I think Emma Matthews summed up this concert very well when she described how Richard Mills asked her if she could come over from Perth and sing at “his party”. The event, in celebration of Mills’ 70th birthday, was really more of a party than what we have come to expect as a concert, and that indeed presents quite a challenge to your humble reviewer. How on earth do you review an event which has eleven musical items involving an orchestra (Orchestra Victoria), seventeen singers and six instrumentalists, as well as an MC (Phillip Sametz), lashings of speeches, interviews, banter, asides, etc., etc.? The usual po-faced analysis of performances is not appropriate for what was really a celebration of Mills’ work as a composer, and indeed to me the great value of the event was the way it showcased his works from the last two decades.
Before I get into the items themselves I need to mention the line-up of performers, which included an amazing who’s-who of Australia singers, who, as with all the performers, had donated their services for the concert. Some, like Warwick Fyfe and Brenton Spiteri, who sang in the closing Vaughan Williams, were squeezing it in between performances of The Barber of Seville on adjacent days.
Obviously the concert/event/party/whatever can be viewed from several angles. From the party perspective we had the lighter and whimsical Mills in the premiere of his cabaret-style “Three Songs for Buddy”, deftly handled by Robyn Archer with Richard at the piano, and his arrangements of popular songs with Greta Bradman singing “Every Day is a Rainbow Day for Me” with music by her grandfather.
In a stark contrast there were several sets of very serious songs. The first was two “Songs after Judith Wright” performed impeccably by Elizabeth Campbell with Phoebe Briggs, which elegantly captured the pain and enigma of Wright’s poems. Another was the premiere of “Three Antiphons of Hildegard of Bingen” sung by Merlyn Quaife with the orchestra. Mills speculated in his introductory remarks that Hildegard and her fellow nuns may have been on magic mushrooms to have produced such works, but I found his settings to be almost too short to do justice to the texts, and the combination of rather chirpy orchestration with an austere and declamatory vocal part a little unsettling.
The third was also a premiere: “In Tempore Bello”; a set of five songs to texts by Judith Wright, Douglas Stewart, Siegfried Sassoon, Miroslav Holub and Kenneth Slessor. As Mills explained, he wrote the work in memory of his school-mate, John Fraser, who died heroically while serving in South Vietnam in 1968. The music, which is, as expected, sombre, dense and complex, was sung superbly by Simon Meadows who was a late replacement for an ailing Teddy Tahu Rhodes. As with the Judith Wright settings, much of the colour was in the orchestral writing, and not surprisingly given the nature of the texts there were the occasional echoes of martial music. I found the work profound and moving – for me it was possibly the high point of the evening.
Finally there was the “Songs of Fire and Iron” to a text by Michelangelo Buonarroti, sensitively sung by Carlos E Bárcenas.
All four of these sets of songs were dated 2008 but two received their premieres in this concert. Why? Why haven’t we heard them before? Australian orchestras should be performing such things instead of recycling the old and trusted repertoire. Is it because Mills is not quite contemporary enough for the cutting edge occasions such as the MSO’s Metropolis series, but too strong for the mainstream? Anyway, the fact that we had to wait a decade to hear these works is an indictment on us all.
Two non-vocal works were included in the program; two movements from Mills’ 4th String Quartet, performed by musicians from ANAM (not specifically named in printed program notes) and the slow movement (Canzona) from Mills’ 2018 Concerto for Two Violins, performed by Markiya Melnychenko and Aidan Filshie. I am afraid I don’t know the work, but this elegiac and subdued movement is particularly beautiful and I look forward to hearing the rest of it.
Then to the opera excerpts. I was delighted when the program for the event was announced to see that it included ensembles from The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, a work I particularly enjoyed in its first season in 1996, and have been wanting to hear again ever since. To me Mills’ particular strength is in opera – I even flew to Sydney to see his Batavia as I had been living in Tokyo at the time of its Melbourne performances in 2001. We were not disappointed by the night’s opera excerpts; the long and complex sextet that ends Act I of the Doll and the wistful quartet from Act II were movingly performed by an ensemble of leading singers: Rebecca Rashleigh, Kathryn Radcliffe, Roxane Hislop, Elizabeth Campbell, Timothy Reynolds and Stephen Marsh. I particularly enjoyed the restrained quartet – as with the instrumental Canzona it is a style of music in which Mills excels. The final opera excerpt was the “Nightingale’s Aria” from The Love of the Nightingale (2007). This was the party piece that Emma Matthews had flown from Perth to perform, and she did it proud. It is a beautiful wordless aria, complex and soaring. It should be heard much more often.
The evening ended with almost all the singers we had heard so far joining with Dimity Shepherd, Douglas Kelly, Brenton Spiteri, Douglas Kelly, Raphael Wong and Warwick Fyfe to perform Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music. Given the focus on vocal music in this celebration, and the quality of the performers, this setting of the famous passage from The Merchant of Venice, probably Vaughan Williams’ most approachable work, was an appropriate close to the party.
And thus we celebrated Richard Mills’ 70th birthday. All praise to the Victorian Opera for staging it. It was a fascinating event – perhaps a little too long – maybe too much talking – a bit under-rehearsed in spots, but a wonderful chance to hear a variety of his music performed with love by his friends and colleagues. Mills mentioned en passant that he had been commissioned to write an opera for Perth for 2023, “if I live that long”. I certainly hope he does, and if I’m still around I want to see and hear it.
Jim Breen attended “Celebrating Richard Mills” presented by Victorian Opera at the Melbourne Recital Centre on December 13, 2019.