Gothic: A Journey

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Published: 27th November, 2018

In the spirit of things Gothic, it was something of a surreal experience to rush from one of Melbourne’s two Neo-gothic cathedrals down to the Playhouse for Arts Centre Melbourne’s presentation of Gothic: A journey through Gothicism in Music. Projected onto the screen at the back of the stage, three arched windows evoked not only church windows but also the mediaeval ambiance favoured by those drawn to this style of architecture.

In addition to the Neo-gothic setting, what Hamer Singer’s concert in St Patrick’s Cathedral and Gothic shared were a musical focus on the darker side of human experience and some splendid singing. Apart from both concerts attracting a large following, the nature of audience differed markedly – at least I didn’t notice any white-faced, black-clad folk at St Pat’s. Although not all members of the audience were elaborately dressed at the Playhouse, it gave Gothic an extra buzz to see so many in tune with the spirit of the event.

Gothic music encompasses a wide variety of styles. This performance was a far cry from the post-punk style of Siouxsie and the Banshees; the classical version exhibits a particular brand of literary romanticism, morbidity and emphasis on horror and the supernatural. Multi-award winning Artistic Director Andrée Greenwell’s ensemble of two vocalists, string quartet, electric guitar and on-stage audio were complemented by further electronic effects and Michaela French’s visual projection design. Greenwell herself was one of the vocalists as well as being the composer of seven pieces and inventive arranger of the rest. Simon Gallup’s “A Forest”, Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”, Temperton’s “Thriller” and the concluding piece, Badalamenti’s “Falling” music, were among pieces by other composers – some very familiar.

After a short introduction, Greenwell began with “Annabel Lee”, her setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s last complete poem. Accompanying this tale of the death of a beautiful woman were video images of solitary figures, a mysterious “castle by the sea” and skeins of interweaving birds. Although the amplification was a trifle too loud at this point, Greenwell’s vocal style and clear diction were well suited to the ballad. At times the eye was more drawn to her expressive manner than the visual display that illuminated the text, but the balance of attention between performer and projections worked extremely well in this instance and in general. Even the technical glitch before Greenwell’s “The Birds”, with words by Hilary Bell after Daphne du Maurier’s short story, didn’t detract from the power of the music or the images.

Of the thirteen (of course!) works presented, virtually all were vocal. Schubert’s “The Erlking”, in an arrangement in which the violins were given the task of all those repeated notes so dreaded by pianists, was one of the most familiar – at least to fans of classical music. Soprano Jessica O’Donoghue has a very beautiful, classically trained voice and her clear unforced vocal production made light work of even the highest notes. In duets, she blended effectively with Greenwell’s more Celtic style. O’Donoghue’s diction was not always easy to understand and Greenwell was able to compensate for this.

Notable among compositions by Greenwell with formidable existential impact were “The Orpheus Song”, with words by Alison, Croggan and terrifying sounds of a tornado recorded by Isaac Duncan on his iPad, and “The Bells” (also based on a poem by Poe) with its cacophonous clanging. Perhaps the two most confronting were “Chosen”, that told the story of Kerstin Fritzl, who was kept with two siblings and her mother in a cellar beneath her grandfather’s house until she was nineteen, and “Death at the Beach Motel”, which was based on the death of Brett Whitely, who overdosed in a room at the Thirroul Beach Motel near Wollongong. Both were accompanied by video images that were chillingly prosaic – ordinary places that provided a context for devastating internal drama.

The subject matter might have been dark, but Greenwell’s imaginatively integrated conceptual framework, coupled with outstanding musical and artistic skill, produced an hour of varied creative explorations that actually lifted the spirits.

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Heather Leviston attended Gothic at Arts Centre Melbourne Playhouse on November 25, 2018