Thursday, August 27, 2020

New Australian works premiered alongside revival of neglected ones

“Australian  Song”

Sarahlouise Owens soprano

Natalia Tkachenko piano

Wesley Music Centre, August 23. 

Reviewed by Tony Magee

IN COMPILING this fascinating and diverse program of Australian song, soprano Sarahlouise Owens and pianist Phillipa Candy spent months researching through archives, discovering two forgotten female composers whose musical output included pieces of substance and quality that somehow slipped through the net.

Owens paid tribute to Candy’s enormous contribution to this recital.  Alas due to ill health, she was unable to accompany on the day and the amazing and extremely talented Natalia Tkachenko took her place, with six days notice, providing piano accompaniments of sensitivity and beauty throughout the performance.

Soprano Sarahlouise Owens. Photo: Peter Hislop

The highlight of the concert was the premiere of the song cycle “Truth and Beauty” by Canberra composer Michael Dooley, using three poems by John Keats as his texts and later in the program, finishing with Keat’s most famous “Ode to a Nightingale”, the opening text reading thus:

My heart aches

And a drowsy numbness pains my sense

As though of Hemlock I had drunk

Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains

Hearing it again brought back chuckling memories of my first encounter with that poem, in 1972, where The Pythons had some fun translating it into a more basic format:

Ode to A Nightwatchman

My heart goes ping!

And a lousy numbness pains my sense

As though of Guinness I had drunk

Or thrown up all over your carpet

MICHAEL DOOLEY stands tall as a gifted modern composer, having established a composing style that is clearly unique and which he can call his own.

He has a special gift for melody, supported by beautiful, flowing, almost cloud-like cushioning support from the piano.

Owens sang the Dooley cycle with lyrical phrasing, beautiful pitch, diction and dynamics which captivated the socially distanced capacity audience of just 34 - such are the times in which we live.

I have it on good authority, that this program will be repeated as a dual session before the year is out. 

“Two Hebrew Songs” by Linda Phillips (1899 - 2002) and selections from “Collected Songs Vol. 1” by Phyllis Batchelor (1915 - 1999) followed, both female Australian composers who have been unjustifiably ignored. Phillips’ “Ash Trees” and “The Golden Bird” showcased her bold and dynamic composing style, repertoire that was once sung by Joan Sutherland in her youth and then largely forgotten, until this rectal brought them back to life.

Batchelor’s “The Wind” demanded extreme vocal power and emotion from Owens who delivered the goods with aplomb and assurance, aided by Tkachenko’s equally demanding and powerful accompaniments.

Carl Vine’s “Love Me Sweet” presented a gentle and romantic contrast, using the musical technique known as “tierce de picardi”, where the key centre changes from minor to major at cadence points.

Selections from Horace Keats’ “Brennan Songs” was the only disappointment for me during this recital. His composing style is unoriginal, predictable and repetitive. The performers did the best they could with it, but I think the program would have been better off with this section omitted.

It was certainly very refreshing to hear new Australian works premiered alongside revivals of neglected ones, all presented by these two talented artists with panache and style, in yet another of the first, tiny steps we take back into the world of live performance.

First published in a slightly edited format in Canberra City News Digital Edition, August 24, 2020