Song Company: Dances of Passion
19 March 2021, Cell Block Theatre, Sydney
The scene was set for a lively evening’s entertainment by the enthusiastic housekeeping ‘presentation’ from the show’s Production Manager Sarah Elise Thompson which received applause from a full-house audience, unfettered by masks and eagerly anticipating a live performance after months of COVID restrictions.
The introduction by Musical Director Francis Greep set out what was to be an innovative and unexpected approach to song, ‘especially for developing voices’, the title ‘Dances of Passion’, already signalling an emphasis on more than voices and piano. The Director, Robert Macfarlane, used the idea of a classroom setting where the young ‘students’ could explore the expression of love and other emotions, through the songs of Brahms, Granados and Juliana Hall. Artistic Director Antony Pitts was on stage in the role of a ‘mature age’ – and silent – student, seemingly bewildered by the lively interplay of his four young classmates, while the foursome provided interesting and diverting dramatisation of the songs. Their voices shone individually as well as blending well in solo, duet, trio and four-part songs. As they moved around the stage, playing out Granados’ love dilemmas, dramatising Hall’s moralising tales for the Dauphin and dancing to the depictions of nature in Brahms’ waltzes, their youthful voices remained clear and enticing. On the whole their rendering of Spanish and German was authentic, the original and translation texts in the program were also appreciated.
The choir began the program with a set of 9 songs Tonadillas for voices and piano by Spanish composer Enrique Granados. As Francis Greep explained, these are portraits of typical Madrilenos – young people from Madrid – their lives and loves. The singing was spirited and the four soloists acted out some of the drama of the songs. Tenor Ethan Taylor was able to draw on his extensive background in performing in musical theatre, soprano Roberta Diamond acted naturally, and the other singers joined in with enthusiasm.
Vocally Roberta Diamond (Principal Artist with the Song Company and also the Spanish language coach) was in fine voice and, as might be expected, was a dominating presence in ensembles. The other three singers are the ‘Emerging Artists’ and judging by these performances they have secure musical futures. Baritone Hayden Barrington, in particular, displayed a clear and powerful voice. Mezzo Janine Harris was a little reserved at the beginning but her voice blossomed as the set of songs went on. Tenor Ethan Taylor sang with a very attractive tone. Francis Greep, who was responsible for the piano accompaniments for the whole concert, deserves a special mention here for his beautifully sensitive playing.
Fables For A Prince by contemporary American composer Juliana Hall was the next bracket of songs: 6 settings of la Fontaine translated by Marianne Moore. The texts were intended as cautionary and instructive tales for the young Dauphin and Juliana Hall has set them in an interesting and approachable style: quite modern, but still tonal and singable. The staging for this revolved around the mute presence on stage of Antony Pitts who variously represented the young Dauphin and some of the animal characters (the poor over-burdened donkey from Fable 4: The Horse and the Ass was a highlight).
Antony Pitts then joined Francis Greep for the piano four-hands accompaniment of the Brahms Leibeslieder Waltzer Opus 52 (1868). These waltz settings for four-part choir and piano were intended for performances in informal musical evenings, rather than the concert hall. At the time, they were immediately successful and extremely profitable for Brahms, who went on to also arrange them for piano duet without voices, and voice and orchestra. The quartet performed these songs with considerable verve, with a lot of singing while waltzing – no small feat! – and some attempts to depict the stories of the songs, for example, as birds in No. 6 Ein Kleiner, hubscher Vogel.
Sarah Elise Thompson’s fabulous lighting showed off the Cell Block Theatre to its best advantage and compensated in some measure for the rather stark staging of piano, black chairs, paper shopping bags and plain clothes. Roberta Diamond enlivened the stage with a nod to costume, her bright red ensemble and black fringed top lightly evoking a Spanish dancer. Who doesn’t like a bit of dress-up in a performance! The audience was left in full light which also invoked a feeling of greater involvement in the ‘classroom’.
Some comments from the audience afterwards: “a delightful performance”, “effervescent artists”, “well-chosen pieces”, “really enjoyable!”
Photo credit Peter Hislop