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2017 reviews

Dangerous Romantics

Dangerous Romantics
Christina Wilson, mezzo-soprano, and Alan Hicks, piano, for Art Song Canberra
Sunday 26 February, 3pm. Wesley Music Centre

With the ‘House Full’ sign up for ‘Dangerous Romantics’, Art Song Canberra’s first concert for 2017, husband and wife duo, mezzo-soprano, Christina Wilson, and pianist, Alan Hicks, were greeted by the large audience with a huge round of applause and cheers as they came onstage. As the audience settled down, Christina Wilson acknowledged the extraordinary greeting but pointed out with great humour, ‘We haven’t done anything yet!’ They went on to give a well thought out concert that was melodic, emotionally moving and very entertaining. ‘Dangerous Romantics’ presented a set of songs based on poems by Lord Byron, Paul Verlaine and Percy Bysshe Shelley, all of whom left a trail of broken hearts and worse in their romantic lives. The poems were set to music by classic and contemporary composers. Christina Wilson set the scene for each set of songs with clear and very interesting information about the poets and the composers.

The concert opened with a melancholy set of poems by Shelley with music by Australia’s Frederick Septimus Kelly and was sensitively sung by Christina Wilson with a fine accompaniment by Alan Hicks. This was followed with three poems by Byron with music by Australia’s Graeme Koehne. The highlight of this set was the third song – ‘She Walks In Beauty’ – which Wilson sang with great feeling. All three pieces were notable for their fine and unusual piano arrangements which were played exceptionally well by Alan Hicks. A major part of the program featured songs by Faure, DuBoscq, Hahn, Debussy and Vaughn Williams based on the poems of France’s Paul Verlaine. It was particularly interesting to be able to hear some of the same poems set to music by different composers. Highlights were Faure’s ‘Muted’ with Wilson’s voice floating gloriously above the accompaniment and ‘Exquisite Hour’ by Reynaldo Hahn which was hauntingly beautiful and very well sung and played.

‘Love’s Philosophy’, a poem by Shelley with music by Roger Quilter was a perfect choice for the concert’s finale, summing up the strong feelings of romance – the joy, the hopes and fears. It was movingly sung by Christina Wilson. This was a fine concert by two very accomplished and, judging by the audience reaction, much admired performers.

Len Power
Canberra Critics Circle, February 27, 2017

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An intense, emotional performance

Dangerous Romantics
Christina Wilson, mezzo-soprano, and Alan Hicks, piano, for Art Song Canberra
Sunday 26 February, 3pm. Wesley Music Centre

THIS concert featured two artists who are impeccably partnered. They brought together romantic music and poetry in an intense, emotional performance. For an exquisite hour and a half, the music of Debussy, Fauré, Vaughan Williams, Reynaldo Hahn, Frederick Septimus Kelly, Roger Quilter and Graeme Koehne, combined with the verse of poets Shelley, Byron and Verlaine, captured the audience at the Wesley Music Centre. Christina Wilson and Alan Hicks have been in a musical relationship for about 25 years, just slightly longer than this husband and wife duo have been together. Their clear understanding of each other shows in their professional stagecraft communication.

The idea for the concert was to find and perform beautiful music and romantic poetry, Hicks says. Throughout the concert, Wilson’s singing prowess was fused with a great story-telling ability. Between songs, she kept the audience enthralled with her knowledge of these dangerous poets’ antics. Frederick Septimus Kelly’s melodic and charming music set to Shelley’s poems began the concert. The works of another Australian composer, Graeme Koehne followed. His languid and quirky style was most effective in his setting of three poems by Byron. Pianist Hicks handled these pieces, particularly well. Wilson’s mezzo-soprano voice, clear and decided, especially in its lower register, brought the music of Fauré and the poetry of Verlaine alive with colour and subtlety in the next four songs. The performers charmed everyone in the following set with the music of one of the greatest songwriters of his time, Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947). These pieces arranged to some of Verlaine’s poetry. The audience let out a sigh at the end of “L’heure exquise” (The exquisite hour).

The pair performed with a richness and warmth throughout the concert. They did an excellent job at handling Debussy’s dark and light songs of Verlaine’s poetry. The impressionist’s music, well-balanced in its playfulness and idiosyncrasies, is always a crowd-pleaser. In Shelley’s poems, “Music when soft voices die” and “Love’s Philosophy”, set to music by English composer Roger Quilter (1877-1953), gave us what we thought was the final set of this beautiful and romantic combination of music and verse. Then, out for an encore, Wilson and Hicks performed a short song of Byron’s poem, “So we’ll go no more a roving”, arranged from the 1964 Joan Baez version. The Wesley Music Centre overflowed with people who warmly appreciated the talents of Wilson and Hicks. Many read along to every poem in the program.

