12th PSMF: Songmakers Australia

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Published: 9th January, 2019

After a lovely walk and lunch in the vibrant little Flinders township, I was back at St John’s Church, part of an enthusiastic crowd to hear soprano Merlyn Quaife and pianist Andrea Katz present one of Songmakers Australia’s inspired programs. This one sandwiched works by Australians Roger Heagney, Johanna Selleck, Dermot Tutty and Margaret Sutherland between two German composers – Schubert and Eisler.

After the classical perfection of the previous concert, it was liberating to hear Schubert’s rich harmonic palette, and the romantic freedom to change emotional direction with one chord or nuance of the melodic line. Schubert’s Lieder der Mignon – Kennst du das Land, Heiss mich nicht reden, So last mich scheinen, and Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, opened the program, with Quaife’s richly-hued vocal colours and exemplary articulation finding the range of emotional intensity. Schubert’s musical interpretation is of Goethe’s tragic figure of a young girl rescued from the travelling circus, but tragically out of place in her new country, longing for her homeland, alone and dying of longing. Katz at the Bechstein piano was in every way a constant musical companion, supporting when required, but equally capable of taking charge at the moments when that was the preferable option.

The Heagney pieces, Three Songs on poems by Joan Katherine Webster followed. This was a world premiere, with the composer sitting in the front row. These pieces – Of LoveLife, and Moonlight were very satisfying musically, with sparkling piano parts and convincing vocal lines. In the last song in particular, the virtuosic piano part coloured a very singable melodic vocal line.

Two songs from Johanna Selleck’s The Prospect and Power of Bliss were performed. Her personal compositional style is reflected in these pieces, with themes of matters close to the heart creating a sense of immediacy, emotional depth and connection with nature. Fountains, and A Thousand Gloomy Walks were atmospheric, and challenging to listen to, particularly on first hearing. There was not much that a listener could hang on to in the way of repetition or easily heard variation. As a listener, when faced with the unknown, one surrenders to the performers, and in their artistry can be led on that journey. Quaife and Katz managed to make the music feel improvisatory and in that way also successfully lead us through those emotional depths.

The next group of songs, Dermot Tutty’s Breathe and Phantasm, are scored for voice, piano and oboe, and Margaret Sutherland’s The Orange Tree, originally with voice, piano and clarinet was transcribed for oboe by Katz. Who better to be oboist than Festival Director Ben Opie? Delicately delivered vocally, and with haunting oboe and piano, the Tutty pieces, with much repetition and variation in the vocal lines, were more accessible immediately.  Sutherland’s The Orange Tree, a setting of John Shaw Nielson’s beautiful poem, worked extremely well with oboe. The inherently vocal quality of the instrument sounded to me even more effective than the original clarinet, especially when played by such a fine musician.

The program concluded with what was described as ‘German decadence’. Hans Eisler, a contemporary of Brecht and Weill, was represented in the program by a set of seven songs using ads, snippets from newspapers, and fragments of Heine and Goethe. Sieben Lieder über die Liebe were performed by Quaife in a Berlin cabaret style, in which she excelled. The characterisations of worldliness, worldweariness, and humour were characterised in a manner which encouraged the audience to join the journey into the seedier side of life. Musically spiced up with the odd blue note of jazz origins, Quaife and Katz relieved the audience of all the earlier angst, and were rewarded with a vigorously positive response!

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Reviewer Margaret Arnold reviewed selections from the 12th Peninsula Summer Music Festival for Classic Melbourne.  SONGMAKERS AUSTRALIA’s “Of Love” was offered on Saturday, 5 December, at 3pm at St John’s Church.