Songs of the Latin Skies

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Published: 5th July, 2017
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Katie Noonan and Karin Schaupp performed here as the last in a nationwide series of concerts, at least in part promoting their new album; Songs of the Latin Skies. Though both musicians are in the middle of distinguished careers both individually and in other collaborations and in a range of musical styles, this is their third album in a series thus far.

The first piece was Luiz Bonfá’s Manhã de Carnaval, sung in the English language version A Day in the Life of a Fool in a treatment that showed homage to the Latin rhythm, yet surprising with complexities of countermelody in the arrangement. The song was a fitting introduction to the concert, as the theme of the 1961 film Black Orpheus, this was the melody that introduced Bossa Nova to the world.

This concert, however was much more than Bossa Nova. Perhaps half the melodies presented are today considered familiar Latin standards, such as Jobim’s Wave, Desafinado, and No More Blues – though Noonan and Schaupp’s arrangements and presentations refreshed them in delightful ways. The remainder of the program managed to bring us less familiar pieces and styles to consider, so that the whole program rewarded the attentive listener very well throughout. One of the most beguiling was a modern piece based on a remaining fragment from an ancient Peruvian opera. A highlight of the few purely instrumental works was Schaupp’s presentation of Piazzolla’s Muerte del Angel.

Special guests for a couple of items in the evening were cellist Zoe Knighton and the Strathmore Secondary College Guitar Orchestra – nineteen young guitarists and a double bass player. Knighton’s highly expressive melodic playing contributed the effect of a second voice in dialogue with Noonan’s. The Guitar Orchestra on the other hand had the effect of spreading the texture of the backing to an acoustical room-wide phenomenon – a spatial effect probably heightened by the exemplary acoustics of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. It was a delight, and no doubt an inspiration to the young musicians to work with such skills and artistry at close quarters. Experiences such as these can indeed shape a young life.

By the second half I was itching to know who the arrangers were. I was most pleased to hear them attributed from the stage Richard Charlton, Doug de Vries, Ken Murray, Gerardo Dirié, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, at whose suggestion they included a little heard song of Jobim’s – Canta Mais, which is said to be his favourite. Perhaps it is rarely heard because it is particularly vocally demanding. This, however was a challenge easily met by Noonan.

Noonan’s easy, down to earth stage banter was reminiscent of a jazz festival gig, which only seemed to throw the more ethereal musical moments into higher relief.

Much of the singing was delicate and intimate, yet there was a remarkable variety of subtlety within. Though the volume level of a single acoustic guitar is not large, the arrangements were full, rich and varied. In both the writing and performance, the guitar parts were masterful in their sophistication – layers of melody, countermelody, rhythmic accompaniment and bass line gave a full texture against which to place the voice. Noonan is fascinating, because she combines at times the simplicity of pop or folk aesthetics with the range, discipline and vocal technique of a classical singer, and yet has serious jazz skills and imagination as well. Because she uses these capacities so thoughtfully, there is always a sense in which they produce something that is more than the sum of its parts – a performance of unique individuality and the quality of the whole.

Though Noonan used a microphone, it was to contribute intimacy rather than volume. Her ease across such a vocal range is stunning, yet the high notes were never about display or vocal athleticism – when she improvised on the standards, her improvisations were structured for musical effect above all else. Her range of expression, pure tone and flawless intonation were all perfect servants of the songs themselves.

Schaupp’s performance is also grounded in breathtaking technical skill, expressive capacity, sensitivity and control. Together this is a very special combination of musicianship.

Noonan and Schaupp both made themselves available for a CD signing in the foyer after the concert. They were utterly mobbed. I gave up but resolved to track one down elsewhere.

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Peter Hurley heard this program at the Melbourne Recital Centre on June 30, 2017.