Rachel Billington - InsideTime
Violinist brings new sensations to Wormwood Scrubs prison – ‘A once in a lifetime experience’
A woman stands alone on the altar, turned stage, of Wormwood Scrubs’ magnificent chapel. She lifts a violin to her chin and begins to play. Folk tunes, easy listening, then suddenly the winter section of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. But she isn’t only playing it; she’s reading the composer’s own stage directions: ‘a man walks on ice… he slips, falls to the ground,’ the music intervenes, ‘he’s back on the ice, running fast, ice breaks… the wind howls…’
I may not have got the words quite right, they were written nearly three centuries ago, but the point is that Kerenza Peacock, the woman playing the violin, blonde hair tied out of the way with glittering strands, is turning music into a living drama. From that moment, the twenty men who wandered into the chapel are hooked. So are the rest of us in the audience, the chaplains, a few visitors like me, a few staff. We immediately realise this is something special.
Perhaps the twenty men are less surprised because they are part of a group who have been taken up by the Prison Choir Project and meet regularly in the prison. It is run by Adam Green, a big kindly man, a professional baritone who set up the charity ‘to build connections between professional musicians, prisoners, ex-offenders … through the performance of opera, song and choral music.’
‘Never the same again’
This visit from Kerenza and other high quality musicians is an extension of this. His opera work has included a production of ‘Carmen’ by Bizet in HMP Dartmoor. One older man who took part in this commented, “Take a group of dispirited, demoralized and devalued men called convicts. Persuade them they can join together in producing a famous musical extravaganza … Do it in a barren, famously grim setting known as Dartmoor Jail. Make it a thunderous success. That’s what the man from ‘outside’ did. He came among us one day with his passion for music… 3 weeks later we were in Seville helping to create those Spanish rhythms. We sang with Carmen, we tried to woo those achingly pretty ‘factory girls.’ We could feel the heat of the midday – and, yes, we had our day in the sun. Now the magician is gone … but we whom you inspired, we’ll never be quite the same again. Bravo, bravo, bravo.”
So I suppose for Adam, inviting into the Scrubs an old mate from RADA days who has performed all over the world with some of the most famous orchestras and at the moment is based in Los Angeles where, among other gigs, she records film music such as Star Wars, was scarcely a challenge. He knew she’d entertain us.
Following Vivaldi, we hear a piece from Bach, written after his wife died. The sadness of this is mitigated by the information that he married again a month later, although, as Kerenza points out, his twenty children obviously needed a mother. She describes Bach’s music as ‘a beautiful cathedral of sound which organises my brainwaves.’ Her next piece has an extraordinary story attached. She was in Egypt visiting the ancient pyramids and became determined to play her violin inside the King’s Chamber, perhaps even built as an acoustic chamber.
Since taking an instrument inside the pyramid is forbidden, she smuggled it past the guard while her friend caused a diversion. Anyone who has been into those dark underground tombs (as I have recently) will know how awe-inspiring, if not fear-inducing they are. By the time Kerenza got to the final chamber, she was severely claustrophobic and hyper-ventilating. Quickly, she got out her violin and played the same piece she now plays for us, ‘Meditations’ by Massenet. Later, when I talk to some of the audience about their favourite piece, all pick this. Jermaine tells me he likes interesting music and rightly describes the Massenet as ‘very calming.’ Jah’one makes the same point when he links his liking of the piece to his own feelings of anger.
Kerenza Peacock – “The power of music to heal”
Throughout her performance, Kerenza, talks about the power of music to heal and before she starts to play some Mozart, tells us that French film star, Gerard Depardieu, who suffered from mental health problems, listened to the composer for that reason. She adds her own view that ‘the old masters knew something we’ve forgotten.’ Yet Kerenza also plays with pop groups and folk groups, so it seems music is embedded throughout her life in different guises. After a break she gives us some Dylan and the great song ‘Over the Rainbow’. She tells us ‘Music is a necessity, not a luxury,’ and I think we are all convinced.
‘Like a prayer’
Her final longer piece, the last music composed by Beethoven before his death and originally part of a string quartet, was chosen as one of the objects put in a capsule and sent to space. ‘Like a prayer’ as Kerenza says. It would certainly give a positive impression of this earth to any aliens out there.
The audience give me more of their reaction: Bill describes the performance as ‘so emotional’, Steffon refers to ‘the drama of the moment’, Tyrell comments, ‘she’s very passionate.’ ‘Therapeutic’ is the word most used. Logan tells me about his sister who played Mozart to her bump with both her pregnancies and now both children are talented musicians as well as being part of Mensa.
Kerenza has only one small weakness: she can’t play by heart the music from the film, The Titanic, as requested. Instead, we get Bobby Shafto – a positive swap in my view. As ‘K’ comments to me, ‘It was wonderful… a once in a lifetime experience.’ So my advice to you: if you hear about the Prison Choir Project coming your way, sign up at once.