Rob Kennedy
CityNews, February 27, 2017

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Music with a breath of fresh air

A Breath of Fresh Air
Sally Wilson, mezzo-soprano, and Mark Kruger, piano, for Art Song Canberra
Sunday 2 April, 3pm. Wesley Music Centre

A PROGRAM of songs by Kurt Weill, Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, Richard Strauss and others doesn’t immediately conjure up the feeling of a breath of fresh air, but mezzo-soprano, Sally Wilson, and piano accompanist, Mark Kruger gave us exactly that. Commencing with three songs by Kurt Weill, Sally Wilson immediately demonstrated her ability as a cabaret singer, both in voice and in performance. A very expressive performer, she created believable characters and sang confidently and with great technical skill.

Sally Wilson has performed in opera, concert, chamber music, classical cabaret and recital around the world and in Australia for the past twenty years. Her performance in “The Coronation Of Poppea” with the Victorian Opera gained her a Green Room Award nomination. Born in Ipswich, Mark Kruger is a laureate of the Orleans International Piano Competition and his performances have been acclaimed around the world. The second set of songs was by Gabriel Fauré. Sally Wilson is particularly effective with songs that describe inner feelings and the dream-like songs were hauntingly sung. These were followed by several early songs by Alban Berg with the theme of nature. “Night”, “Crown Of Dreams” and “Summer Days” were the highlights of this set and the piano accompaniment by Mark Kruger was particularly fine.

The remainder of the program continued to surprise and delight with its variety from Gershwin to Satie, more Weill, Richard Strauss, Schoenberg and even Michel Legrand. Every song was a fine showcase for Sally Wilson’s beautiful voice. There’s a lot of power there when the song demands it but she is also able to sing with great delicacy and feeling. Art Song Canberra always presents performers of a high calibre but, with the performances of Sally Wilson and Mark Kruger, this concert can only be described as extraordinary.

Len Power
CityNews, April 3, 2017

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Superb voices tested by mixed program

In An Elemental Mood
Sonia Anfiloff, soprano, Ben Connor, baritone and Alan Hicks, piano, for Art Song Canberra
Sunday 23 July, 3pm. Wesley Music Centre

In Art Song Canberra’s latest concert, soprano Sonia Anfiloff and baritone Ben Connor utilised the elements of earth, air, fire and water as a theme for the afternoon’s program of songs. With the movie “The Fifth Element” in mind, they included another element, “Love”, to round out the program. Both singers have superb voices but adhering to the theme of the concert resulted in a choice of songs that, in the first half, lacked variety and interest. There were songs by eminent composers such as Samuel Barber, Hugo Wolf and Gabriel Faure, but the singers chose mostly dramatic, emotional works that were too similar to each other.

The second half began with songs by Tchaikovsky and these were the highlight of the concert, giving the singers the opportunity to show the various aspects of their fine voices. “A Love from Beyond the Grave” suited Ben Connor’s rich baritone perfectly and Sonia Anfiloff’s performance of “Lullaby” was hauntingly beautiful. Alan Hicks’ piano accompaniment for this song was especially fine. The final section of the program contained songs from Broadway, the movies and operetta. They were sung very well technically, but there seemed to be little attempt to project the meaning behind the songs. “Love For Sale” by Cole Porter needs an edge of cynicism to work and operetta duets will only soar emotionally for an audience if the characters non-verbally display their feelings for each other as well.

In the encore, “My Song Of Love” from the operetta “White Horse Inn”, the singers relaxed and their spontaneous interaction with each other made the song really come alive.

Len Power
CityNews, July 24, 2017

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Talented Julia turns on the warmth

Songs Jessye’s Sung
Julia Wee, soprano, and Lucus Allerton, piano, for Art Song Canberra
Sunday 3 September, 3pm. Wesley Music Centre

THE Jessye Norman concert I saw at the Adelaide Festival Theatre back in the 1970s was memorable, not so much for the singer’s voice, which was stunning, but for her disappointing remoteness with the audience. She came, she sang, she went. Luckily for us, Julia Wee, in her Art Song Canberra concert, “Songs Jessye’s Sung”, established an immediate, genuine rapport with her audience. Her voice does remind you of Jessye Norman and it was a great idea to use that quality with a concert of songs associated with that singer. Commencing with a stirring “La Marsellaise”, Julia Wee entered in costume through the audience and set the mood immediately with a description of her first time seeing Jessye Norman in Paris on television singing that song. She followed this with a group of African American spirituals, of which “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child” was a standout. She invested the song with a strength and emotion that was very moving.

