Dusk to Dawn
Mosman Art Gallery, March 20, 2021
After battling the flooding streets of Sydney’s lower North Shore to get to the Mosman Art Gallery it was a delight to stop and dry out while taking a quick look around the stunning Balnaves Gift which features artworks significant to Mosman, including key works by Arthur Streeton, Conrad Martens, Margaret Preston, and other distinguished Australian artists. This is one of my favourite Sydney music venues, a converted 1915 Methodist Church designed by Burcham Clamp and Walter Burley Griffin and repurposed in 1998 as a gallery and community centre, the old ‘Grand Hall’ is perfectly suited in size for an intimate ensemble and its clean acoustic very much favours the types of sound produced by the recently formed soprano and harp duo Lawergren and Lowe.
The full, albeit covid reduced, house were captivated from the start as the vibrant tangerine and turquoise taffeta draped figures of Susannah Lawergren, soprano, and Georgia Lowe, harpist swept onto stage and launched into Elena Kats-Chernin’s immediately recognisable Eliza Aria from the Wild Swans Ballet Suite. Originally scored for soprano and orchestra this popular operatic vocalise work has been re-arranged for many different ensembles, and now for harp and soprano by Lowe herself. Lawergren later mentioned she had been thrilled to sing the aria just a few weeks ago with the composer herself playing piano. A glorious start to a concert that took us from ‘Dusk to Dawn’ in three distinct parts.
Part 1. Golden skies turn amber, and a mournful lullaby lulls us to sleep
Conjuring Australian sunsets the opening set introduced us to another Kats-Chernin work which was originally written for Lawergren, Vocalise II. Kats-Chernin often uses sounds rather than words (vocalise), using the voice as an instrument in itself rather than simply a vehicle for lyrics which is very effective and the work was beautifully performed. Next was Miriam Hyde, No.6 Sunset from Tone Poems of the Sea, a soft expressive work, and then the heart wrenching Christina’s Lullaby by Ross Edwards with words by Dorothy Hewett describing a baby, with only a night light for company, being sent out to sea. Lowe’s harp emulating the sea, with rolling notes and ornamentations, accompanying the gentle, emotional vocal melody created a supremely mournful lullaby. This early part of the program had the unanticipated addition of percussion from the drumming rain of the Sydney deluge but the duo were unfazed. Both performers through their gestures (Lowe’s hands dancing almost lovingly over the harp and Lawergren’s simple expressive hand movements) made us feel like they were giving us a gift of their songs.
Part 2. A water nymph implores the moon, a mouse catches a cat and the forest sleeps
This set was entitled ‘Dreaming of Faraway Lands’, beginning with Debussy’s Beau Soir in which ‘faint advice to be happy seems to emanate from all things’ – so lush and elegant – then moving swiftly to Sweden with Hugo Alfvén’s Skogen Sover in which Love watches over a sleeping woman in a dark nordic forest. Back to Australia with Elena Kats-Chernin’s Where the Cat Sleeps, a fun nonsense work about a cat dreaming of being chased by a mouse, the repetitive metronomic rhythms of the harp against the tuneful song worked well and the quick trills in the high strings did have a sort of mousey-ness about them. As this work wound down to its end Lawergren walked past the audience and delivered the next song, Carl Jonas Almquist’s Den Lyssnande Maria (The Listening Mary), from a distance accompanied by the soulful drone of Lowe’s bowed harp and the rain on the roof. Sublime.
A quick change of mood (and costume) brought us into the operatic world of Antonin Dvořák’s Song to the Moon from Rusalka. Another beautiful arrangement of an orchestral aria with an abundance of sumptuous ascending glissandi, this was a chance for the pair to bring out their inner divas, the harp and voice working as equal soloists. Magical.
Part 3. And tomorrow the sun will shine again. We will meet again on this sun-breathing earth
‘Awakening’ began with a harp solo, Maurice Tournier’s, Au Matin, in which Lowe, making this famously difficult instrument seem so elegant and easy, evoked the sun creeping over the horizon bringing to the audience all its warmth and brightness. Stepping into this sunrise Lawergren then sang Maurice Ravel’s sweet, short Réveille-toi from Cinque Mélodies Populaires Grecques No.1, Gabriel Fauré’s Après un Rêve O.7 No.1 and Richard Strauss’s Morgen!, all beautifully suited to harp arrangements, many of which were Lowe’s own, and showcased Lawergren’s vocal versatility and pureness of pitch. The final words in the last song, ‘And the speechless silence of bliss shall fall on us…’ were left hanging in the air, no-one daring to break the spell that had been cast by the duo. Magic.
A classikON reader who also saw the concert was similarly impressed…
“From the soaring delicacy of the Eliza Aria by Elena Kats-Chernin to the richness of Debussy’s Beau Soir, the duo took us on a fascinating musical journey. The combination of the vocals and harp was a refreshing reinterpretation, expertly delivered – delightful!”
A special mention must go to Anjilla Seddeqi, an Australian designer of Afghan heritage who created the duo’s stunning gowns.
This program will be performed again on April 24, 2021 in the Rose Room, Bowral and in October 2021 Lawergren and Lowe will feature in the Resonate series with Andrew Goodwin at the Art Gallery of NSW. Looking forward to it!