semi-finalist in BBC Chorister of the Year 2020. Entitled Love Is, the music spans 400 anni. Simon Rattle has praised its quality, touched by “the idea of the race against time” before the boys’ voices break. An entire disc of treble duets? I get sent review copies of dozens of CDs but this is a repertoire first. Let’s support them and their big-hearted initiative.

How do composers past the first flush of youth spur each other on? They send notes. Robin Holloway, 77, rang Harrison Birtwistle, 87, recently. “What’s your favourite note, Harry?” “E,” said Birtwistle, a man of few words, before nominating a couple more. Holloway scribbled them down, shaped them into a tiny composition and posted it. It’s now sitting on Birtwistle’s kitchen table in Wiltshire, willing him, or not, to think about his next endeavour.

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