The highlights of the concert were her performances of Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer” and “Four Last Songs” by Richard Strauss. Her singing of the “Wayfarer” song, “I Walked Across the Fields This Morning”, was exceptional – clearly sung and obviously heartfelt. She gave a well-thought out, dramatic performance of the third of the “Four Last Songs” – “I Have A Red-Hot Knife” – and the piano accompaniment for this work by Lucus Allerton was especially fine. She was impressive in her singing of the quiet emotion of the final song, “The Two Blue Eyes of My Darling”.

Her encore, Cole Porter’s “With A Song In My Heart”, was offered, she said, to lift our mood after the sadness of the Strauss songs. With arms outstretched as she sang, she embraced her audience once more with a warmth that we willingly shared with her.

Len Power
CityNews, September 4, 2017

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Lovely concert of ‘night’ music

Night Songs
Jill Sullivan, mezzo-soprano, Robert Harris, viola and Alan Hicks, piano, for Art Song Canberra
Sunday 15 October, 3pm. Wesley Music Centre

Jill Sullivan has performed throughout Australia and has an extensive concert, chamber and recital repertoire. This concert was her first appearance for Art Song Canberra. She sang songs with a night theme that showed the full range of her beautiful mezzo-soprano voice and she was accompanied on piano by frequent Art Song performer, Alan Hicks. They were joined for certain pieces by violist, Robert Harris. Sullivan sang songs by a wide range of composers including Handel, Schubert, Brahms, Mahler, Debussy and Respighi. She gave particularly interesting introductions to each of the groups of songs.

The concert commenced with Handel’s “O sleep” from “Semele”, which she sang with great sensitivity. She followed this with two songs by Franz Schubert, “Night and Dreams” and “The Wanderer’s Night Song”, giving both a hauntingly beautiful quality. Next on the program were two songs for contralto and viola with piano by Johannes Brahms. Sullivan gave a deeply reflective and moving performance of these songs and the viola accompaniment by Robert Harris was superb. The combination of piano, voice and viola made the second song, “Sacred Lullaby”, one of the highlights of the concert.

Other highlights included “At Midnight” by Hugo Wolf, a highly atmospheric piece that was sung by Sullivan with great feeling, Debussy’s “Beautiful Evening”, “Dearest Night” by Bachalet and the delightful final song of the program, “Where Flamingoes Fly” by Spoliansky. Robert Harris and Alan Hicks played two sets of music for viola and piano only, starting with two pieces from Shubert’s “Die Winterreise”, transcribed for viola by Roger Benedict. In the second half of the concert they played two songs from “Five Popular Argentinian Songs” by Alberto Ginastera, which had a restrained passionate edge that was quite thrilling. Both sets of songs were played extremely well.

Although all of the songs presented had a night theme, it was a concert of great variety that was stimulating and musically satisfying and enjoyable.

Len Power
CityNews, October 16, 2017

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And then the composer turned up…

Why do they shut me out of heaven?
Susan Ellis, soprano, and Dianna Nixon, piano and voice, for Art Song Canberra
Sunday 26 November, 3pm. Wesley Music Centre

A program with texts by Patrick White, Mary Gilmore and Emily Dickinson might sound like it could be a bit heavy-going, but, combined with the music of Peter Sculthorpe, Vincent Plush and Aaron Copland and the fine singing of Susan Ellis and piano and dialogue accompaniment by Dianna Nixon, the audience was treated to a memorable concert. “Patrick White Fragments”, with music by Peter Sculthorpe was first performed in 2009 as part of “The Voss Journey”. It’s a sensuous, delicate short work that was sung by Susan Ellis with great precision.

It was a rare opportunity to hear “The Plaint of Mary Gilmore” song cycle by Vincent Plush. A famous Australian now known to most of us only as a portrait on the $10 note, Mary Gilmore had a colourful life, which the song cycle describes in great detail. Vincent Plush has produced a major work in which the music is woven around the texts of Gilmore’s letters, describing three distinct periods of her life. Susan Ellis captured the forthright character of this fascinating woman extremely well in her vocal performance. Dianna Nixon provided strong piano and dialogue accompaniment and she was joined on piano by Tilda Blackbourn-Rooney for a well-played short sequence requiring four hands. It was a surprise to discover that the composer, Vincent Plush, was in the audience. He advised us that he had not heard a performance of his complete song cycle in more than 30 years. It’s a work that should be performed more often.

In the second half of the program, Susan Ellis sang the “Twelve Poems of Emily Dickinson” with music by Aaron Copland. The unique language of one of America’s greatest poets fit beautifully with Copland’s music giving a sense of the country and its people in the mid-1800s. Susan Ellis gave a hauntingly sensitive and emotionally honest performance of this work, completing an enjoyable afternoon concert.

Len Power
CityNews, November 27, 2017

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