★★★★☆ A bold new collection of Australian songs makes for an intense experience.

Melbourne Recital Centre
April 29, 2016

Crossover is a term that most classical music aesthetes shudder to hear. Dumbed-down, hyped-up and sugar coated for mass-consumption is often the expectation when the commercially minded pop and rock business tries to repackage classical to have a broader appeal. Generally speaking, the divide between the great classical icons and their crossover counterparts is an unbridgeable gulf, but there are some instances when a more unbuttoned approach to classical music can reveal something quite special. One artist who is particularly skilled at negotiating the treacherous hinterland between pop and classical is singer-songwriter Katie Noonan, who for her latest project has collaborated with the Brodsky String Quartet to commission ten new settings of the poetry of Judith Wright. Noonan has set her sights high in realising this landmark collection of songs, engaging some of Australia’s leading composers: Elena Kats-Chernin, David Hirschfelder, Paul Dean, Andrew Ford, Iain Grandage, Paul Grabowsky, Carl Vine, John Rodgers, Richard Tognetti, as well as herself. The result, With Love and Fury, is a taut anthology of songs exploring Wright’s beautifully wrought vision of Australian life. 

During the second performance of a national tour, at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Noonan cut a casual figure, not only in her relaxed attire but also in her affable on-stage banter. “Thank you for coming to my party,” she told the audience, and indeed, this is an apt description given that Noonan has been the primary instigator, commissioner and key performer of this endeavour. Credit is due, therefore, as there is much to admire about this collection.

In addition to the sky-high kudos of assembling such an impressive rollcall of composers, it is almost unheard of to mount a tour of this scale for a programme almost entirely constructed from new compositions. Noonan also gets points for securing the Brodsky Quartet, imported from the UK for this tour, who are among the most celebrated chamber groups in the world. This project is also a boon for the commissioned songwriters, who have had the privilege of working with a hugely accomplished and empathetic vocalist with a versatility and technical prowess that would make any composer feel like a kid in a candy store. Consequently, these are all intelligently crafted, inventive and sensitively handled works, executed with a tangible affection by Noonan and the Brodskys (occasionally augmented by a Double Bass or Synth Vocoder). There are some mercilessly tricky moments for the quartet, as each composer has clearly aimed to wring every ounce of technical virtuosity from this opportunity, but the Brodskys meet this test of their musical mettle with unflinching confidence.

Individually, each of these songs is, without question, a triumph, but in other respects, stronger curatorial guidance from Noonan may have proved a shrewder strategy. She has engaged some of the biggest names in Australian music to contribute to this collection, but all these composers, save for Paul Dean, write with a largely conventional harmonic vocabulary. There’s nothing wrong with this tonal aesthetic in principle, but it does mean that the stylistic distinction between individual composers feels relatively subtle at times. Also problematic is the freedom that Noonan has allowed each of these composers in selecting their respective texts. Understandably, there is a noticeable preference for the darker, more emotionally rich works of Wright’s poetry, and this means that the atmosphere of this collection is consistently intense, with very little reflective light to balance the deep solemnity that is at times overwhelming. The closing song of With Love and Fury – Richard Tognetti’s powerfully moving setting of Metho Drinker, which offers a desolate portrait of addiction on a Sydney street – brings this performance to a bleak close that leaves the listener with a pang for some cleansing catharsis. Noonan’s setting of The Surfer is by far the most uplifting number of the ten, and closing on this wonderful evocation of the Australian love of the ocean might have been a more savvy choice.

After the interval, a more varied programme of string quartet and vocal works lightened the mood. A trio of Australian quartet works, by Andrew Ford, Robert Davison and the late Peter Sculthorpe, who was a close colleague of the Brodsky Quartet during his lifetime, provided yet another celebration of the skill of our homegrown composers. Joined again by Noonan, a selection of arrangements of pop hits by Elvis Costello and Björk gave both vocalist and quartet the chance to let their hair down. With an easy charisma, these five musicians revelled in the party spirit Noonan had referenced earlier in the evening, but to close the concert, we returned to a more introspective mood. In a genuinely touching performance of Sting’s Fragile, dedicated to the memory of Aboriginal composer David Page who died that same day suddenly, Noonan invited the audience to sing with her in tribute. Fellow Queenslander Noonan was clearly overcome during the piece, and while it may have been a sobering way to conclude the night, it was nonetheless profoundly moving. 

Katie Noonan and the Brodsky Quartet present With Love and Fury, on tour across Australian until May 5.


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